Yes, A College Degree is Worth It – If Your Major Isn’t Useless

by Darwin on November 9, 2010

There’s been a lot of griping in recent years that students are graduating with boatloads of debt and they can’t land a job, so they’re questioning the value of their degree.  Between jobless friends, TV pundits and angry bloggers, you’d think the whole college education system was a giant scam.  The confluence of a recession, a changing workforce and skyrocketing college costs really have many people questioning their “investment”.  It’s true that many people do quite well without a degree.  In most of those cases though, people either have a trade like plumbing, electrician, welder (which are specialized degrees of sorts that required formal training, just not a B.S or B.A), they run their own small business or they represent a very rare case of an invention or being in the right place at the right time.  For people who don’t fall into that bucket though, would they really have been better off having NOT gone to college?  It depends.

Is Your Degree Useless?

I’m not going to name degrees and bash specific majors, but if you’re upset that you didn’t find a decent job related to your major, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Was your degree in demand when you attended college?
  • Did you attend a respected college?
  • Did you take the easy way out?  Easy Major/Tough Major?

There are some basic real-world concepts at play here.  If corporations are looking for engineers, mathematicians and software engineers and you majored in (fill in the blank), should you reasonably have expected to land the same job your buddies did who pursued a degree in demand?  Of course not.  Well, why would you expect to find employment related to your major at all if there’s no real demand for that skill set in the real world?  Young kids are impressionable, optimistic and aren’t used to failing.  The adage of “following your dream” takes precedent over real-world pragmatism for many kids selecting a major.  The role of parents, guidance counselors and empowered kids themselves, is to research how useful their degree will actually be in the real world.

Easy Majors Shouldn’t Translate Into Top Jobs

I went to school with a lot of kids that had “party majors”.  I used to wonder to myself what they’d eventually do with these majors.  Fortunately, most of them eventually ended up with decent jobs, but often times it was because they went right on to complete an (unrelated) advanced degree.  My one friend who majored in History had no real job, so he went to law school and now he’s a District Attorney.  My other friend majored in Anthropology (seriously, he had zero interest in the subject and just partied), but got an MBA and works for a hedge fund.  I had a few other friends that ended up in various IT and programming roles completely unrelated to their majors – they just happened to be good with computers and programming and often times, you can make a career in that field without a formal B.S. in software engineering or otherwise.  I can’t help but notice though, that the successful friends all had to go through additional years of schooling, out of their pocket, in order to finally land jobs they were pleased with.

Conversely, 100% of my friends that majored in Engineering, Physics and other sciences landed relatively high-paying jobs right out of school, and then, like me, employers paid for the MBA.  Ironically, all my friends that goofed off in undergrad and went on to get MBAs and work on Wall Street make a lot more than us.  But we did at least land relatively good jobs right out of school, which is more than can be said for many.

What’s unfortunate now, is that even kids with the tough degrees, the “in-demand degrees”, the ones who thought they did everything by the book – these kids are having trouble finding jobs because of the incredibly challenging economy.  Older workers aren’t retiring because their 401(k)s were trashed and their home equity is gone.  Companies aren’t hiring because they’ve become more efficient and are uncertain about the future economy and cost structures.  The quandary is, this economic malaise is (should be) temporary, and we may be setting up a whole generation of kids with restricted options and no in-demand skill sets by trashing the college degree.

In summary, for a kid saddled with $50K in debt for a degree with very little real-world utility, sure, it was a mistake.  For the same kid with a degree in demand?  Even though it will be tough starting out with that kind of debt, the long-term earnings prospects and career flexibility should more than make up for the financial burden.

Was Your Degree Worth It Or Worthless?

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1 L. Marie Joseph November 9, 2010 at 11:57 pm

I majored in Business, and graduated with $16K in debt. It hustle my butt off to find a job. I can say I make for more than my peers make.
The difference: persistence. I think it depends on the individual. Your major is enough to get you in the door
From there, it’s all on you.

2 RB Boren November 10, 2010 at 12:51 am

Sometimes, a degree which appears useless actually produces a good outcome, thereby demonstrating its usefulness.

Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economics – which is somewhat like Freakonomics – cites Michael Spence, who shared a Nobel Prize with two other economists for their respective work on the problem of asymmetric information, in which markets are hindered because buyers and sellers have unequal information. A common example of asymmetric information is found in the used car market, where a used car salesman knows a great deal about the car he is offering, while prospective buyers know virtually nothing, resulting in buyer distrust and, in many cases, No Sale.

Spence’s contribution was in showing that “the person with the information might be able to communicate it in a way that the person without the information could trust.”

Spence, with an undergraduate philosophy degree, suggested that students might pursue an apparently useless but hard degree like philosophy. The difficulty of earning a degree in philosophy signals to employers that the applicant is intelligent and diligent, because dim, lazy students would choose an easier degree, which makes a philosophy degree more useful than it sounds.

Darwin's Finance Reply:

@RB Boren, That’s interesting. I never thought of philosophy in that light.

3 jim November 11, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Most people are much better off getting a degree that has demand or at least a more widely useful or versatile degree. Far too many students get degrees that have very little demand and/or are overly crowded.

The banner ad under this article is for University of Phoenix., which I think is another category of useless degree.

Darwin's Finance Reply:

@jim, Hah! Ironic. I wrote an entire piece on the for-profit college scam industry – and I’m short ESI. Keep tankin baby!

4 jim November 11, 2010 at 6:23 pm

To answer the question, I have an engineering degree and a comp. sci. degree and both are “worth it”.

5 Get Happy Life November 15, 2010 at 9:46 am

I have majored in Computer science and engineering and it is very well worth it.

6 Chris Dent December 23, 2010 at 8:20 pm

No degree is a guarantee of a job these days. I know several people with master degrees that are working part-time, or dead end jobs. It is only “Worth it” if you make more than you otherwise would.

7 Gerry April 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm

I have been waiting to read something like this. There are tons of stories about how hard it is for recent graduates to find a job, but almost none of the subjects of these stories have degrees in technical fields. Of course you are not going to find a job if you have an education in something which is not in demand. And it is not a coincidence that the in-demand degrees are the same ones that are difficult to earn.

In summary:, I agree with this article: quit your bitching and major in engineering.

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