‘The Point of College Is a Credential’

Some remaining thoughts from readers on the question:

This summer I accompanied my mother to her 65th college reunion. Part of the weekend’s program was a video about the Cornell University Class of 1950, the first class that came in with a large supply of veterans on the G.I. Bill. The film had some inspiring cameos about veterans who would never have gotten to college otherwise and the lives they made for themselves as a result. I wonder if our preoccupation with credentialism and the faith in the bachelor’s degree as a gateway to success and wealth is a legacy of that postwar crop of veterans.

Another reader:

I have observed the 20-year trend toward arbitrarily requiring college degrees for jobs that do not truly need them.  I believe this goes hand-in-hand with the growth of Human Resources as a profession.

A company’s HR department usually handles recruiting functions, and it serves as the gatekeeper over which skills and credentials are required for a given position.  The trouble is that they have no idea of what it takes to perform well in those positions, and they are absolutely the wrong people to create the requirements.  The actual department heads who are hiring are often very busy and appreciate the HR gatekeepers because it means they have to look at fewer resumes.

I entered the professional workforce in 1979 as a general bookkeeper and later, between on-the-job training and self-study, became a controller.  My husband was an electronics technician and ultimately started his own business.  The ranks of college-degreed professionals in the workforce was a small percentage, and my husband and I, along with many degreeless others, had good careers without a college degree.  It was common.

In the mid-late 1990s I noticed that more and more jobs in finance and accounting wanted bachelor’s degrees in “a related field.”  The CPA designation, once available to anyone who took the appropriate coursework, was changed to require five years of education in accounting.  Only the CMA (Certified Management Accountant via the Institute of Management Accountants) was available to me—but then only if I had a baccalaureate degree.

I did go back to school, majored in history (for the love of it), and obtained my CMA. Once I had a BA, I had opportunities I never had before. My career took off.  Still, even now, although I have been a CFO and now serve as a Corporate Controller for a mid-sized companies, I am viewed to be unqualified for many lesser accounting jobs because I do not have a bachelor’s in accounting or finance.  It’s absurd.

My last two great hires have been experienced professionals without a college degree.  I frequently see articles about open jobs that can’t be filled because of skill deficits and mismatches between the needs of business and the employment pool.  That is also absurd.  Businesses are allowing a department (HR) that doesn’t understand job requirements to set the standards for those candidates.  This harms business and shuts out a lot of really talented, qualified people, relegating them to perpetual underemployment.

Keep stoking this issue. This needs to be changed for our long-term prosperity.

Another would prefer we stop stoking:

So since you’re someone who’s asking the perennial “is college worth it anymore?” question, I thought I’d ask you to look at it from a different angle. My own fascination isn’t with that question, which to my lights has been answered positively, again and again and again—here’s an absolutely massive trove of recent data on the question, for example.

No, my interest is in why journalists are so eager to ask the question over and over again despite the durability of the “yes” answer. It strikes me that our media is really predisposed to find that the answer is no, despite such large empirical confirmation of the value of college.

And I think that’s more interesting: Why do so many journalists and writers want to say that college isn’t worth it, particularly given that almost all of them went themselves?

I, for one, would not say that, especially since I actually used my B.A. in History to a practical end, meaning my first salaried job out of college was writing about history. Eleven years after graduating, I’m still paying off student loans, but they’re definitely worth it, all things considered. The question of whether an M.A. is worth it—that seems much less doubtful, especially given stats like these:

Catey Hill / Market Watch

Indeed, between 2004 and 2012, the amount of debt carried by a typical borrower who had a master of arts degree rose an inflation-adjusted 70%, according to an analysis of data by the New America Foundation. The report says this surge may be thanks to a 2005 congressional move that lets grad students borrow nearly unlimited money for school.

Personally I was fortunate to slip into journalism without going to J-school and rack up more debt. Instead, I got a paid internship at The Atlantic back in ‘07, working part-time to make ends meet and living in a rickety group house. So an M.A. definitely would not have been worth it to me. If you have strong feelings about the M.A. question from your own experience, let me know. Update from a reader:

Your reader who points to a “massive trove of recent data” settling this question should perhaps go back to college himself to learn about statistical inference and the difference between correlation and causation. All the data he points to documents advantages gained by college graduates, but makes no attempt to correct for confounding variables, of which there are many plausible ones.

The most obvious would be family income: people’s whose parents were rich tend to go to college more than those whose parents were poor, and they tend to have higher incomes and better other outcomes later in life. Is it really likely that higher education explains all or even most of those differences? Matt Yglesias ably explains this fallacy.

Furthermore, even if we knew with certainty that college education made people more productive, we couldn’t say with any certainty that it’s worth how much we invest in it, from a social perspective. I made this argument in more detail on my blog a few weeks ago.

I think, taken holistically, it’s pretty clear that getting a college education is worthwhile for most people, but it’s a valid question, and the concern about the growing requirement of bachelor’s degrees for jobs that don’t really require them is a hugely important issue to discuss.