Is a College Education Worth It?

A 20-second Google search for “Is a college education worth it?” demonstrates, sadly, that the value of higher education is hotly debated. The search generates more than 200,000 results.

U.S. News and World Report has a page dedicated to the debate. The New York Times issued a strong “yes” in May. The Economist chimed in last spring less enthusiastically, saying some degrees pay off much more than others.

As a university president, I clearly believe there is significant value in a college education. My opinion is based on hard data regarding better jobs and incomes as well as seeing and hearing the success stories of thousands of our graduates. I have talked to numerous alumni from this university who tell me the education they received contributed greatly to their success.

Critics of higher education claim the value of a degree is decreasing or that a degree isn’t necessary to be successful in today’s job market.

To help decide if either of those views is a valid concern, I decided to put myself in the place of a recent graduate and look for a job. I went to Monster.com and began my search.

I’m an economist by trade, but I didn’t want to narrow my job options because our students choose a variety of fields, so I built the following search parameters for my new job:

  • Requiring 0-2 years of experience
  • Full-time
  • In Texas
  • Salary greater than $50,000 a year— the U.S. Census Bureau reported the median household income in Texas in 2012 at $51,926.

To test job availability by educational level, I conducted two searches, one for jobs requiring only a high school diploma and one for those requiring a bachelor’s degree. This was the breakdown—remembering that Monster.com will display a maximum of 1,000 job openings for any search:

  • High school diploma: 484 jobs
  • 4-year degree: 1,000 jobs

The job openings displayed maxed out the system for jobs requiring a university degree! Fewer than half that constrained number of 1,000 were listed for jobs requiring only a high school diploma.

I then searched again using the same set of parameters except raising the income requirement to $80,000 per year. The result this time was a total of 980 jobs. However, the education gap was much wider. More than 83% of those positions available required a bachelor’s degree.

I understand I am simplifying the process a bit. Several additional factors—such as university, field of study, professional connections, and “soft skills” such as demeanor and conduct—make a significant difference for a recent graduate coming into the market and can assist those students in landing better jobs.

However, looking at these Monster.com searches, one thing becomes clear: Having a degree still gives you a major advantage when entering the job market.

The Pew Research Center published incomes for young workers ages 25-32. The median annual income for U.S. workers in that age group with a bachelor’s degree is $45,500. For those with a high school diploma it’s $28,000.

And that difference only grows over time. Indeed, over a lifetime of work it is still truth that a typical university graduate will earn $1 million more than a high school graduate.

There is no doubt that education is still worth it.

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