College Educated and Unskilled
Economist Arnold Kling points to some federal earning statistics of people who graduated college ten years ago and concludes that we’re graduating far too many people with essentially worthless degrees:
|Major||average income||25th percentile||not in grad school
The main calculations are for all graduates; the last box subtracts those who are currently enrolled in graduate coursework and thus intentionally not working full-time.
Pulling up the average are computer science, engineering, business, health, math, and vocational-technical. Pulling down the average are life sciences (why is this so low?), social sciences, humanities, physical sciences (again, why so low?), education, and “other technical/professional.”
If the ultimate question is whether more students should attend and graduate from college, then perhaps what should interest me is something like the income of the lowest 25th percentile within each major. That might give a better idea of what we might expect to see at the margin if more students graduated college in the various majors.
In a follow-up post, looking at similar data from those who graduated in 1993, Kling adds:
My view of all this is that it confirms my point that “college graduate” is not a homogeneous category. The economic effect of increasing the number of college graduates is going to vary, depending on whether you graduate more engineers or more humanities majors.
Brian Moore adds:
While I always advocate doing what you enjoy, the table above shows that a huge percentage of graduates in the social sciences and liberal arts are not going to be making enough money to support themselves or a family.
If a college education were costless, it would only be a harmless lie that we tell kids. As it is, it usually costs 4 years and tens of thousands of dollars, (which need to be repaid in most cases!) in addition to psychologically placing many jobs out of one’s purview, which makes this is a pretty sickening betrayal.
I’m a bit perplexed by all this. I’ve long thought that we send far, far too many people to college who simply have no business being there, either because they’re intellectually unsuited or emotionally or psychologically unready. (Many who matriculate right out of high school would benefit from a few years in the work force and some time to grow up.)
And, yes, it’s true that many people go to college motivated primarily by the prospect of increased earnings down the road.
But it’s not exactly a state secret that engineering and the hard sciences are more likely to lead to financial success than a liberal arts degree. Indeed, variations of “What are you going to do with that?” are common jokes on campus. Presumably, though, people who study sociology rather than nuclear physics do so because they are actually very interested in sociology and willing to risk lower financial rewards for greater psychic rewards or they lack the aptitude for advanced mathematics.
In my case, it was a combination of the two. I went to college planning on majoring in electrical engineering, discovered that I was very interested in studying political science and was exceedingly good at it while, alas, being at the 85th percentile in mathematics aptitude made me pretty mediocre at advanced calculus and abstract formulas. So, I took a bet on throwing myself into something I enjoyed and was good at rather than trying to squeak by in something where I’d never excel and likely wouldn’t enjoy.
My thought was to go on to law school but I had the epiphany somewhere in my junior year that, while I was very interested in studying the law, I had little interest in practicing it. Essentially, the jobs lawyers did that I wanted were: Supreme Court justice and prosecutor. And, since the former was unlikely and the latter is a financial dead end and might get you shot at, I decided to go another route: The Army and then grad school.
Let’s just say that I’ve exceeded the $23,361 mean income for social science majors. Hell, I was making a little more than that when I went on active duty right out of college 22 years ago — a lot more, in fact, if you adjust it to 2010 dollars.
Here’s the thing: It ain’t your college’s fault if you graduate and can’t make it out in the real world. Their job is to provide an education and give you certain skill sets. If you’re in a vocational major — accounting, say, or even engineering — then you should be able to get your foot in the door in an entry level job in that field and be equipped to learn the ropes. If you’re in a liberal arts major, you should be equipped to communicate in writing and be equipped to learn the skills you need on the job. But it’s up to you to make it happen.
UPDATE: John Robb has some vaguely related and more depressing thoughts.
UPDATE II: Brian Moore responds in the comments and observes that “giving you a reasonable estimation of . . . how much of what you learned in your major you actually use in the average job would be considered at least a necessary part of your education.”
Here’s the thing, though: Outside of a few vo-tech majors, college does not exist to prepare you for any particular job.
I taught political science. Aside from getting students ready for law school or graduate school by making them display analytical and writing skills, I was thoroughly unequipped to teach them job skills other than, perhaps, the value of showing up and working hard. For one thing, I had no idea what jobs my students would take coming out of school. For another, I’d almost certainly never held that job.
Companies hiring polisci grads shouldn’t expect them to know anything related to a particular job, unless they’re doing political science in that job. Instead, they should expect that they’ve got bright, educated adults capable of learning the job. But it’s up to the employer, not the university, to teach how to do the job for which they’re hired.
Over time, of course, one’s college education lapses into the distance and one’s work experience predominates. For those later jobs, it’s reasonable to expect skills based on the resume. But, again, their value to employees will be based on what they’ve learned in the work world, not what they learned in Dr. Joyner’s classes. The only value I hope or expect to provide future employers of my students is some knowledge of how the political world works and the ability to learn, think, and write.