Let’s Not Assume

Let’s Not Assume

One’s an incident, two’s a coincidence, three’s a theme. And do I ever smell a theme. Just last week as I combed through my Google Alerts newsfeeds I read:

“A college degree is the gateway to success in today’s economy.” (source)

“A college degree is the only sure path to middle-class security…” (source)

“The biggest absurdity is that a four-year college degree has become the only gateway into the American middle class.” (source)

“… higher education is, more than ever, the surest ticket to the middle class.” (source)

If any of the above holds true, then it only makes sense that tuition soars and we, as individuals and as a body politic, promote a college-or-bust mentality. But keep in mind that any time we assume, in the immortal words of Felix Unger, we risk making “an ass out of u and me.”


In fact, one doesn’t have to peer too far beyond the world of political opinion and into statistical realities to realize the absurdity of such statements. While I went to college and encourage others to as well, let’s all the same take a minute to question the premises. I want to know…

Can We Really Assume That A College Degree…?

Rife among the errors of college and career wonks is the failure to distinguish between the economic value of types of college degrees. We too often fall for the flaw of averages when we see statistics indicating that on average college graduates do better than those who don’t have a degree. While true, such broad-brush thinking fails to note that not all degrees are created equal. There are considerable and striking differences in employment rates, specialized career opportunities, and wages between someone who majored in theater and a one who majored in petroleum engineering.

Such experts also fail to distinguish where the degree was earned. This can make a significant difference to one’s prospects. Currently thousands of graduates wish they hadn’t attended the for-profit institutions of dubious merit that caught their attention between reruns of Judge Judy. Turns out a degree from Everest College just doesn’t open the doors a degree from State U would have.

Further, college costs vary widely. All else being equal, someone with $60,000 in loans will not have the same prospects as a person who got creative, lived within her means, and graduated debt free.

How About That Little The/The Only Assumption?

Is college, in fact, the only way to crack into middle-classdom? This assumption drives employers nuts, particularly those in the skilled trades. Specialists in many “manual” careers have good job prospects and are relatively immune to the offshoring and automation that has beguiled knowledge workers of late. However, these careers aren’t on the radar of many who spend four years attending lectures and writing papers in the hopes of finding meaningful work and good pay. Even employers who hire college graduates bemoan the inconsistent skill and knowledge levels among graduates. Many top employers now value apprenticeships and industry certifications more than a degree as a result.

Such a line of thinking also completely discounts the vast economic differences between employees and owners. No matter the industry, the innovative, the hard working, and the wise can forego the paycheck or salary and get paid on their results. Basic economic principle tells us that successful business owners make more than their employees. It is perhaps for this reason that the middle and upper classes host a disproportionate share of the self-employed, the contractors, the franchisees, the brokers, and entrepreneurs. Interestingly, one need not have a degree to found a company or develop a product. Perhaps this is why fully 32% of the world’s wealthiest 100 have no college degree at all. If a college degree isn’t requisite to become a billionaire why must we think it the only path to middle class earnings?

And Lastly, How “Sure” Are the Economic Results of a Degree?

It takes a certain level of either gall or ignorance to posit that a degree is a “sure” road to a certain beneficial result in light of what’s happening all around us. How then do we explain the tuition strikes, the loan strikes, the chronic underemployment/unemployment, the loan deferments/defaults, and the horror stories left and right of recent graduates?

If not all graduates are better off for the degree, as claimed, how much moreso the dropouts who now number about half of all of those who enroll in college? Nope, nothing sure here.

To say that any given credential is a sure thing is to ignore the myriad other factors that play into one’s economic situation and prospects. A college degree is but one of many reasons why someone may fail or succeed. Let’s not forget the powerful roles personalities, professional networks, spending habits, socioeconomic upbringings, philosophies, faiths, appearances, locations, street smarts, reputations, family dynamics, strengths, weaknesses, interests, friendships, work ethics, morals, skills, and general behaviors play when it comes to one’s relative success.


The Upshot

We set students, and a nation, up for big disappointment in life if we go about telling ourselves, or letting others feed us the line, that a degree will necessarily get us X, Y, or Z in life. Disappointment, after all, is another word for an unmet expectation. If our expectation is that a college degree, and only a college degree, will lead to success we may feel like a donkey when we see this is not necessarily the case.

Bear in mind, it’s not that degrees don’t matter. It’s that we must not paint in too broad of brushstrokes; we must recognize the various nuances and variables at work when we consider and plan for college and life thereafter. Let’s recognize college for what it’s worth, worth to us individually, … and pay accordingly.