Monday, September 01, 2008

Is College Worth It?

That is the question asked by Walter Williams, author of More Liberty Means Less Government, in an article at TownHall (thanks to the reader to emailed this in):

What about students who are prepared for college? First, only 40 percent of each year's 2 million freshmen graduate in four years; 45 percent never graduate at all. Often, having a college degree does not mean much. According to a 2006 Pew Charitable Trusts study, 50 percent of college seniors failed a test that required them to interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, and compare credit card offers. About 20 percent of college seniors did not have the quantitative skills to estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station. According to a recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the percentage of college graduates proficient in prose literacy has declined from 40 percent to 31 percent within the past decade. Employers report that many college graduates lack the basic skills of critical thinking, writing and problem-solving.

I was listening to the Suze Orman show the other day and one of the listeners called in to tell her that she and her husband both had graduate degrees but weren't making it as well as their friends who went into the trades. Apparently, this couple had $100,000 dollars in student loans and wanted to have children but felt unable to afford them. In their case, maybe advanced schooling wasn't worth it. I think it depends on what one's degree is in and what skills are learned there that translate into a real world job. It is getting more and more important to research thoroughly the degree one is going to get and if it is worth it in very practical terms.

I wish I had known more prior to choosing my field, for if I did, I would definitely not have gone into the field I chose. What about you?



Blogger David Foster said...

I think we as a society do a very poor job of informing kids about career options. About the only jobs regularly portrayed by the media are doctor, cop, and criminal, and the portrayals are not very realistic. Most school counselors have very little clue about what goes on in the private sector, and for that matter in the government sector, and are unlikely to be of much help, however good their intentions.

11:16 AM, September 01, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to a small state college and got a BFA in creative writing, with the intention of becoming a novelist. Although I credit my professors with providing a very good education considering the relatively humble status of the school, what they produced was another English teacher. Even though I am nearing the completion of my first novel, the frustrations I encountered should have been addressed in college writing courses.

I have to say that, on the whole, I agree with Michael Crichton and Scott Turrow that you don't go to college to become a writer; you go to college to become an English major. The overwhelming bias toward literary fiction and, let's face it, fiction that drips with historical and social importance, leaves the young aspiring writer wondering if he/she is wasting their life trying to write something that will merely sell and keep them afloat. It's pretty tough to focus on a story when you have Hemingway and Nabokov ringing in your ears, and it's even harder not to shred every word you write when you are sedulously trained to recognize genius...and it isn't yours.

On the other hand, my professors did an outstanding job showing their students what critical thinking really was, and I can recall only one fruitcake liberal Marxist asshat in the entire school. At least they didn't prepare me for a life in the workplace as just another sheep bleating its life away before it became another meal for the MBAs that run businesses today. When I reflect on how the average CEO in 1940 made 42 times the salary of the line worker, and how today the CEO makes over 630 times that amount, I recall a famous French lady who said "Let them eat cake!" and got her hat collection made the most redundant part of her wardrobe.

11:49 AM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger jabrwok said...

I'm a librarian. I chose this field after looking back on all the various jobs I'd had through H.S. and college and picking the one I hated least.

If I could start over, either in or just after H.S., I'd definitely go in a different direction. That direction would probably still include higher ed (I never took out any student loans), but I'd find something more lucrative and more hands-on to pursue.

I'd also probably try to get into real estate in Austin before the prices went out of reach:-).

11:55 AM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Dave said...

I majored in English and philosophy in college and decided that I wanted to earn money. So I finagled my way into finance, realized that most finance requires high school level algebra skills, and have done relatively well at it.

Looking back on it, I should not have majored in English and philosophy but rather finance and economics. Both because I like money and I like the subject matter.

12:21 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Cham said...

Things can look very differently for a person when they are 18 as opposed to 30 years of age. People change, what might be an introvert during college can blossom into an extrovert later in life. What might be right for someone during their younger years might be completely wrong for them in the future.

My high school had a career day my senior year. We had a chemical engineer come in and I asked a simple question: Where are the jobs located for chemical engineers? He replied, "Everywhere".

Years later, and seeking an advanced degree in chemical engineering I discovered that wasn't quite true. Chemical Engineering positions can primarily be found in chemical plants. Chemical plants are concentrated in just a few areas of the country. I decided I didn't want to live in Houston so I switched career paths. If I would give young people one piece of advice, do more research than I did before putting your heart and soul into a degree.

12:30 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger fivewheels said...

I am very happy in the field I am in, but in retrospect I think I would have done just as well to spend my four years of college trying to get a rock-bottom entry-level job and working my way up for four long years, rather than getting the not-quite-entry-level job I did after four years at a top-3 school in my field. Nearly every important thing I know I learned on the job itself.

(I imagine many fields are like this, but definitely not all, and maybe not even a majority of white-collar type jobs.)

Throw in the decline of education quality and rise in cost and b.s. you have to put up with, and I really question the "value" of a college degree in many fields.

And on the other hand, I had a hell of a lot of fun in college, possibly more than I would have had as a working stiff. So there's that. I was lucky enough to have my education heavily subsidized, however.

