While a college degree gives most graduates a salary benefit over high school graduates, a study by the Bureau of Labor statistics indicates that the benefits disappear if you graduate in the bottom 25% of your class. Worse yet, if you don’t graduate at all you can end up losing salary money, especially if you go into low-paying fields like child development or physical sciences.
Most people realize there is a great earnings difference depending on your field of study with graduates in engineering and medicine doing fairly well financially and even top graduates in child development or athletic sciences barely able to justify the college and opportunity costs (worse if they go to an expensive college), but what isn’t always realized is that not all those who enter these fields graduate. For them there is a steep loss when the four (or more) years of lost income are considered.
A report from the New York Federal Reserve finds that the highest pay major is petroleum engineering, mid-career salary $176,300/yr, and the bottom is child development, mid-career salary $36,400/yr (click to check on your major). I’m not sure most students or advisors are aware of the steep salary difference, or that college can have a salary down-side if one picks the wrong major, or does not complete the degree. In terms of earnings, you might be better off avoiding even a free college degree in these areas unless you’re fairly sure you’ll complete the degree, or you really want to work in these fields.
Of course college can provide more than money: knowledge, for instance, and learning: the ability to reason better. But these benefits are likely lost if you don’t work at it, or don’t go in a field you love. They can also come to those who study hard in self-taught reading. In either case, it is the work habits that will make you grow as a person, and leave you more employable. Tough colleges add a lot by exposure to new people and new ways of thinking about great books, and by forced experience in writing essays — but these benefits too are work-dependent and college dependent. If you work hard understanding a great book it will show. If you didn’t work at it, or only exposed yourself to easier fare, that too will show.
As students don’t like criticism, and as good criticism is hard to give — and harder to give well, many less-demanding colleges ,give little or no critical feedback, especially for disadvantaged students. This disadvantages them even more as criticism is an important part of learning. If all you get is a positive experience, a nice campus, and a dramatic graduation, this is not learning. Nor is it necessarily worth 4-5 years of your life.
As a comic take on the high time-cost of a liberal arts education, “Father” Guido Sarduchi, of Saturday Night LIve, describes his “5 minute college experience.” To a surprising extent, it provides everything you’ll remember of 4 year college experience in 5 minutes, including math, history, political science, and language (Spanish).For those who are not sure they will complete a liberal arts education, Father Sarduchi’s 5 minutes may be a better investment than a free 4 years in community college.
Robert. E. Buxbaum. January 21-22, 2015. My sense is that the better part of education is what you get when you don’t get what you want.