Public Comment

Is A College Degree Worth It?

Harry Brill
Friday November 08, 2019 - 12:49:00 PM

Is College really worth the effort? The answer is both yes and no. On the average the earnings of college graduates are substantially higher compared to those who are only high school graduates. A college graduate averages about $51,000 annually. But the yearly income of high school graduates is $28,000. It is not surprising, as the polls show, that for the overwhelming number of students the main motive for attending college is to obtain a good job, particularly one that pays well. Nevertheless, despite their ambitions about 40 percent drop out. For students whose families are in the top 25%, 75% earn a bachelor’s degree. But only about 10% of students whose family is in the lower 25% graduate college.  

Of course, the problems related to being poor discourage many students from remaining in college. But the consumer-oriented culture of many colleges victimizes students as well. Rather than encourage low income students to feel at home by providing an affordable education, they are instead showered with many unjustifiably high costs. Among the high costs is student housing. When the colleges built and operated student housing, not only were rents reasonable. Among the advantages the housing was operated in a way that encouraged a sense of community.  

But In recent years the colleges have changed their housing policy. Now many colleges are leasing the land to private developers to both build and operate student housing. Their only interest is in maximizing profits. Among the dire consequences is that about 10 percent of college students have experienced homelessness. At community colleges, the problem of homelessness is even higher.  

Also, a recent study found that 36% of college students do not have enough to eat. The colleges can solve that problem by providing poor students with a free or a very low cost pass to eat at the school cafeteria. Instead, most school cafeterias are too expensive for low income students. What is also costly for students is how the colleges have allowed banks to treat student ID cards as credit cards, which are controlled by the banks. The banks charge fees and interest on these cards, thanks to the colleges. It is no surprise that so many students drop out.  

But significantly, even many college graduates are in trouble. According to the Census Bureau there are 3.6 million college graduates living in poverty. And the problem, the Census claims, could be getting worse. Actually, the number of college graduates in poverty are already much higher because the Census appreciably underestimates the cost of living.  

Because of developments in the economy that favor business at the expense of the public, college graduates as well as dropouts are confronting an increasingly more competitive labor market. Only 27% of college graduates are working in jobs that are even remotely related to their major. According to Glassdoor Inc. which is a business that attempts to match workers with jobs, on the average there are 250 applicants for every job that companies are offering. As a result, the competition is driving wages down. So even many of those who were doing relatively well financially in part because of their educational achievement are now living on very tight budgets.  

Ironically, as the earnings of higher wage educated employees fall, the gap in income inequality is beginning to narrow. But clearly, a reduction in inequality by reducing the wages of some employees who have graduated college is certainly not good news. Unfortunately, this tells us that the value of a college degree is declining.  

What has also declined is union density. In the private sector, only 6.4 percent of workers are unionized (compared to 35% in 1954). The loss of union density for most workers has been a critical factor in reducing wages. The education that working people need most of all is how to work collectively to recapture union power. Obtaining advanced degrees cannot replace unionization as the major route to achieving good wages and secure jobs.