The College Degree Myth: Part I

The myth that to succeed in life one needs a college degree has perhaps been the biggest myth bestowed upon a people since the idea that mortgage backed securities were a good investment.

The argument that a college degree increases earning power faces two problems:

First, correlation does not mean causation. Those who earn a college degree usually earn more money in their lifetimes than people without a college degree. However, that does not mean that financial gains are linked directly to the attainment of a degree. Those who receive college degrees usually start off in better place than those who do not. People who receive college degrees usually have parents who are supportive and have good jobs. Also, those who have earned college degrees are people who are capable of earning college degrees which, traditionally speaking, means they were pretty smart and hardworking to begin with. With or without a college degree these people would have probably been alright. Self-starters from strong family structures may not need a college degree to be successful. There are plenty of examples of smart, capable people who have been wildly successful without a college degree. And I don't mean famous college drop outs like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Rather, I am thinking of the plumber, electrician, or AC repairperson who worked hard to learn a trade and then start a successful business.

Second, with the ease of entrance requirements for so many colleges, grade inflation running amok, and the ease with which students can receive funding, the value of a college degree and what it represents is on the decline while the cost of tuition is on a steady incline. If everyone can get a degree, will a degree really be a distinguishing factor in the employment process? So even if at some point in time, a college degree was the factor that determined earning potential, that reality seems to be coming to an end with such a large percentage of people earning college degrees.

Aside from the earning potential fallacy, there is a bigger problem with the college degree myth: Everyone belongs in college. The world can only support so many art history, political science, and English majors. This doesn’t mean there isn’t value in these degrees. What it does mean is that we ought to be looking for what best suits the needs of the student rather than what fits conventional views of success. A person who wants to work out of doors, to work with his or her hands, to be an entrepreneur, need not necessarily be pushed on a degree path. Skills can be learned without pursuing a college degree.

There should be a greater emphasis on trade schools and ‘trade-tracks’ in our high schools and community colleges. In Texas there has been some movement in this direction at the high school level by proposing dual tracks in which college bound students are put on one track and students who are not college-bound are put on another track. Neither track deprives a student of a valuable education, but both tracks provide a more modified education that best suits an individual students' needs. For this dual track system to work we must not only give up on the college degree myth about earning power, we must also stop thinking that it is an insult to say that a student's best option may not be college. There is nothing wrong with pursuing an option after high school that culminates in something other than a bachelor's degree.

Community colleges in Texas should do a better job pursuing 'trade tracks'. Too often community colleges envision themselves as feeder schools for four-year colleges. And for some students this is great, and community colleges should fill this need, but for other students it is an injustice to force students into this one size fits all system of education.

By emphasizing ‘trade-tracks’--where certificates are offered regardless of progress toward a degree--the student and the community win. Giving students a marketable skill, a skill that cannot be outsourced and that is in high-demand, is oftentimes a better option for students in a community college.

Two changes must occur to make 'trade-tracks' at community colleges more prevalent and successful. First, we need to do a better job advising students at the time they enter the community college. Too often students are just put into the system with little or no direction. We need to meet the students as they enter, find out their desires and capabilities, and put them on tracks that best suits their talents and interests. For some this may be on the path toward a four-year degree and for others it may not.

The second change that needs to occur requires assistance from the state legislature. In order to receive funding from the state, a student must take certain classes that are required for a degree. But, if a student has no interest in a degree, the student should not be forced to take these classes.

Some will object that society as a whole benefits from an educated citizenry. And I agree. But there are several types of education, all of which are valuable. Current policy ignores this.

Part II of this essay will pick up on the question of whether certain courses required by the state for community college students best serve the interests of the community.

Related reading:


The College Degree Myth: Part II

It Takes a College Diploma to be a Millionaire?


Pauken Hits the Bull’s-eye on his Assessment of Workforce Needs in Texas


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