12:38 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger DADvocate said...

My oldest son is starting his second year in college. He performance so far has been mediocre. I think a part of him feels he has to go to college because so many others in his extended family have.

Trouble is he doesn't seem that motivated. But, he loves cars, works on them and restores them in his spare time. He has 4 in various stages of restoration at the moment.

I tell him he could make a good living, probably better than me, if he opened his own auto service center. He's smart and would understand today's more complex cars far better than the average mechanic.

Another problem with today's career planning is the "find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life" philosophy. This may happen for some but does anyone love working in factories, riding a garbage truck, or any number of other jobs?

I got a degree in an area I "loved" and couldn't find a decent paying job despite having a 3.97 GPA for my M.S. degree. I eventually took enough classes to get a job in computer programming which I enjoy moderately and make enough to support myself and my kids.

The "necessity" of college definitely needs to be re-evaluated.

12:58 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger KG2V said...

I took the "go to college, but not finish" route. I took my basic core (Calculus, English, some chem, some bio, some computer science), and after 2.5 years realized "this isn't for me", and dropped.

I then went to electronics tech school, and became an electronics tech, and eventually, back into computer programming.

The "interesting" thing I've done is take non-matriculated courses that I felt I needed along the way, plus "continuing ed" and trade conferences. I've basically "made my own major"

1:08 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Stephen W. Stanton said...

I switched majors a few times in college. Each time, I realized that I really didn't want to do the jobs related to my degree.

Ultimately, I got a very useful degree (MBA), and my career is pretty good. But even within business school, I would have chosen another direction.

Often, it's not the degree itself but what you do with it. A political science degree is almost useless for most private sector jobs, but it would be helpful for people going into the business of campaigning & lobbying.

1:13 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

As students and alumni of Georgia Tech proudly proclaim, "we're culturally deficient and damn proud of it." I may not be able to read Homer in the original Greek or Schopenhauer in the original German -- but my degree in electrical engineering, as well as the behaviors and study habits necessary to survive one of the most rigorous engineering programs in the world, positioned me for a lifetime of professional and, yes, financial, success.

Now excuse a minute me while that guy wearing the red shirt with the big G on it brings me my french fries. ;)

1:15 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger MarkyMark said...


If one is intent on pursuing a profession, e.g. law, engineering, or medicine, then undergrad is necessary. Otherwise, many folks would be better off pursuing post secondary education in one of the trades or a technical field. College is HIGHLY overrated! Unfortunately, I didn't figure that out till my third year; at that point, I figured that I'm better off finishing. If I had to do it all again though, I think I'd do things differently myself...



3:59 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger David Foster said...

Some contrarian thoughts on education for business by management consultant Michael Hammer.

4:35 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Misanthrope said...

Overrated, oh most definately. I wasted the three years of my life immediately after high school going to college because I didn't know what I would stick with. Divergent interests, I think. (Though as an aside to the good doctor, not Psychology.)

Anyway, after finding out that no one hires you without the paper that says you know how to do something, I am back now for economics, something I like, hopefully can get employed with, and am willing to stick it out to finish.

Dadvocate: McPherson College, McPherson, KS offers a BS in Automotive Restoration Technology. Maybe that would interest your son if he can afford it.

4:46 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Jeff Y said...

Since the science, technical, engineering and math jobs are leaving the country as part of a government sponsored strategy to lower PhD and technical worker wages*, I think most degree-seekers are positively insane. Even the trades are becoming increasingly dominated by illegal aliens who have the competitive advantage of paying no business taxes.

The only places left to go are monopolistic professions with government-imposed barriers to foreign competition, such as law, tenured professors jobs, MD jobs including psychiatry, etc.

Another alternative is to own the business that uses illegal immigrants and outsourced foreign labor to sell things to Americans. But eventually, those American won't have jobs that pay enough to buy your stuff.

As an American citizen you're really trapped. Either do ten years of schooling to enter a government-monopoly profession or enter business with an inevitable decline ahead.

It's not the end of history, but it's the end of an era of prosperity.

* See this report.
[...] it is interesting that the federal government's National Science Foundation (NSF) actually promoted policies which they knew would result in low enrollments of domestic students in PhD programs. As we will explain later in our section on the use of H-1Bs as a source of cheap labor (Sec. 9.2.2), MIT mathematician/economist Eric Weinstein found that the NSF actually planned to hold down PhD wages by bringing in a glut of foreign scientists and engineers. The NSF documents reveal that NSF realized that by holding down PhD salaries they would cause domestic students to lose interest in PhD programs, while foreign students would still enroll in those programs as steppingstones to immigration.

4:46 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

Entered data processing with a 6mo voc course and outearned most everyone I knew. Retired and finished a degree in biology. I thought I'd like to teach. Low and behold, even with a solid 172 hours of biology courses alone (redundant due to the time between times), I cannot teach. Worthless.

Dadvocate --

Suggest to your son he look into detailing. Those dudes rake in the cash.

4:49 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dadvocate --

Extra bonus, detailers use their artistic skills and require zero college.

