By Ben Mason
Elm Alumni Columnist
By now, dear readers, you have probably all read the article “Why Did 17 Million Students Go to College?” by Richard Vedder (and if you haven’t, you should). In it, Vedder details (with contributions by Chris Matgouranis and others) how 317,000 waitresses and waiters have at least a college degree (8,000 of them have a doctoral degree of some kind), and even desk clerks, receptionists and amusement or recreational attendants are also obtaining higher degrees. Vedder uses this information to reinforce his belief that Americans are “overinvesting” in education. The article is insightful, honest, and intelligently written. Vedder has a higher than average understanding of economics, and goes to the right sources for back-up when he has to.
It is not, however, the only viewpoint. There is another recent article that most of you probably haven’t seen. It appeared on Ben Bernanke’s blog/website, www.popeconomics.com. In his post, “The Diminishing Returns of a College Education,” Bernanke details how he too, at first thought, was distressed by the possibility of a college education being a waste for most Americans. Think a college education is worth it? As Bernanke reports, only 64% of Americans still do, down from 80 percent in 2009. In my opinion this is partially due to the fact that in a poor economy, experience is valued over book smarts, which are rarely grounded in reality.
Still, even in the face of a chart depicting that 5,017 janitorial engineers have doctoral degrees, Bernanke sticks to his guns and concludes that a college degree is still “worth it,” for most people. Those with bachelor’s degrees still make 75 percent more average income than those with only high school degrees, and their unemployment rate is 10 points lower. It is 10 points lower still from those people who dropped out of high school. There are opportunity costs, surely.
As Ivy League schools raise their tuition rates ever higher (while their students continue to receive enormous scholarships), schools like Washington College follow suit: and the rate of increase exceeds inflation and income growth rates by enough to cause a migraine. But, as Bernanke points out in his article, learning to become a plumber or a nurse will only prepare you for a handful of jobs in the same field. If that field were to take a hit, or a plumber/nurse decided that they were tired of the work, it would be very difficult to change careers. A liberal arts education, like the one provided by WC is a great tool to have. Not that it prepares you for anything specific besides graduate school, but because it puts you on par with the rest of the degree holders in America.
Byran Caplan, an economist at George Mason, wrote that “in a society of Einsteins, Einsteins take out the garbage, scrub floors, and wash dishes.” With the way things are going though, not having a degree will make you appear as if you’re unfit to plant trees, answer phones or clean windows. Therefore, unless you’re absolutely certain that you want to be an electrician and do electrical work for the rest of your life, rest assured that your education is “worth it.” How is it that those people with at least a college degree have remained so very employed during this Great Recession? Because a history major who cares about animals can still do marketing work for PETA, while an English major answers the phones.
*If you take nothing else away from this article, take away the knowledge that Ben Bernanke has an excellent blog about practical and influential economic research and emerging trends which can be found at www.popeconomics.com. Richard Vedder’s article can be found at chronicle.com.