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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online newspaper

Op/Ed

Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off

ALMOST a century ago, the United States decided to make high school nearly universal. Around the same time, much of Europe decided that universal high school was a waste. Not everybody, European intellectuals argued, should go to high school.

It’s clear who made the right decision. The educated American masses helped create the American century. The new ranks of high school graduates made factories more efficient and new industries possible.

Link:
The NYT article, unabridged, with links and multimedia.

Today, we are having an updated version of the same debate. Television, newspapers and blogs are filled with the case against college for the masses. Not everybody, the skeptics say, should go to college.

The argument does have grains of truth. Too many teenagers aren’t ready to do college-level work. Ultimately, though, the case against mass education is no better than it was a century ago.

The evidence is overwhelming that college is a better investment for most graduates than in the past Beyond money, education seems to make people happier and healthier.

The most unfortunate part of the case against college is that it encourages children, parents and schools to aim low. For those families on the fence the skepticism becomes one more reason to stop at high school. Only about 33 percent of young adults get a four-year degree today, while another 10 percent receive a two-year degree.

So it’s important to dissect the anti-college argument, piece by piece. It obviously starts with money. Tuition numbers can be eye-popping, and student debt has increased significantly. But there are two main reasons college costs aren’t usually a problem for those who graduate.

First, many colleges are not very expensive, once financial aid is taken into account. Average net tuition and fees at public four-year colleges this past year were only about $2,000 (though Congress may soon cut federal financial aid).

Second, the returns from a degree have soared. Three decades ago, full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree made 40 percent more than those with only a high-school diploma. Last year, the gap reached 83 percent. College graduates, though hardly immune from the downturn, are also far less likely to be unemployed than non-graduates.

The gap remains enormous — and bigger than ever.

A study being released this weekend  breaks down the college premium by occupations and shows that college has big benefits even in many fields where a degree is not crucial.

Construction workers, police officers, plumbers, retail salespeople and secretaries, among others, make significantly more with a degree than without one. Why? Education helps people do higher-skilled work, get jobs with better-paying companies or open their own businesses.

This follows the pattern of the early 20th century, when blue- and white-collar workers alike benefited from having a high-school diploma.

The general skills that colleges teach, like discipline and persistence, may be more important than academics anyway.

Given how much the economy changes, why would a high-school diploma forever satisfy most citizens’ educational needs?

There are the skeptics themselves, the professors, journalists and others who say college is overrated. They, of course, have degrees and often spend tens of thousands of dollars sending their children to expensive colleges.

In the end, their case against college is an elitist one — for me and not for thee. And that’s rarely good advice.

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