4:50 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Jason said...

I majored in English in college and spent the next eight years living a hand-to-mouth existence before I finally got a job as a reporter. It paid 30k per year (in 2000,) at the height of the Internet boom.

I felt rich.

My beat was mutual funds, which evolved to retirement planning and financial planning. I was never a math guy, and hated math, in fact. But I found I really enjoyed the human aspects of finance, investing, insurance and risk management.

After a few rounds of layoffs as a journalist and a couple of bounced checks, I did what I should have done out of college and became an insurance agent.

But I would never have came to that field had I not been a journalist first. So it still goes back to majoring in English.

As that Rascal Flatts song goes, "God bless the broken road."

5:06 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger GawainsGhost said...

My first degree was in biology. When I was young I thought I wanted to be a national park ranger or something. But when I found out how little that job paid, I went into education and became a science teacher.

I don't regret that decision. Some of the best years of my life were spent teaching junior high physical, life and earth science. The kids were hilarious, and the job was never boring.

But I became disanamored of science and went back to school to complete a second degree in composition/rhetoric and philosophy. Taught English for a few years, then went to graduate school to complete a master's degree in British Romantic Poetry with a dual minor in medieval literature and the Humanities.

I don't regret either decision, because I learned a lot. And because with a master's degree I could teach college in the evenings and supplement my income as a high school teacher. Towards the end I was earning $60,000/year, and I had three months of paid vacation. Life was good.

However, life has its ups and downs, and when my father was stricken with cancer and dying, I resigned my positions, took some real estate courses, got a license, and went to work to help my mother run the company.

It's not the career I intended to pursue, but I will say that the private sector pays a lot more. I do miss my summer vacations though. This self-employed 24/7/365 stuff is for the birds.

That said, I will go to my grave believing that the best possible education is a traditional, classical liberal arts education, consisting of grammar, logic, rhetoric, literature/philosophy, mathematics, science, and art.

The problem with education today is with the curriculum. Most of it is pap.

The courses I took that I learned the most in were grammar, logic, rhetoric, botany, animal behavior, geology, philosophy of art, and various literature courses, particularly Blake, Hopkins, Whitman, Chaucer, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

5:41 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Joe said...

Most college degrees are useless. The most effective programs are ones that are very targeted in mostly practical scientific fields (vs. theoretical.) Unfortunately, even in these the amount of bullshit courses you have to take is absurd.

Overall, college is a huge drain on our economy. While there is a trick-down effect, most the direct monies go to people who aren't adding to the GDP.

I firmly believe that higher education is the biggest con job in the history of mankind.

Unfortunately, this bullshit approach to education has sunk down in high school and is heading toward elementary schools.

My proposal: Don't start public education until age 6 and end it at age 16. Drop all pell grant and college subsidy programs--all they do is drive up the cost of higher education AND remove accountability.

5:45 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Joe said...

To be more specific: College is based on the notion that the landed gentry and upper classes have a place to obtain a general "sophisticated" education so they can run the empire one they get their peerages and/or join the house of commons.

Being able to sound like you know what your talking about while debating Shakespeare in a formal, Victorian, dinner party is simply a skill that is no longer needed.

Two other purposes of classical education were to a) occupy the time of rich post adolescent males who were "to good" for the military and b) to separate those who deserved a life of comfort and those who didn't (one theme in British literate is to discover the powerful man was a pretender who got into Oxford or Cambridge on "false" pretenses--i.e. he was lower class and had a sponsor.)

Unfortunately, modern colleges are still very much structured around these quaint and very archaic notions. (And still perpetuate the notion that having a liberal arts college education makes you innately superior to other people. I'm being serious--the liberal arts crowd still lifts their nose at the engineering colleges especially--the latter are merely tradesmen.)

6:00 PM, September 01, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe engineering and particular sciences to be most useful. They improve lives daily.

I don't understand the dumbing down of America, though. I realize much of the world does not have the standard of living there is in the states. But there are countries where the standard of living is also higher.

It is hard to read the info such as jeff y. has produced without thinking our own government conspires against us. Technical and PhD wages are not the only ones going down. Wages of politicians and gov't workers seem to be doing good, though. Imagine that.

6:11 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger lovemelikeareptile said...

You guys are all too dour !

Man-- wahoo !--
4 years of reading, writing, studying ,classes at Dad's expense ( at least in large part, hopefully)... joining the fraternity , living in the dorm, rush, sorority girls, "pig " parties, beating Tennessee ( again) , football games, tailgating to Ole Miss, Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida,hot babes, baseball games revelry, bars, getting that great off-campus apartment, hot girlfriends and walks around campus at twilite, fashion-merchandising majors, The Strip,hot babes, road trips, spring break, Xmas vacation, summer vacation, basketball games, hot babes....

Man-- college is great-- what a luxury !!


6:37 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Edgehopper said...

I enjoyed my college years, but I would have picked a slightly different major in hindsight. I was a MechE major with an effective minor in computer science (no actual certificate because I didn't get the CS dept.'s signature before doing my research); what I would have preferred to do is a CS major with a MechE minor. However, if I had done that, I probably would have been working as a programmer instead of going to law school, and I really like being a patent lawyer too...

