The value of a college education

I've been thinking lately about the value of a college education. I earned a B.A. in Psychology from Willamette University in 1991 (with a minor in English Lit, and almost another minor in Speech Com). What have I done with this degree? Almost nothing. Yet I do not regret the money and years I spent working to earn it.

The Financial Value of a College Degree

Does earning a college degree make a difference to your future? Absolutely. The facts are striking. On average, those who have a college degree earn almost twice as much as those who do not. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

Adults with advanced degrees earn four times more than those with less than a high school diploma. Workers 18 and older with a master's, professional or doctoral degree earned an average of $82,320 in 2006, while those with less than a high school diploma earned $20,873.

Workers with a bachelor's degree earned an average of $56,788 in 2006; those with a high school diploma earned $31,071. This flurry of numbers makes more sense when viewed in a table:

Education Avg. Income Increase
Drop-out $20,873
High school $31,071 48.9%
College $56,788 82.8%
Advanced $82,320 45.0%

Completing college is huge. Over a life-time, a college degree is generally worth almost a million dollars. That's money that can be used for saving, for fun, for whatever. The financial benefits of a college education are significant, and they're very real.

Other Benefits of a College Degree

Obtaining a college degree isn't just about making more money. According to Katharine Hansen at Quintessential Careers, a college education is associated with other benefits, such as:

  • Longer life-spans
  • Greater economic stability and security
  • More prestigious employment and greater job satisfaction
  • Less dependency on government assistance
  • Greater participation in leisure and artistic activities
  • Greater community service and leadership
  • More self-confidence

A college education also gives you a broad base of knowledge on which to build. It teaches you to solve more of life's problems. It gives you future reference points for discussing art, entertainment, politics, and history.

College offers other learning opportunities, too. Much of what I gained in college came from learning outside the classroom, from participating in clubs and other campus organizations. Many degree programs allow students to “test-drive” careers through internships and practicums.

The Label on Your Degree Does NOT Matter

I asked Michael Hampton, director of career development at Western Oregon University, what advice he would offer a student who is deciding whether or not to attend college. He replied:

Unless you are going to be an engineer, architect, teacher, lawyer, the label on your degree does not matter. The degree is a check-mark (as opposed to the focus) in most job requirements. Many job ads will state: “Business, Communications or other degree required.” Most folks have the “other”.

I have a BA in Speech, Telecommunications & Film. As a television news photographer, youth director, communications director, substitute school teacher, sports marketing manager, career programs coordinator, no one ever said to me: “You know what? We would like to hire you, but we're not sure what that label is on your degree.”

Honestly, at the University of Oregon, I was looking for an “easy” degree because I was not a book-smart student. I was able to take mostly film & television classes to earn my BA, so I signed up. The experiences I took advantage of (internships, volunteering, and part-time jobs) in college set me up to be marketable to employers. Again, the jobs I went after required degrees, but the label on the degree was not a barrier.

Here are some more prominent examples:

  • What was Alan Greenspan‘s major? Econ, but he studied music first
  • What was Michael Jordan‘s major? Math, then Geography (dropped out to play professional basketball, later returned to earn his degree)
  • What was Lisa Kudrow‘s major? Biology
  • What was Cindy Crawford‘s major? Chemical Engineering (dropped out for modeling career)
  • What was Ted Turner‘s major? Classics (expelled for hanky-panky)
  • What was former HP CEO Carly Fiorina‘s major? Philosophy
  • What was George W. Bush‘s major? History
  • What was Jay Leno‘s major? Philosophy

If a student is struggling to get good grades, I encourage them to look at the course catalog and choose a major based on the likability of most of the classes they would have to take, their positive experiences with the professors in the major, and the number of credits they have already taken that are compatible. They should set themselves up to be successful. Getting through the pre-reqs is a major barrier for some. Combine some “fun” classes with the challenging required courses to try and make the experience more enjoyable.

Against the Grain

But what if, instead of paying for your child's education, you provided this lump sum to them in a one-year certificate of deposit, earning the current highest return available (2.24% as of the writing of this article, according to Bankrate.com)? Now the child's salary would be greatly reduced; the lifetime earning potential would only be $4.2 million assuming the same circumstances as before.

