by Pete Mazzaccaro

A few weeks ago, I wrote in this space about the value of going to college and said I thought everyone should go and that we should find a way to make it more accessible by finding a way to control costs. [“What’s a college degree worth,” Aug. 22]

Those comments earned a healthy dose of criticism from higher-ed critics who responded to me online.

One commenter, M. Becker, had this to say:

“Absolute, utter hogwash. Everyone should not go to college, and it should not be available to everyone. It should be available to those who are academically qualified to go. Academically qualified, not to provide ‘diversity’ or in the hope of an, ‘equal outcome.'”

Though he or she goes on to acknowledge that “The problem right now is that a bachelor’s degree is roughly the equivalent in the marketplace with a high school diploma of 30 years ago.”

I agree with the idea that in a perfect world not everyone should go to college. We should be able to agree that those who would be happier in a trade go to trade school, and to do so without the social sigma that a tradesman isn’t as valuable as a professional.

And I agree that college shouldn’t have such sway over potential earning potential.

But surveys of annual salaries earned by workers with only a high school diploma earn on average considerably less than their college degree-holding counterparts. According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, the average high school grad earned $32,800 annually while the college grad earned $49,800 – 50 percent more.

Now of course there are many exceptions to the rule. And many who go into trades can earn a lot more than $32,800. But they are not the rule, and we shouldn’t mistake them as such.

It would be great if people could leave high school and get the kind of salary on which they could support families. But many of those jobs – from trades to factory work – are gone, replaced by fast-food and retail positions that pay peanuts.

So, yes, the problem is that college is equivalent to high school 30 years ago. And now aspiring professionals with hopes of good careers must go to graduate school and burden themselves even further with debt.

We live in a time when work is more specialized than ever. College may not be necessary, but it doesn’t hurt, unless you consider the cost.

We can address the issue by making college more accessible, or we can figure out a way to engineer an economy and culture that reverses decades of movement away from an industrial economy to a “knowledge” economy.

I have a feeling, however, that the former option is more easily achieved.

It’s appealing to call for an against-the-grain approach in which we find an alternative to higher education’s grip on the world of work, but at the moment that’s easier said than done.

  • d_weller

    The problem, dear Mazzaccaro, is the ABSENCE of industrial employment in the United States.

    Whatever your “knowledge economy” is (does it bear any resemblance to the “information economy” that was going to provide so much employment for post-industrial America?), it will NEVER provide enough living-wage jobs for the vast number of just-literate, unskilled high school graduates who, in times past, would’ve found work in a mill or factory.

    Postponing the inevitable with four years of college is a silly investment for so many; and making college “more accessible” will only further devalue the bachelor’s degree, saddle the student with obscene debt, and prolong an adolescence that already extends into their thirties for far too many “kids”.
    Little Liam and Katniss would be better served by emulating the behavior and attitude of so many Mexicans and Guatemalans I’ve met in the past few years – learn a trade, and open a business.

    • PMazz

      That’s my point… You can’t earn a middle class living in industry. That path is now predominantly one of white collar, so-called creative class jobs. Not everyone can start and run his or her own business. That, too, requires skills that many talented people don’t have. That’s the reality.

      And the other point that seems to be missed here, is that college has become too expensive for many who DO belong there. Many have jumped to the conclusion that I have been writing about some sort of socialist movement that would completely abolish merit in College admissions. That’s not at all what I mean. We need colleges that are accessible to regular people who would do well in school if they could get there. What do we say to a student with the talent and smarts for success in college who can’t afford it? Go learn a trade?

      • Mike

        Pete, your columns are utopian pie in the sky – I think that’s the point a lot of people were trying to make in their critiques and what you’re missing. You offer no solutions, rather you make these broad statements – how does a society make college ‘accessible to regular people’ anyway? Sounds awesome! Who’s against education? You realize how college tuition became so inflated in the first place, right? Cheap and easy government-backed student loans and grants doled out with programs were created to do just that. As of a couple years ago, the government now guarantees every student loan underwritten in this country, ensuring the funding isn’t drying up anytime soon. Once any publicly-backed program is allowed to gain a foothold as pell grants/loan guarantees/etc have been allowed to do, funding caps quietly push outward and the policy slowly gains momentum as more and more exceptions are made – who’s the government to say someone WOULDN’T do well in college or in life if only it was made ‘more accessible to regular people’? See what I mean? It’s hard to spend public funds for public benefits and then put caps on who actually receives those benefits – actual credit underwriting of loans that may otherwise take into consideration whether college represents a smart investment gets thrown right out the window. It then becomes a self-perpetuating flood of capital subsequently permitting universities to charge higher prices on indifferent students because they would be foolish to pass up free/easy/cheap money to have 4 years of fun and a piece of paper saying you’re a good ‘critical thinker’ or you aced Women’s Studies classes. Have you noticed how aggressively most colleges have expanded with nicer and nicer facilities? Check out Drexel’s expansion right now – who do you think paid for that? Economics always eventually intervene one way or another, and now we’re in this situation where the end result is massive education inflation because lots of mediocre students who have publicly-funded education assistance or grants (and are ignorant that student loans will never be forgiven in BK) who don’t deserve or need to be there are driving up the costs for the lots of smart kids who would thrive in college who can’t afford it or aren’t willing to take on $200k in debt, generous credit terms or no. Instead of creating more and more programs that just create more and more unintended consequences, wouldn’t it be best to just pull out most public support for education, encourage college (and thus only grant student loans) for only those who truly would benefit from it in today’s economy (i.e., engineering, hard sciences, medicine, etc.) and let supply and demand re-establish itself? Injustices aside, water will always eventually find its own level and this is no exception…sure, it sucks for some who may miss the opportunity, but unfortunately that’s reality. I’m a member of this current generation suffering through this dynamic (graduated college in 2003, although I earned my way through college) and have seen it for myself with lots of my friends still looking to start their adult lives – the repercussions are already going to be messy and long-lived as they are, no sense in making it worse.