That being said, outside of the professions and highly technical fields, college isn't useful for educational purposes. It is useful, but it fulfills the function that boarding schools used to--an intermediate step between childhood and adulthood in a society that keeps children childlike until they turn 18.

7:12 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger DADvocate said...

major-general and oligonicella - thanks for the input. I'll pass it on to my son. Looked up McPherson College, very interesting.

7:17 PM, September 01, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've gone to college to the tune of $60,000 in student loan bills. If I do decide to go again it won't be on student loans, but paid for myself. Right now I'm in auto sales, but I'm still in the beginning stages where I could very easily be let go because I'm so new. So we'll see how that works out.

8:22 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Patrick said...

Here is the difference between middle class and upper class:

Middle class families naively believe that if their kids just spend enough hours studying, get outstanding grades, and get in to the right schools, they will become rich. In contrast, upper class families know better - while they still encourage their kids to go to college, they do not make a college degree out to be a magic ticket (as my working class father did), because they understand that other qualities like social skills and willingness to take (reasonable) risks have more to do with how much money you earn than your SAT scores.

I love my parents to death, but I have somewhat tortured feelings of how they built education up to such an insane degree. I think in part they said this to make me feel better when I came home whining that the jock clique made fun of me. My father would endlessly, angrily say “Who cares what that jerk says – he’ll be digging a ditch for the rest of his life.” I have done OK as a doctor in a fascinating but relatively low-paying specialty, so I am not exactly poor, but I look at what tradespeople or small business owners make and I feel somehow jealous. Than I feel like an elitist a**hole for my jealousy. It’s not that I begrudge others happiness, but I was led to believe (in part by the media) that as a doctor I would be taking Thursdays off to play a round of golf at the country club, with a mansion and a yacht. Uhhh… no, not even close. Try getting up at 5 AM on Saturday and driving my beatup minivan to the cheap municipal course with my construction worker friend, admiring his new clubs, which I cannot afford. I can then squeeze in 9 holes before I have to go to the hospital.

On the other hand I love being a physician, and I really enjoyed my studies along the way (mostly). There is a lot to be said for that. I am genuinely unsure of what I will advise my children when they are approaching college decision, but I guess I want them to understand all the factors that determine income and happiness.

8:41 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger warren said...

I entered college in 1971, when it was affordable, and I threw myself into a major in psych, and minor in sociology. So far, so good. Got into a grad program in experimental design and counseling. I was really excited and I knew I was good as a counselor, but reality intruded.

This was around the time of deinstitutionalization, so psych techs weren't in demand any more, so I found myself in a gas station.

If there's anything that I should have done, it was to have worked there over the summer instead of all that lucrative factory work, because it would have erased the youthful idealism from my perspective. Yeah, it's an ego boost to bring self-enlightenment to college sophomores, but fixing the rest of the human race? Um, not. Ain't gonna happen, ever.

I'll credit the computer science department with instilling a fascination with computers, rudimentary as they were in the mid-70's. Later on, that urge led to the fusion of idealism and real life--becoming a service technician. Yes, now I can Fix Things, and indirectly, Fix People, which kinda conforms with my main urge of Making Things Right.

Of course, it also jibes with my main goal of Making Enough Money To Survive Without Driving Myself Absolutely Nuts.

It also goes back to my father, who said, "Learn a trade." Such wisdom, ignored by me for way too long, was rapidly imparted to my daughters, and they seem to have Gotten It.

"Learn a trade in something you like, get a job where you can make money at it, and then you have a base where you can afford to go back to school if you need or want to. But either way, you have something to live off of."

Which means that there might not be all that much value in a degree in Medieval Literature Deconstruction, but hey, more opportunity for meeee...

9:23 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Tom Nally said...

I earned a B.A. in Anthropology, then a Master in Social Work (MSW). I was a deputy juvenile officer for about a year-and-a-half.

After relocating to a different part of the country with my young family, I eventually earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering, and an M.S. in the same.

The profession is fantastic, and my industry, the oil industry, is definitely the greatest industry on the planet.

9:39 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

What about 'Community Organizer'? My high school guidance counselor never even told me about this option.

9:48 PM, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Jungle Jim said...

I have taught at three different universities. Two state schools and one private.

I estimate that approximately 50% of the students are either unwilling or unable to do what it takes to learn the subjects properly. So I agree with Williams (who is also an economics prof) that college is a waste of time and money for many people.

Moreover, much of the money spent by universities is unnecessary. College administrators spend lavishly on themselves and on entertaining wealthy alums so that they can get more contributions from the wealthy alums.

Administration becomes more and more bloated. I am constantly seeing them add "Assistant Provost of X" or "Associate Dean of Y". Thus, the universities become ends to themselves where the students are a mere afterthought.

