Go to College

From The Atlantic:

Here’s what this graph does not say. It doesn’t say that college is guaranteed to get you a job, especially right out of school. It also doesn’t say that college drop-outs are destined to be unemployed. There are 150 million people working or trying to find work right now. That’s a lot of data points, and, without context, one or several of those data points can help you make just about any argument you want to make about the worthlessness, or primacy, of higher education.

But here is what this graph really does tell us. People who don’t go to college have an unemployment rate well above the national average. People who complete a four-year degree have an unemployment rate that’s less than half of the national average. Those who graduate from college are more likely to have a job, more likely to earn a higher wage, and more likely to have the skills and experience that employers go to the labor market to buy.

Brilliant engineers and superstar artists and other assorted geniuses will be fine without a college degree precisely because they’re brilliant superstar geniuses, and it’s sort of insane to mount an argument against college based on the experience of 0.00-…-01% of the population.

Bachelor’s degrees correlate with more, better-paid jobs, and three out of five workers today don’t have one. It’s hard to see why we should beg that number to fall.

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  • Diane

    Thanks Scot. It certainly makes sense to go to college, even if that means commuting for four years. Also, consistently missing from the analyses is the intrinsic value of an education. Education has a value completely divorced from what you money you earn. We worship at the shrine of the dollar far too much. I’d certainly rather be an English major working at McDonald’s than someone who never went to college working at McDonald’s. At least I could download lots of free classics when I got home from work.

  • AJG


    Yes, but you don’t want to be an English major working at McDonald’s with $100,000 or more in student debt. That is the big issue here. Everyone knows that going to college makes it more likely that you will be employed and likely at a higher salary, but at what cost? That’s something that is not even considered by the article.

    Not to pick on English lit majors, but for years it was assumed that law school was the next step for English majors that didn’t want to go on to teach. But more and more, law school has become complete shell game where students graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt with the promise of being able to earn a high-paying job at a law firm where that debt can be paid back. It’s an illusion though. Almost all jobs for law graduates these days are low-paying clerical jobs with little opportunity for advancement. These students would have been better off never going to college than being saddled with so much student debt. Never forget that student loans are the absolute worst type of debt because they are not dischargable in a bankruptcy. They will follow you to the grave until you pay them off.

    I’d say that probably 25% of people currently in college have no busines being there and would be better off learning a trade like plumbing or carpentry. Yes, those jobs don’t pay as much as most positions that require a college degree, but you don’t have to sign away all your future earnings either. Until the cost of higher education comes down by at least 50%, it’s not a good option for a whole lot of people.

  • Marshall

    All well and good, but these days it appears to be nearly impossible to collect a regular college degree without accepting crippling debt, unless you are one of those highly motiviated geniuses. Trade the certainty of a major burden for the improved statistical possibility of some relief?? Ya think??

    When I went to the U of Cal 40 years ago, it was still possible to live in a Coop and work your way through as many did, because the state thought an educated public was a public good. The way the education system has evolved is more evidence that indivulaistic dollar-valued ethics is an antisocial dead end.

  • AJG

    For the record, I graduated from ASU in 1995 with an engineering degree. At that time, I could work a part-time job to fully pay for my tuition. Graduated debt-free. Take a look at this graph to see what has happened since then:


    Keep in mind that ASU is a relatively cheap universty to attend. Can anyone say “bubble”? That’s not sustainable and I expect it to pop very soon.

  • Diane


    You won’t get any argument from me about any of what you say. The NYTimes had an eye-opening story recently about law school applications being down to lows not seen in 30 years because people finally have realized the debt situation is unsustainable. The whole bubble is ready to burst, and, not to mix metaphors, or should I say cliches, the law schools are the canary in the coal mine. However, I stand behind not casting college education totally in terms of ROI. That’s a Gradgrind utilitarian world that I don’t want to live in. I was an English major back in the day, got through almost a Phd without almost no debt, and would like the generations behind me to have that same opportunity–including the chance to major in English, as that did lead to many job opportunities. So, yes, I agree the cost/debt situation has to be addressed.

  • I understand the point here and am a strong believer in further education. I also understand that this particular post wasn’t specifically written for / to / about Christians per-se.

    But seeing as this is a Christian blog – is there not another side of this coin which is the truism that College is often a spiritual blood bath for many Christians ‘kids’.

    With young children of my own, I think about this more and find myself looking around for ‘success stories’ and am challenged to find many Christian 18 year-olds who are even close to be able to cope with the pernicous culture and behavioral expectations of an average university lifestyle.

    Similarly, I am tired of hearing the stories from the “Christian” 20-somethings that start coming back through our church doors after university, having gone through spiritually bereft and brutal college years gradually pulled deep into the now normal world of sex, drugs and alcohol abuse.

    If they aren’t ready, I would rather hear from the pundits that they advise teens to take a creative approach to further education to ensure they are able to deal with the worlds in which they will go. This may include taking a year or two out (like many Europeans do – and incidentally like I did!) earning some money and doing some cool ‘missionary’ trips or living at home and going to a local college (and maybe having a part-time job to pay for it) – until they are able to rise above the peer tide.

    I would much rather my children get to 20 years old and are fired up for the Lord than sending them off to a world that will take years of healing and recovery to unwind. But of course, I want them to do the best they can and do the best they can academically.

    Is there any way we can nuance the message more constructively? Do others have thoughts on this?

  • Diane


    I have often thought the “one size fits all” college culture that follows the “heavy freedom” model of the late 1960s is a problem. I have sought out small schools and schools without Greek systems for my children. I think going abroad/working/living at home can be another good option. I had one child who really needed more structure than the typical college provides and wished there were colleges out there that weren’t fundamentalist and yet offered curfews and other structures that students could agree to and which would help them be successful. Maybe as the bubble bursts for higher education, more colleges will reinvent in diverse ways–and I would welcome that.

  • Richard T

    Doug: I’ll lead with the slogan, hoping it doesn’t sound like a put-down. Kids who are raised to conform without asking awkward questions will conform when they ought to question.

    I come from a mixed-faith family. My parents let me choose my own music, books, and beliefs, while insisting on good behavior and grades. They trusted me with alcohol at an age you would find absurd, and advised me to be careful whose daughter I got pregnant.

    When I graduated I was just as different from my peers as I had always been, and childless (to put it mildly).

    Teenagers will always rebel, but letting them do so in the safety of their homes can make a big difference.

  • Phil Miller

    Perhaps I’m an outlier, but I grew up in a Christian household (dad’s a pastor, actually), and I went to a large state school with a reputation to be a party school, and I’ve got to say that I think it was the best thing I could have done from a spiritual perspective. I actually think that going to a Christian school would have been a very bad thing for me.

    I think the thing is this. If by the time a kid goes to college, they aren’t mature enough to make good decisions on their own, it doesn’t matter if they go to a Christian college or a secular one. I know plenty of kids who’ve gotten into trouble at Christian colleges.