College Degree And Income Potential

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Everyone “knows” that college graduates make more money than people without a college degree.  So, if you take everyone with a college degree and put them in bucket A, and put everyone without a college degree in bucket B, the average wage of bucket A will be higher than B.

So, does that mean you should get a college degree in order to get higher income? Does getting a college degree actually help you earn more money? No. It doesn’t.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

The real thing that will help you earn more is acquiring valuable skills.  Many people acquire skills in college, so it isn’t surprising that college graduates on average make more money.  However, if you put everyone who has valuable skills in one bucket and everyone without valuable skills in another, you’d find the skilled bucket has a much higher average income than the non-skilled.  Further, you’d find that there were some people with great skills and no degree and others with a degree and no skills.

My point is that focusing on getting a degree is pretty pointless.  I was looking through some old papers with my grandmother a few years ago.  She showed me my great grandfather’s diploma from seminary and his license to practice law in Kansas. I asked about the diploma from his law degree and found that he didn’t have one.  He was in law school and someone dared him to take the bar exam.  He took the dare and passed. He had already acquired the skills necessary to become a lawyer and it was those skills that were important–not how long he spent in college. Interestingly enough, he wouldn’t have been able to do that today. Kansas is one of the states that won’t let you even take the bar exam if you don’t have a law degree. I think this is a problem. We’ve made the focus on getting a degree instead of on acquiring skills.

Our educational institutions have a vital part to play in educating. However, I think it is detrimental to focus so much on whether or not someone gets a degree because it makes the degree what is important instead of the skill set.

Right now our colleges are full of kids who are there to get a degree–not necessarily skills. They are focusing on the wrong thing and it is an extreme source of frustration for teachers. How would you like to deal with students all day where a good percentage of them are just trying to do the minimum possible to get a piece of paper that says they graduated?  I wouldn’t like it and I know at least a few teachers who are looking at different careers because they only see things getting worse and worse.

According to the government statistics, the percentage of students graduating with an engineering degree peaked in the mid-80’s and has been on a decline until a recent slight uptick. In fact, the percentage of students graduating in engineering in 2014-2015 is only 65% of what it was in 1985-1986–and that represents an improvement from prior years. Science is facing the same thing with an overall decline from the early 70’s but a very slight uptick in recent years. There has been a steady increase in “other fields” which includes things like journalism, law, communication, architecture, etc.

I’m not trying to say that journalism isn’t worth studying, but when it comes to making a living, the skills you acquire studying journalism for four years are not in high enough demand to pay well. On the other hand, I regularly talk to people who say they can’t find good software engineers and they are willing to hire smart people regardless of whether or not they have a degree.

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