However, assuming that in both scenarios the child in question was able to save 5% of their annual income (assumed to be a lump-sum deposit at the beginning of the year to keep calculations simple), the child with the high school education will have accumulated $646,532 in the one-year CDs by the time they've reached retirement age. The child with the college degree would only accumulate $438.132, a difference of $208,400.

Perhaps it could be argued that the child with the college degree could live with the same expense basis as the one with the high school education, thereby freeing up more money for saving and investing. However, I would encourage a recognition of Parkinson's Second Law, which tells us that “expenses rise to meet income”.

Rich or poor, thrifty or not, the current savings rate as of the end of May for Americans was only 6.9%. For much of the recent past it's been lower than that, even to the point of occasionally becoming negative. For as many responsible people who are reading these words, there are many more who would be swept along by circumstances and society, spending exactly what they make (or more), year after year.

Public vs. Private

What if one were to assume a lower university bill? Perhaps a private school isn't in the cards for these two kids (and their parents), but a public four-year institution could be.

The current median cost of four years at a public university for the 2009-2010 school year is only $29,021. At that rate, assuming the same parameters as before (rate of salary increase and inflation, etc.), the college grad does come out ahead, but only by $26,090 at age 65. Certainly, that's a much smaller margin than I would have assumed, and I would guess it surprises many of you, as well.

In fact, for the lifetime earnings calculation to balance (that is, for both the high school and college grad to show the same dollar figure in savings at retirement age), the high school graduate would only need a “head start” fund of $38,030! Just think, for less than the price of a new SUV, four years of college-educated earning power can be rendered moot. This result, frankly, surprised the heck out of me.

Other scenarios could be run, as well. What if you're not able to provide any funds at all for your son or daughter? My folks didn't pay for any of my college expenses; I expect many of you are/were in that same boat. One could look at the opportunity cost of college loan repayment vs. a clean slate for a high school grad with no debt encumbrance.

For a graduate of an average private university, repaying a college loan bill of $114,626 at 6% interest (remember, student loan interest is capitalized while the student is in school) will take 10 years and $152,710. That's assuming they're able to make the monthly loan payments of $1,273 right out of college, and don't have to go with a longer-term repayment plan. After this is done, the college grad will only amass $37,272 more in savings than the high school grad, simply due to the long repayment period they must overcome.

Be Cool — Stay in School

While a college education statistically provides a better shot at obtaining wealth, it does not guarantee success. There are English majors who end up with convenience store careers. There are high school drop-outs who go on to run multi-million dollar corporations. But obtaining a college education improves your odds.

For some young adults, college can seem like a waste of time. (Or worse, a waste of money.) Other things seem more important. I had friends who dropped out of school to pursue girlfriends across the country. I had friends who were convinced they could make more money by skipping college altogether. Student loans can be so enormous that they make a person lose sight of the fact that they're an almost guaranteed investment in the future.

I personally had problems finding a career path — I simply had no idea what I wanted to do. When I went entered college, I wanted to be a religion major. Then I wanted to be a writer. Then I wanted to be a grade school teacher. Ultimately I earned a psychology degree, which has had little direct benefit to my life. But the education I obtained, my campus experience, and the contacts I made have been invaluable. A large part of who I am today was forged by my experiences in college. The value of a college isn't just in the destination, but in the journey.

Resources

In preparing this article, I relied heavily on the following sources:

How many of you attended college? Are you glad you did? If you didn't get a degree, do you regret it? If you could talk to your 18-year-old self, what would you tell her? If I had a chance, I'd tell the young J.D.: “Set goals. Study more. Find a direction for life!”

Update: As usual, there are some great comments. Many have noted that education does not cause all these wonderful things — it's simply correlated with them. (It may be that people who obtain an education would live longer even without one.) Also — and this is key — more important than education is doing what you love. Passion and drive can bring success, no matter what level of schooling you have.

More about...Education, Career

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