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The Value of a Diploma

The leadline of the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, April 27 was really a restatement of the obvious: Economic Growth Stays Soft.  We are all acutely aware of the fact that although many of the catastrophic consequences of the recession have been avoided, the overall economy remains sluggish.  There have been cutbacks in federal spending.  Business confidence remains lackluster, and expansion is grindingly slow.  Employers are hiring, but only modestly.  And, the economy only continues to expand at only around 2 percent a year.

Inside the same edition of the WSJ was another headline that is less obvious and less well known, but more than a little alarming: The Diploma’s Vanishing Value: Bachelor Degrees May Not Be Worth It…. The article argues that until recently, a bachelor’s degree always paid more than a high school diploma and a junior college degree.  Consequently, getting a degree, no matter how much it cost, and how many loans one took on, became an imperative for future earnings and job options.

However, the article points out that:


with unemployment among college graduates at historic highs and outstanding student-loan debt at $1 trillion, the question families should be asking is whether it’s worth borrowing tens of thousands of dollars for a degree from Podunk U. if it’s just a ticket to a barista’s job at Starbucks.


Starting just before the recession, there has been a sea shift about getting a college degree and getting a job.  Clearly, a degree from a name brand college carries more of a premium than a diploma from Nowhereville U.  It is also the case that good grades in certain majors, like accounting, make it easier to find a job.  But just getting a degree in any major, with high grades, no longer guarantees a good job with a solid salary.

According to education researcher Jeffrey J. Selingo, students coming out of high school are now being faced with a complicated series of financial and lifestyle questions.  What is the cost of college?  If I go to college on loans, what will be my monthly payments?  Given my major/degree, can I expect to earn enough money to pay back loans and live?  Am I choosing a major/degree that is in demand?  What about a trade or a craft?  What about community college training?

Selingo argues that students who pick their major solely on post-graduation salaries as opposed to passion for the field, may not be entirely happy in their careers.  But, he says, without salary information, too many students will make terrible choices.  They could possibly go deep into debt pursuing a degree without a chance at a career or job to pay off their debts and earn a living.  Sadly, while Selingo’s analysis may be true and reflect economic realty, to paraphrase Shakespeare – “something is rotten in the state of education today!”

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