Another thing that everyone who donates money to a university should bear in mind. There is a good chance that some administrator will stick it in his pocket. An typical example of this was Bruce Mallen, who was Dean of the College of Business at Florida Atlantic University. While he was in that position, he spent most of his time and the college's money throwing parties for his Hollywood friends.

12:24 AM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger cinderkeys said...

Unfortunately, it's been my observation that many employers won't look at someone without a college degree. This can hold true even if the applicant has lots of relevant experience in the appropriate field.

Too bad. I loved college, loved the opportunity to learn about things I deemed interesting or important, even though I knew most of it wouldn't help me find a job later. But many people -- including smart people -- don't thrive in that environment, and there ought to come a point where their relevant skills and experience trump the lack of a degree.

4:31 AM, September 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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4:51 AM, September 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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5:06 AM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Doom said...

I make decent money, as a 100% disabled vet. Yet I am trying to get off that, attempting to get through an engineering degree. I am 100% for a reason and engineering school is not easy, so I cannot guarantee I will make it. For my part, I think it will be worth it if I do make it. Though I think my first few years will be a financial loss, beyond that it will be up to me and what I do now and what I do then.

I will be going to a no guarantee life, in a competitive field, but I am hoping to become useful. That last is more valuable than gold, as I see it from this side of the thing. Oh, the other thing. I do not think they could pay me enough to do this work... if I didn't love doing it (mostly).

5:59 AM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger flambeaux said...

Wow Joe. I couldn't disagree with you more.

I studied engineering and I sometimes regret that my curriculum was so "vocational". I saw many of my peers leave college supposedly versed in engineering, but woefully lacking in the written communication department. Most "useful" knowledge has a very short half-life, while those useless theoretical courses are the ones that can serve you for a lifetime.

Higher education has become a racket, but not for the reason you probably think. It's expensive because it's not "elitist" (selective) enough. Universities are raking in money to teach under-qualified students the subjects they should have learned for free in their public high school.

8:22 AM, September 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who is pushing higher education as far as it can go, I certainly understand the rationale behind this question. I did a 4 year BA in History, followed by a 3 year MA in theology/biblical studies at seminary and I'm just now entering my 4th and (hopefully) final year of a Ph D in the same field.

I do find it ironic that after I finish 11 years of post-secondary education I am almost certainly going to be out-earned by my brother who barely made it through high school but found a 2 year manufacturing engineering program at a community college and is currently in a stable, comfortable job. However, in my case I chose this field out of a vocational sense of calling to teach at a Bible College/Seminary. I know it's not going to be nearly as lucrative as things I could have done with more technical degrees, or no degree at all, but I think it's what I'm best suited to do.

P.S. been lurking 'round here for 6 months or so, first time poster. Thanks to Dr. Helen for hosting this place of continuing conversation.

10:23 AM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Larry J said...

Perhaps the best thing I ever did was joining the Army right out of high school (1975). After a couple years as a paratrooper, I switched to the Air Force. It wasn't until 1981 that I was able to attend college while still in uniform.

I separated from the service in 1982 to become a full time student at age 25. I was hungry for an education by that time. The idea of partying or skipping classes that I was paying for just never occurred to me. I graduated in 1984 with a BS in math and taught school for a year.

While in college, I met and married my wife. I found that while my years of being an enlisted man had made me used to poverty, I no longer enjoyed it. I rejoined the Air Force as an Officer in 1985.

My degree in math qualified me to fly satellites and operate an intelligence gathering radar system. I completed a MA degree in space systems management about the time I separated from the Air Force in 1992 (big drawdown that year).

Once out, I found myself having to start over at age 35. I completed all of the undergrad prereqs and master's level courses for a MS in Software Engineering in 9 months and reentered the workforce in 1993.

The thing I told my stepsons and still believe to this day is that having marketable job skills is more important than having a degree. There are a lot of new college grads who have a pretty piece of paper but otherwise bring nothing of value to the job market. We used to joke that a high school diploma qualified you to say, "Do you want fries with that?" Many college degrees qualify you to ask, "Do you want a muffin with your latte?"

A college education is vastly overrated. For too many people, it's a 4 year prolongation of adolescence. I believe most of them would do better to get a few years of real world job experience before considering college.

10:33 AM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Helen said...


"P.S. been lurking 'round here for 6 months or so...

Thanks for taking the time to comment and welcome to the blog. There are many readers who email me or who stay silent, but who have so much to add to the conversation. Thanks.

To all,

What a diverse group of jobs everyone here has. It's been fascinating for me to read about what you all are doing.

10:45 AM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Quasimodo said...

Is college worth it?

The answer depends mostly on the person going to college.

Depends to a lesser extent on what they study.

Having said that, I think that it is criminal for pricey second or third tier colleges to mint relatively large numbers of graduates in fields like psychology, wymen's studies, sociology, physics, philosophy, etc. They are often left with huge bills (or parents considerably poorer) and with no prospects of getting a reasonable return on their money without a PhD. The majority don't ever go to grad school and even if they do, the jobs prospects are still severely limited.

Come to think of it ... it is criminal for a college even to have a course of study like wymen's studies. Waste of time, space, and breath IMHO.

1:16 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Todd said...

