The Value of College

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Time had a piece earlier this week about whether a college degree has less value now. As the article explains:

The devaluation of a college degree is no secret on campus. An annual survey by the Higher Education Research Institute has long asked freshmen what they think their highest academic degree will be. In 1972, 38% of respondents said a bachelor’s degree, but in 2008 only 22% answered the same. The number of freshmen planning to get a master’s degree rose from 31% in 1972 to 42% in 2008. Says John Pryor, the institute’s director: “Years ago, the bachelor’s degree was the key to getting better jobs. Now you really need more than that.”

This is discussion seems to pair well with a question circling about higher education: are too many kids going to college? Oddly, at the same time the BA has become less lucrative, it has also become more expensive to obtain.

It is not so much that a college degree became worthless (and therefore not worth obtaining) but that it moved into the category of necessary but not sufficient for professional employment, as the Time article explains. Of course you went to college; everyone went to college.

This is called education inflation, and there is nothing wrong with it. There are few readers old enough to remember this but there was a time when the high school diploma was rare, too. Now most people finish high school. That does not mean that the high school diploma is not valuable. The college degree may not be worthless (or even worth less) but it has certainly become less special.

If a college degree is truly moving in the direction of the high school diploma—and the country has a way to go before it does, currently only about 27 percent of U.S. citizens are college graduates —then maybe it is time to work on making that necessary diploma a little more affordable.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer