In the increasingly competitive economy, does everyone need a 4-year degree? To maintain our edge in the world, the US arguably has a shortage of homegrown people with advanced degrees. But we’ve also got a lot of people with Master’s Degrees driving bus or managing stores at the mall.
The notion that a four-year degree is essential for real success is being challenged by a growing number of economists, policy analysts and academics. But this flies in the face of cultural wisdom that says everyone is better off with a college degree. After all, aren’t all the manufacturing jobs and other good paying non-degree requiring jobs headed overseas?
There’s certainly truth that college graduates tend to earn more than those who don’t go to school. But that only really counts if you finish your degree and then actually get a job in the field you studied in. Only 36% of students finish their 4-year degree in 4 years. That’s a lot of money spent on kids who drop out or change career paths mid-stream. Is it worth it?
I would argue that college has the opportunity to be an enriching and intellectually enlightening experience for anyone, regardless of their path in life. But that assumes the student is ready, open, and engaged when they are attending. I don’t think that’s always the case. Further, from a social cost factor, should we as a country be subsidizing the advanced education of people ultimately destined to work in fields that don’t require it? In many respects, it might make more sense to argue that money should be spent on healthcare for all rather than bachelor’s degrees for all.
The real question becomes, why has our culture shifted to the point there is almost a stigma associated with kids who opt not to pursue college? As if somehow they are less able or less worthy than those headed to a university. I don’t personally believe that’s true. I know people with advanced degrees that aren’t too bright and high school graduates that are brilliant. I expect you do too. I know craftsmen who can build with skill and style that no PhD is going to approach. Does that make them less worthy as people?
I think a lot of this comes from our collective notion that skill-wise and intellectually we are created equivalently. That any one of us could be President, or a doctor,or an engineer, or a rock star, if only we try hard enough. That’s sheer sophistry. We are anything but equivalent, and personally I’m very glad of that. I’ve come to realize that I’m not capable of very many things, and no amount of trying is going to improve that. I’m glad there are people who not only have the skills I lack, but take pride and joy in performing them.
Yes, we need scientists and engineers, but we need welders, auto mechanics, short order cooks, and musicians too. I would much prefer my own son be a skillful and contented electrician than be a disenfranchised MBA credentialed middle manager who wakes up every morning wondering why his life turned out this way.
Diversity is not just about race, religion, and sexual orientation. It’s about embracing and celebrating differences in aptitude as well as the choices we make. Our lives do not all lie along a single path.