The debate on whether going to college is worth your salt continues, with both sides claiming that data supports their argument. On one end, college graduates are paid higher, a fact documented by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, calculating the median weekly earnings of American workers: $789 for high school graduates vs. $1,416 for college graduates (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 2020).
On the other hand, the top soft and hard skills in 2020 collated by LinkedIn based on its database hardly require a bachelor’s degree, such as cloud computing, sales, creativity, and adaptability. These skills can be learned through online classes like Udemy and at one’s initiative. Sue Bhatia, founder of the staffing agency Rose International (Chesterfield, MO) hit the nail on the head: “Our young professionals are educated for a world that will not exist as it currently does” (SHRM, October 2019).
The world might be better off without college—but, really? How can one turn a blind eye to its pay advantage then? This article aims to find the middle ground, not to validate one over the other, but to give context to both arguments. We believe this is not a black-and-white scenario, rather, there are grey areas of varying shades in between.
No question, the argument against college is valid. Students spend so much time gaining literacy and numeracy mastery since elementary. Yet, a great chunk of this knowledge bank seems wasteful when one pits it against what jobs demand today. Taking a look at top job sites such as LinkedIn and Indeed, we can see that the in-demand skills in 2020 require less of the broadstroke approach of college in education and more of a laser-focused learning afforded by specific workshops or online classes.
For instance, the top job skill一cloud computing一have 893,676 students learning it over Udemy, a non-degree, skill-specific course provider. The other top job skills, likewise, are readily available via online class (Udemy, n.d.). For the second sought-after job skill, Udemy has 3,449 courses on artificial intelligence, while Coursera, another top course provider, has 989 (Coursera, n.d.). Both providers have a combined 7,850 courses on sales leadership, too, the third most in-demand job. In short, if you want to get hired today, a quick course on one of the top job skill requirements should see you through一no college needed.
If we have students learning business and technical writing instead of literature in high school and college, we would not have writing skill as one of the biggest gaps in workplace preparedness (ISHN, 2017). This is sad considering that 73% of employers prefer applicants with writing skills (Inc., 2016).
Moreover, unless one pursues a STEM job, mastering mathematical proofs like trigonometry, geometry, and physics throughout formal education only to take on a sales job or video editing job, two of the top job skills, looks wasteful. Where do we use humanities, art, and music, too, if the job involves blockchain technology or AI?
From this perspective, college looks detached from the real world. It did not help that several educators lack workplace experience, as well.
Still, college graduates are rewarded with higher pay, not exactly because they know more, but employers presume so. It is no surprise that most CEOs in the U.S. (and elsewhere) have post-secondary degrees: 38% with bachelor while 57% with master (study.eu, 2017). This, despite the fact that an MBA does not make a better manager always. A study by Development Dimensions International revealed that MBA graduates were outperformed by managers with only an undergraduate degree in the fields of coaching, results orientation, and visionary leadership skills (Times of India, 2016).
The world seems to be better off without college, it seems一but only if we look at half of the picture.
Real Benefits of College Education
On the other side of the fence, college presents a bagful of opportunities and the argument is not without basis. On top of conferring some marketable skills, namely literacy and numeracy, what makes studying college so important is where a job requires art and culture. And this usually means management and leadership positions.
The art is knowing what to apply when and how, while culture is the best practices collected into one vast knowledge bank. Where students lack both the art and culture of a given field, college provides them with a quick fix.
The lessons learned and knowledge imparted in college classes are the result of decades, if not centuries, of research and application of the best practices that have governed a given discipline, say, engineering or communications. College, in short, provides students with a proven system to organize volumes of knowledge that they may not need, but should they, can tap into. In most cases, a refresher is all it takes to rekindle this knowledge bank that lies deep in the recesses of the learned mind many years later.
In this scenario, students gain the following benefits that otherwise are found wanting in short, skill-specific courses:
Leadership role. Having an understanding of the art and culture of a job prepares the student for a management role. It is no surprise that most CEOs have postsecondary degrees then.
Broad perspective. College provides students with something about everything. The idea is to help students see the whole forest. This 360-degree perspective comes in handy when running or managing a business or developing strategies or policies.
Focus on deliverables. Students learn different courses in a limited time and submit the requirements within a deadline. This rigorous process disciplines the mind to stay focused on time-bound accomplishments, a valuable trait in the workplace.
Knowledge bank. Not only do students have access to volumes of knowledge materials (e.g., library, books, notes), but they are guided on how to organize knowledge in a meaningful way.
Inspiration and guidance. College and university teachers are themselves highly trained and profess an encompassing understanding of their discipline. Many of them teach, not just to impart knowledge, but to challenge and inspire students to contribute to such knowledge. This, in fact, is the rationale behind completing a thesis prior to earning a bachelor’s degree.
College Statistics Show Its Advantage
Data is easy to come by reinforcing the perceived benefits of having a college degree. Take a look at these college statistics:
The median annual salary of college graduates in the U.S. is $45,000 compared to $30,000 for high school graduates (Wall Street Journal)
83% of college graduates are employed vs. 68.8% (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018)
There is 3.5x lower poverty rate among college graduates vs. high school graduates (Association of Public 7 Land-Grant Universities)
About 99% of jobs created since the 2008 recession were awarded to candidates with postsecondary degrees. (Georgetown University
View in full screen
Download PNG image
Download JPEG image
View data table
Median starting salary offered by U.S. companies to master's degree holders in 2019
(in U.S. dollars)
Median starting salary offered by U.S. companies to master's degree holders in 2019 MBA: 115000
Median starting salary offered by U.S. companies to master's degree holders in 2019 Master of Data Analytics: 85000
Master of Data Analytics
Median starting salary offered by U.S. companies to master's degree holders in 2019 Master of Finance: 85000
Master of Finance
Median starting salary offered by U.S. companies to master's degree holders in 2019 Master in Management: 80000
Master in Management
Median starting salary offered by U.S. companies to master's degree holders in 2019 Master of Accounting: 75000
Master of Accounting
Source: GMAC; Business School Hiring Report: Corporate Recruiters Survey 2019
Is College for You?
Is college worth it? A better question, perhaps, is, are your expectations worth a college degree? If you have a short-term need to get a job, a skills-based program makes more sense. Getting a college degree while working, then, is your long-term approach to climb the corporate ladder. On the other hand, if you are capable of pursuing college straight out of high school and willing to wait it out to land a job, getting a college degree first should be a good strategy.
In both cases, college is worth it. It should, because it drives our social, economic, and political lives through collective knowledge and experience. The world is definitely better off with college. It is how we utilize college that, perhaps, makes us think otherwise.
Moore, K. “Study: 73% of Employers Want Candidates With This Skill.” Inc. April 2016. https://www.inc.com/kaleigh-moore/study-73-of-employers-want-candidates-with-this-skill.html
Study.eu. “The academic backgrounds of the world’s most powerful CEOs.” December 2017. https://www.study.eu/article/the-academic-backgrounds-of-the-worlds-most-powerful-ceos
Singh, N. “MBA degrees don’t always make better managers.” Times of India. April 2016. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/MBA-degrees-dont-always-make-better-managers/articleshow/52011963.cms
Carnevale, Jayasundera & Gulish, “America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have Nots, 2016.” Georgetown University. 2016. https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/Americas-Divided-Recovery-web.pdf