I am currently in collage (night school). I am 46 years old and have been in the computer field professionally since 1982. I was going to go to college for digital logic design (make computer chips) but took a computer course while in high-school and decided that programming was “it” for me. Went into the Army for computers for 4 years and came out with no degree but 4 years experience. That start carried me a long way. I am now a Sr. Software Product Manager and am working on my Technical Management degree. I think that I enjoy the college classes that I am taking a lot more now than I would have then. I am (definitely) older and somewhat wise and (I hope) better able to spot the BS than those currently in school. In my case, not going straight into collage was a good thing. It not only saved me a whole lot of money but my 4 years in the Army gave me things you just can not get in school. Oh, and the money is not too bad either...

2:47 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger quadrupole said...


While I agree with your general sentiment about colleges minting worthless degrees, you were quite mistaken to include physics in your list.

Physics fundamentally reshapes the way people think in a way that is *highly* useful. While nobody I knew from my university days in physics is actually *working* as a physicist, they are all in highly paid technical careers that lean heavily on the model building skills they learned in physics.

In tech you can almost always spot the physics guys... they just think in a very different and useful manner about problems.

4:11 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Maxine Weiss said...

No regrets. You have to follow your interests, not dollar signs. I would never choose a career, solely for monetary rewards. I do have my mercenary days, but ultimately I have to be happy in my work and have a natural affinity for the tasks of the jobs, otherwise the stress and misery of doing something I hate, will kill me straight away, money or no money !!!

5:11 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger JW in Texas said...

I think the value of college depends on the individual, always a risky proposition at 18 or so. I got my BA in History which provided me the opportunity to be commissioned as an Ensign in the Navy. My MS in Management facilitated my promotion to Commander and my Masters Certificate in Project Management was instrumental in my PM certification which in turn helps augment my retirement.

I teach History, Management and Project Management and am working on my MA is History post retirement from the Navy. For me it's fun to teach and to learn regardless of the "financial reward".

My youngest brother started college, flunked out because it just wasn't for him. He's been a SEAL for 14 years, loves the excitement and challenge. College was a waste for him. Different strokes....

5:14 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Jeff Y said...

Non-professional degrees exist solely for the purpose of helping HR departments weed out applicants. You pay your $26,000 so you can get an interview.

It's just very, very difficult to get a job without a degree these days. Skills don't matter much in job seeking, but paper qualifications do --- a lot.

I don't agree with it, but I do think that's the reality.

5:15 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Jeff Y said...

In tech you can almost always spot the physics guys... they just think in a very different and useful manner about problems. (quadrupole)

Heh. I can say the same about the math guys.

5:18 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Cappy said...

I'm in pretty much the same boat as Davocate. Did he go to Univ. of Cincinnati also? Anyway, it was worth it although I'm in Information Systems too, far away from my undergrad and grad degrees.

5:21 PM, September 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:44 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger quadrupole said...

Heh. I can say the same about the math guys.

Math guys are subtly different... math is about the internal consistency (and interestingness) of your system, physics has a strong grounding in testing your models against external reality that math does not. It produces a small but important difference in the resulting minds...

6:21 PM, September 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I attended college for a year, then went completely off the rails. Been surviving - just barely - since then. I have some writing skills with which I've been able to finagle myself into various underpaid situations over the years.

Instead of taking the path I did, I should have sought psychiatric help at age 13, attended a full-time boarding school until I was 21, then become a photographer. Unfortunately, we are stuck with the families we have and the choices we've made. So here I am.

7:23 PM, September 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love what I do. I am exposed to the major manufacturing and mining industries, never the same type day twice in a row. From applesauce to zinc mining and literally everything in between. Sometimes I really feel lucky. Only Li'l Abner had a better job than me.

8:08 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger fivewheels said...

Part of the problem with college is that it usually happens at age 18. Nobody knows what they heck they're doing at 18, no one knows what kind of adult they'll be, what they really want. And your choice of college and major have huge, seemingly (to many people) irreversible consequences. I know way too many people who got trapped by their choices made not even at 18 but at 17 or 16, that determined the course or their entire life. After you drop 10 years and a couple hundred thousand dollars on becoming a doctor, what do you do if you don't like being a doctor? For many people, it means just being an unhappy doctor. For 40 years. Scary.

I see a lot of people like Larry J who entered college later, as more mature people, and made choices that are better for them in the long run.

8:31 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Joe said...


You misunderstood my poorly stated argument and highlight a big part of the problem. What colleges are failing to do is produce truly qualified people.

Being an effective software engineer (by field) is FAR more than learning a few technical skills. However, learning how to write from the English department is a waste of time. It goes deeper; CS majors don't know how to work in groups--I'm not talking kumbaya PC crap, but how to argue a position. I can count on two fingers the number of fresh college CS majors who weren't worthless. Yes I have a long list of excellent software engineers who never graduated from college or who did so in odd-ball degrees (like myself.)

9:10 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Joe said...

