Thursday, February 21, 2013

What is a BA Degree Worth Today?

By Alan Caruba

While my high school graduating class of 1955 went off to a variety of prestigious Ivy League colleges and universities, I chose the University of Miami in Florida. I spent four of the happiest years of my life there. The weather was sublime, the girls were pretty, and the Royal Palm trees lined the walk to the library. I eventually became the student governor of the College of Arts and Sciences, wrote for the university newspaper, and received an excellent education thanks to professors who really seemed to enjoy teaching.

I do not know what it cost my parents to send me there, but I do know that the cost of sending a young man or woman to college these days is daunting. For the many students who take loans it can leave them with so much debt that they will spend the next twenty years paying it off.

A recent Rasmussen poll revealed that “Voters don’t think much of the skills acquired by high school graduates attempting to go to college or enter the work force.” Imagine the problems faced by those who drop out of high school?

However, even the current recession has not impacted the decision to send a child to college. In a 2011 article in New York magazine by Daniel H. Smith, “The University Has No Clothes”, he noted that “Fifty years ago, 48 percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in a college or university. In 2009, that number was more than 70 percent.”

How much has the cost increased? “In the past 30 years,” wrote Smith, “college tuition and fees have increased, in constant 2010 dollars, from $9,500 a year to more than $27,000. Public college tuition has increased from $2,100 to $7,600. Fifteen years ago, the average student debt at graduation was around $12,700; in 2009, it was $24,000. Over the past quarter-century, the total cost of higher education has grown by 440 percent.”

Something is very wrong with this inflation of college costs and, in the winter 2013 edition of Cato’s Letter, a quarterly newsletter from the Cato Institute, Charles Murray, a noted scholar and author, warned of “The Coming Collapse of the BA Bubble.”

“The Bachelor of Arts degree,” wrote Murray “wreaks harm on a majority of young people. It is grotesquely inefficient as a source of information for employers. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s implicated in the emergence of a class-riven America.”

“I am not complaining that too many young people are getting an education after high school,” wrote Murray. “On the contrary, I am in favor of education after high school for almost all young people. I am not denying that the possession of a BA is statistically associated with higher income across the life span…” Murray noted that when I graduated in 1959 “an employer…could make some reasonable assumptions about what a BA signified in an applicant.” Only about ten percent of the adult population had BA’s at that time. Now about one third of all adults have a BA.

The key to Murray’s disenchantment with today’s BA degree is that “schools have every incentive to produce as many graduates as possible, but no incentives to improve their product…for the vast majority of undergraduate colleges and universities you don’t even know if that person can write a coherent sentence. You certainly know nothing about the kinds of skills that they bring to the job—skills that you could have been assumed were there some years before.”

This is especially important insofar as almost sixty percent of all jobs in the U.S. require a higher education and the emerging trend is that jobs in the past that only required a BA, now often require a Masters.  As one critic put it, “It’s only a matter of time until you’ll need a bachelor’s degree and a certification to mow lawns.”

A 2012 study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, titled “Hard Times: Not All College Majors are Created Equal”, noted that bachelor degree grads have an unemployment rate of 8.9 percent, comparable or higher than the overall unemployment rates, no matter what kind of job is involved. Those graduates leave school with an average debt of $22,000 after their parents have spent 40 percent of their income to put them through college, giving a whole new meaning to “higher” education.

Smith noted that “little more than half of those millions who haul their laptops to campus each fall actually end up with a bachelor’s degree. The United States now has the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world.”

It gets worse, a 2005 study by sociologists Richard arum and Josip Roksa, using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, concluded that “Nearly half of all students demonstrated…exceedingly small or empirically non-existent gains in the skills, even after two years of full-time schooling.”

Graduates are often unaware that their faculty graded them on a curve so they couldn’t possibly fail and the curriculum they studied had not changed much to reflect changes in the workplace or new technologies that require very specific skills they may not have acquired or even wanted to study.

Increasingly, the cost and end-result of a bachelor’s degree is receiving harsh criticism despite calculations that assert that a degree today is worth $1.3 million in additional lifetime earnings.