        • d_weller

          Well said, Mike – you really nailed it.

          • Mike

            Thanks. I would also add that, contrary to Pete’s other point of there being no industry anymore and joining the ‘creative class’ is the only means of being middle class, there actually are a lot of very nice-paying jobs in Manufacturing/Industry in America today and it will likely grow significantly over the next decade – manufacturing is slowly returning as the energy industry grows, input costs decrease for factories, and labor costs increase overseas…I’m an investor actively involved in the industrial sector and have seen it myself in recent years – it’s astounding. These jobs are not the historical union assembly line ones in places like North Philly or Detroit that we tend to romanticize which are never coming back, but nontheless are in industries where stuff is actually made, and often a college degree is not required…just real trade skills like welding or pipefitting and a willingness to get your hands dirty. They can’t find enough people to fill them because they: i) are often in areas many coastal folks refuse to live like West Texas or North Dakota, and/or ii) the people required just don’t exist since people who otherwise would be perfect to learn a trade have been brainwashed into foregoing the vocational path in favor of college. So, while its probably a lot “cooler” and more fun to make a living at a graphic design company in an East or West Coast city, there are other means of having a great life and – you just need to broaden your horizons, realize college isn’t necessarily the only means of earning a nice living, and perhaps take a chance and move to “flyover country” for a few years – it’s really not that bad out there!

        • PMazz

          Good point on the student loans and easy money pumping up those college tuition rates.

          I’m not sure what consequences we’d see from pulling public funds for higher ed. Perhaps, if we were to be optimistic, public university’s could become reliable and affordable options and a lot the small private colleges that are currently charging $40,000 and more per year would have to deal with the sudden lack of loan money and respond…

          College has done a lot, though, to qualify a wider range of socioeconomic classes for better-paying jobs. …

          I suppose in terms of offering solutions, It depends a great deal on your faith in the market system. Either we try what you suggest (a market solution) or step in and cap college tuition rates. I’m not sure either presents a solution.

          • Mike

            If the current dynamic of having a surplus of liberal arts college grads with $200k of debt and no job prospects continue, those small private colleges charging $40k+ a year are going to have to evolve because eventually people will smarten up and realize liberal arts degrees at that inflated price is a bad investment…and then people will just not apply or attend anymore. This will happen eventually, but it’ll happen sooner with a market-based solution.

            Capping college tuition at some artificially low level while maintaining the flow of public funding into loans and grants would just create more demand without permitting universities to appropriately expand facilities, faculty, etc., and you’d have to then cap enrollment. That doesn’t solve the problem and in fact creates new problems.

            Again, market economics will always intervene one way or another – people and capital are never stationary and will always react in their best interests, and the government or whomever is trying to affect the outcome always ends up being a step behind, leaving a legacy of having created more problems than it solved. Social engineering initiatives, while helping many people in the near-term, almost always eventually do proportionately more harm in the longer-term for this very reason.

            Incidentally, you can apply this discussion to several other industries where there is a high degree of social engineering in play – healthcare is the most obvious one, but it also perfectly explains the housing bubble and financial crisis we just went through.

      • d_weller

        “Skills that many talented people don’t have”.

        People *acquire* skills, Pete…they learn by watching over their mom’s or dad’s shoulder, or by reading books on the subject, or by taking part-time jobs that might not pay much, but provide exposure & experience, etc.

        The Guatemalan man who recently tiled our kitchen spent every evening after school working with his father, learning a trade. He’d do his homework, and then take off for the jobsite. He was a motivated kid, and now he and his brother own their own business, and are teaching their children the trade. College might be an option for their kids, but never a blind, wishful-thinking dash into bankruptcy.

        Before the age of 16, I’d learned how to restore and refinish wood and metal furniture. I could also solder electronic components, paint a house & hang wallpaper, do a basic engine tune-up, and cook for a week without repeating a meal.

        I’d also taught myself how to play a musical instrument to a level that provided pocket money in college; and income from my summer job – I’d asked a guy from a Chevy dealer’s back lot to show me how to drive a manual transmission truck – reduced the amount I needed to borrow for school.

        Now, lest you think this is some sort of brag, virtually *everyone* I knew in high school and college (I’m a LaSalle grad) did similar things – this was not atypical behavior, and was actually taken for granted.

        If you want to do little Jacob and Harper a favor, explain that college isn’t for everyone, and the fiction that there’s some sort of guaranteed employment after obtaining a Bachelor’s degree should be put to rest.
        Oh, and try to develop a skill that doesn’t involve a cellphone!