BTW, the smartest, most productive college graduates I've dealt with are Electric Engineer majors, followed by other (non-Computer Science) Engineering disciplines. My time in Design Engineering was very valuable; unfortunately all the other stuff drove me crazy, especially when it became obvious the teacher was a moron.

9:13 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger Jeff Y said...

quadripole wrote, Math guys are subtly different... math is about the internal consistency (and interestingness) of your system,

Well, consistency, completeness, decidability, definabilty, independence, and many other properties.

physics has a strong grounding in testing your models against external reality that math does not. It produces a small but important difference in the resulting minds...

Small? Heh.

12:09 AM, September 03, 2008  
Blogger quadrupole said...

CS majors don't know how to work in groups--I'm not talking kumbaya PC crap, but how to argue a position.

I live and breath collaborative behavior in my day to day work. *Nothing* I ever saw in college or before in terms of 'group work' ever bore any resemblance to how it actually happens in the work world.

Does the business world *desperately* need folks who are facile at working in groups: definite! Does anything that colleges currently do to teach working in groups help at all: no.

5:45 AM, September 03, 2008  
Blogger Larry J said...

I live and breath collaborative behavior in my day to day work. *Nothing* I ever saw in college or before in terms of 'group work' ever bore any resemblance to how it actually happens in the work world.

I love my job. I use Unified Modeling Language (UML) to develop enterprise architectures for Air Force Space Command (yeah, I'm a geek). I'm also working on a project to develop an extremely high speed air-to-ground data link. It's funny how just about everything I've done in my life (I'm 51) to this point is proving useful for my current job.

About 90% of my work is collaborative. I work with subject matter experts to capture business process requirements and model that in UML. It's challenging and kind of fun (in a geeky way) and due to the security classifications, it can't be outsourced overseas. Bonus.

Like I posted before, I graduated high school in 1975. That's the year generally credited for the invention of personal computers. I never saw a computer except in movies until about 1980. A few years later, I was making my living programming them. There's no way I would've thought about being a programmer or enterprise architect back then even if I felt ready for college. Delaying going to college was one of the best moves I ever did. It allowed me to get the partying nonsense out of my system and to actually become an adult before starting college. It's a move I encourage high school seniors to consider.

8:28 AM, September 03, 2008  
Blogger Mike said...

Dr. Helen,

My father always says this about college: "Anyone can go to college, but not everyone belongs or should be at college."

Anyways, below is my abbreviated journey through higher education. Forgive me if I am long-winded.


Since I was little, I was always interested in science. I was on the fence about what field I wanted to go into until I took AP Chemistry in High School. During that course I knew I wanted to be a Chemist.

I graduated in 2002 and received a B.S. in Chemistry in 2006. Thinking I was just going to go into the chemical industry somewhere, I didn't look into a higher degree. However the grad students (and my adviser) I did research with told me of the merits of pursuing a Ph.D., so decided to continue on.

I applied and was accepted into a Ph.D. program for Inorganic Chemistry in the South in 2006. So I packed up everything I had and moved down. The first couple of semesters were alright, I expected to learn some new in-depth chemistry but essentially ended up rehashing most of the stuff I learned in undergrad.

Strike 1

Once I finished my classes I was then in the lab full time doing research. I had a joint appointment between two professors, working on a project that I later came to see as nothing more than pure academic curiosity (I like applied chemistry, since you can do something with it later on). Also due to being a joint student, I really did not have a "home", meaning that I didn't truly identify with either of my groups.

Strike 2

At the beginning of my second year, I began thinking about the total amount of time I would have to be "in school" before I would start a career. I would have ended up finishing when I was 31. So, I would have spent 5 years in grad school plus an additional 2-4 years as a Post-doc at some other university. On top of the time element the amount of money I would have been making from the stipends, if you take the total based on the number of hours worked, would be less than minimum wage. Also, I'd have no experience in the industry coming out (I didn't want to be a Professor).

Strike 3

So I decided to leave with my Master's of Science degree in Inorganic/Organometallic Chemistry and find a job. I graduated just recently in the past May.

Job hunting didn't go to well at first (I started in January). I wanted to find a synthesis position in the pharmaceutical industry, since I was becoming more interested in Organic Chemistry. However, I usually would not be considered for the job due to my degree, and the supposed lack of knowledge I would have.

Somewhat discouraged, I kept applying for positions on the East Coast and eventually got an offer in Columbus, Ohio, which I accepted and will start in October.


Looking back I probably would have made some different choices about where I ended up for Grad School and what concentration to take, but I'm happy with my current situation and am looking forward to entering the workplace.

10:49 AM, September 03, 2008  
Blogger Shadow's World said...

As an (almost retired) engineer who has thoroughly enjoyed his career, yes, I definitely would do the BSEE degree again; I would probably go again for the MSEE; but the PhD?

Probably not. That decision cost me at least $100,000 in lifetime earnings, and the only significant benefit was to prove to myself that I was up to the task.

My children have both indicated some interest in returning to graduate school. My advice to them both is that the Masters is probably worthwhile, but think long and hard before going beyond.

10:18 AM, September 04, 2008  
Blogger submandave said...