Murray believes that “Employers will rely more on direct evidence about what the job candidate knows, and less on where it was learned or how long it took. Our obsession with the BA has created a two-tiered entry to adulthood, anointing some for admission to the club and labeling the rest as second-best.”

What is evident is that the degree I acquired more than a half century ago opened doors for me that today’s BA opens. It certainly did not cost as much, nor did it leave me saddled with debt. The best thing it taught me was how to think more clearly, plus an appreciation for history, the arts and the sciences. It imbued me with a lifelong enjoyment of learning.

It is surely much harder for today’s BA graduates. The job market has shrunk. Depending on their major, they may have useful skills or they may not. They may find themselves “under employed” for years. The mismanagement of the economy by those who graduated after me in the 70s and 80s, has left it in tatters and left today’s graduates believing that the Earth is doomed unless we abandon capitalism and stop using traditional energy sources. That’s a definition of stupidity.

© Alan Caruba, 2013


Unknown said...

Good post. If one puts effort into college, and passes with a little better than average GPA it should show a prospective employer you have the drive or "stick-to-it-ness" to get the job done. That and a resume of summer jobs along the way shows some personal responsibility, which is lacking in SOME of todays youth.

TexasFred said...

If it's a degree from Texas A&M it means you can say, in a clear and precise voice: Would you like Fries with that?

Ronbo said...

I hated High School and I detested college - I learned more using my free public card and joining the book of the month club.

In regards to my B.A. in History from Rollins College, the self styled "Harvard of South" - I attended classes for only one semester, having knocked off the rest of the requirements for a B.A. by taking end of course examinations and receiving credit for my military schools.

The cost? Maybe $1,500 as I received an active duty military discount.

I graduated with Honors in May, 1984 at the well appointed Winter Park, Florida campus - and just to P.O. Jeff Johnson, my pinko American history teacher, whom I disliked with white hot anger for his pathetic attempts to have me banned from his class for wearing my duty uniform, I wore my Army dress blues to the graduation.

The man had nothing to say - maybe because of the sword? :-)

Damon Koch said...

This idea proffered by the Left that everyone should go to college so that they can be indoctrinated into the Leftist religion is wrong. With 50% of those starting college never finishing, clearly some people should not go in the first place. Some of the wisest people I know don't have college degrees, also some of the wealthiest.

Ronbo said...


Very true what you say, especially as the vast majority of colleges in this country - public and private - are charged taking an already brain washed mind - and dry cleaning it with a double dose of Marxism.

I agree also that a young person is better off going directly into business or the military after high school - one go-getter kid I knew in Melbourne, Florida started his own lawn care business with only a few hundred bucks in capital, and only a few years later was doing quite well with a small staff of employees.

And even the kids I knew in Melbourne who went into fast food industry were working their way up the business ladder to crew chiefs and assistant managers long before their "smart" college friends graduated with their worthless degrees.

Judy said...

I went back to college and finished my BS and graduated college at 57. It was my only chance at getting the job I wanted, even with years of experience because a degree is required now in my field of work. Of course then I had to wait for that dream job to come around, which it did two years after I graduated. There is value in a degree for some people, I think, particularly those who are focused and are willing to do what it takes to get where they want.

While I went to college, I also put two of my kids through college. One has done very well, but she's so focused and took a job before she graduated (recruiter hired her at a job fair before she graduated) in a field she did not want, knowing that two years at this job would open doors for her. She realized she had to be strategic in who she worked for but she did it and now has the job of her dreams.

My other kid loved college but never finished and could not for the life of her figure out what degree she wanted. It was a painful few years for all of us. But I don't think she should ever have gone to the university.

I will say that when I was in college a few years ago I met many people who were there who did not belong there. They could not write a paragraph (seriously!) and they could not form a cohesive argument and get it on paper. I once asked a professor why these people were in college, or how they got there, and I was told they had "passed the test". I'm not an educator but I could see that they were not college material. But the government was paying to educate them and what they really needed was remedial reading and writing.

Alan Caruba said...

Thanks, Judy, for your input.