“Once you have your degree, you’ll have no trouble finding a great job.” — “Employers will be eager to interview you.” — “By the time you graduate, you’ll have a career already waiting.”
Regardless of the words used to say it, the message was always the same: Having a college degree would make a remarkable difference in my future. Interestingly, this was an atrocious lie.
Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. I naively took their recommendations as truths, got on the college conveyor belt, and earned my degree. Armed with my ticket to easy street, I looked forward to having my pick from the large selection of employers who handed out jobs to recent college grads.
As I’m certain you’ve guessed, I never managed to meet up with those employers. In fact, many friends of mine had similar difficulties. Though we were all under the impression that our degrees would guarantee us great jobs with great salaries, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Following graduation, I submitted my resume, application, and cover letter to over 100 employers over the course of two months. I interviewed for nearly a dozen positions — but wasn’t offered a single job. Where did I end up working? For the organization I interned at — doing a job I could’ve been doing without my coveted degree.
My friends were in the same boat. They earned their degrees but ended up working jobs they could’ve been working right out of high school. One works as a food runner at a restaurant. Another deals cards at a casino. Yet another works as a laborer for his father’s masonry business. In every case, it was a simple matter of dollars and cents: Starting salaries in their specialized fields offered less than what they made at their previous jobs.
How did this happen? We believed that our degrees were supposed to help pave the way to a better future — but that’s not what happened for any of us. So what were we doing wrong?
We were failing to see our degree for what it actually is.
Consider what I’ve done with my degree since receiving it: I framed it and hung it on a wall. A few years later I moved, so I packed it into a box. It never met the wall at my new place, and remained stowed in my attic for another few years before I moved again. Currently, it’s hidden in a filing cabinet.
In other words, the degree is a piece of paper. It’s not some magical entity that grants the holder immediate and undeniable success. This claim is not to suggest that a college education is worthless, I’m only suggesting that a college degree is nothing more than a ticket to compete. It puts you in the running for a better future, but it provides no guarantees.
That was not what my friends and I thought we signed up for. We thought college would be the answer to our problems. Once we had our degrees, we would be coasting down easy street with fifty thousand dollar starting salaries at every turn. But when our graduation dates arrived, what we imagined would happen wasn’t anywhere near what actually happened.
We walked, shook some hands, accepted our degree, had our picture taken, and then looked around for the employers that were supposed to be handing out jobs — and they weren’t there. Though we were promised they’d be there, they weren’t. We were lied to — and the harsh truth stood before us:
The degree wasn’t the final answer, it was just one factor in a much larger equation. It was the starting line, not the finish line. Now that we had our ticket to compete, it was up to us to make something of it. The problem is, most of us didn’t understand that.
Some of us still don’t. I say this because of the new trend among my friends: Since they have found little success with their undergraduate degrees, many have decided to attend graduate school. Again, I don’t mean to deny the value of education — I simply believe they’re falling into old habits:
They’re still in search of a piece of paper that can solve all of their problems. Although I’d love for them to prove me wrong, I fear that they are making a poor investment. I suspect that upon receiving their new degree, they will discover that they’re still not at the finish line — they’re just at a different starting line.
My point is that people often attribute too much value to the degree itself. Don’t expect it to do all the work for you — because it can’t and it won’t.
As for the true value of a college degree, it tells employers only one thing: Since finishing college is relatively difficult, then you must be relatively intelligent. So remember, a college degree is only a ticket to compete. Everything else is up to you.
Update 9-13-2007: I read a writeup by George Leef of the National Review Online, which outlines how Higher education has been oversold. It’s an excellent writeup that parallels many of the ideas I explained above.
Update 3-19-2008: I read another excellent article called A Guide To Potential Grad Students: Should You Go To Grad School? Anyone who is considering going to graduate school just because they don’t know what else to do should definitely read it.
Update 7-19-2008: I read another article called The Declining Value Of Your College Degree on MadConomist that parallels the topics in my article above.
Update 2-6-2009: Yet another article on this subject, The Great College Hoax – Forbes.com
Update 2-11-2009: I keep discovering more articles. Student Loans Can Wreck You: The Next Financial Crisis
Update 4-27-2009: Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market — End the University as We Know It
Update 7-1-2009: The four-year college degree has come to cost too much and prove too little. It’s now a bad deal for the average student, family, employer, professor and taxpayer. — Don’t Get That College Degree! – New York Post
Update 5-18-2010: According to another article, high school graduates would be better served by being taught how to behave and communicate in the workplace than attend college. — Plan B – Skip College
Update 6-30-2010: “Research suggests that the monetary value of a college degree may be vastly overblown.” — College : Big Investment, Paltry Return
Update 3-11-2011: “Articles with headlines such as ‘The University Degrees that may add nothing to lifetime’s salary’ are easy to find” — Is it worth going to university?
Update 11-28-2011: “a college degree is no longer the guarantor of a middle-class existence” — The Dwindling Power of a College Degree
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