I admit that, as a college graduate, I am biased toward my daughters receiving a higher education as well, but the decline in the capabilities of college graduates should ba surprise to none. It is a natural result of the common liberal view that they can change the natural order of things by good intentions and fervent wishes. Unfortunately for their goals there is something known as the "bell curve" that is not an artificial construct of racism/sexism/humanism/whateverism, but is rather a natural result of viewing a "normal distribution" of naturally occurring circumstances (such as learning ability).

In previous generations a college education was the sole goal of either the rich (who will always be able to afford whatever they want) or the academically gifted (i.e. the right side of the bell curve). The push to give everyone a college degree has predictably the inclusion of many further to the left side of the bell curve. This is not to mean that I believe that wherever you fall based on ability is where you will stay, but simply calling it "silk" does not change the true nature and origin of that porcine-based handbag.

12:28 PM, September 04, 2008  
Blogger Bird-Man said...

I chose not to go college after High School (Graduated from HS in 1988). I made up my mind during my junior year that I needed to find a skill that would allow me to earn a decent living without having to go to college. I had reached a point that I was starting to hate school and couldn't bear the thought of attending for another 4-Years and having to pay for it. On a whim one day to get out of class I took the Military ASVAB exam.

Never gave the military much thought. My father is a Vietmnam Vet and after listening to his war stories, figured the military wasn't for me. Low and behold I scored very high on the exam and recruiters started calling. I blew off the Marines and the Army. After a little research I figured that the Air Force or Navy had the best technical job options. I dumped the Air Force when they informed me that they did not guarantee their schools. The Navy called and said they had an offer of a lifetime.

I ended up in the Naval Nuclear Power Program. It was one of the toughest academic challenges of my life but well worth it. For the first time in my life I had to study. That experience changed and enriched my life more than I ever imagined and challeneged me more than any college could have done for me at that point in my life. I did 6 years in the Navy and said goodbye.

The training and experience transferred well to the private sector and was a stepping stone into the Power and Utilities Industry (1995). I currently still work in the Industry as an Engineering Technician and earn $150-$200K annually. I have been blessed to love what I do and ended up in this field because I wanted to get out of class.

As an adult I realized that it was my fear of failing out of college that drove me to choose other options. I have taken courses at my local Community College and enjoy school. I look forward to completing my Associates Degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology (even maintained a 4.0 GPA for awhile)then transferring to a 4-Year school to complete my Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering Technology with a dual major in Finance. At this point in my life a degree will not earn me more money, but it will definitely give me more options.

The long term plan is a Master's in Engineering Management and Project Management Certification. The big plus is that someone else will be paying for all of this. So my path allowed me earn a decent living then sort out what I wanted to do as a mature adult. There a lot of wonderful options and wide array of technical fields available to young adults in the mlitary. It is a great stepping stone for those that are unsure of what they want to do. This options allows them to earn an income, get training and experience and money for school while they sort out what they want to do. This path definitely better prepared me for the private sector.

1:01 PM, September 04, 2008  
Blogger a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

I wish I had known more prior to choosing my field, for if I did, I would definitely not have gone into the field I chose.

I think psychology is a very useful field. You've commented before about the pay. Everybody's career depends on markets and where you can fit into that market. I think most of us think about a career like a slot in a Soviet guaranteed job. Most of us now, truth in our heads be told, are going to Oxford to be followed by a spot in that bureaucracy when we set out to college. Any resemblance between truth and that fiction is purely coincidental.

10:49 AM, September 07, 2008  
Blogger dweeb said...

Everybody, in choosing a career, needs to read the chapter in Tom Sawyer about painting the fence, and understand basic economics. No one is going to pay you to do something you would do unpaid, and anything you HAVE to do to make a living will eventually lose its luster.

People are paid well because they are uniquely able or willing to do that for which they are paid. Find something that very few are as able or willing to do as you are, and develop that strength, make lots of money, and spend that money on things that you love. Work is work - it always will be.

8:44 PM, September 09, 2008  
Blogger Kurt said...

I attended an elite, northeastern college and majored in English. Had I stopped there and looked for a job, I probably would have done very well, as a recently published salary survey indicated that people with just a BA from my undergraduate institution had a median salary significantly higher than I currently earn now. Chances are, I wouldn't have stopped, though, but I might have gone to law school or to get an MBA or something if I had entered some sort of professional career path directly out of college.

As it was, I followed my undergrad. degree directly with several years at a very highly-regarded state university in the south earning first an MA and then a PhD in English. I thought I wanted to teach college, and that was the required path. Near the end of the PhD program, I realized I didn't have to teach, and started applying for other kinds of jobs, but found it hard for many nonacademic employers to look at me seriously. (This irked me because the same employers would have probably been happy to interview me had I just had a BA or even had I stopped with the MA.) So I gradually ended up teaching for a year and a half at a small liberal arts college, and then I moved out of teaching into an administrative job at a university. I like many things about my job and my life now, but I often regret the many years spent earning a PhD when I might have done much better finding my way in the workforce without it.

2:32 PM, September 10, 2008  
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