Opinion

Economic value of college education continues to rise

By Elizabeth Rodriguez '15

February 20, 2014

Why can’t I just stay in Spain and get a job at my favorite bakery? Being abroad, I have asked myself this question probably more times than I should. However, I am faced with the fact that I cannot just drop out of college and go Eat, Pray, Love with my life. And while I am sad that I will not have stories to share from my rocking chair about the time I quit school and became an expert in palmiers, I know fabulously alternative lifestyles are not exactly an option for students these days.

A new Pew Research Study has revealed that those with a college degree make $17,500 more than those without one, and this number has more than doubled in the past 10 years. Research like this is probably the reason why college age Americans are not running to Europe’s quaint bakeries, but hurrying to class instead.

It is not a surprise that a college education is paramount in the American job market today. However, with total student loan debt topping $1 trillion in the United States, some question whether college is even worth all the time and expenses. The simple answer is that college is worth it because frankly, it has become a prerequisite for the job market today. A more complete answer would cite the benefits of a college education in the current economy, dominated as it is by knowledge-based industries, which are reliant on intellectual capabilities.

The good news is that the knowledge economy, which describes the  job market as it pertains to level of education, seems to be catered towards liberal arts graduates. Considering all the philosophy and women’s studies courses I have taken, I am thrilled to hear this. With the key component of the current knowledge economy being intellect, it is no wonder the disparity between high school graduates and college graduates has widened in the past 10 years. Our generation is full of thinkers and innovators. We discuss and protest. We market ourselves with catchy emails (hi, Juggling Club), we have mastered interviews and can analyze lists of data as easily as we scroll through Facebook. These are our generation’s strengths. College cultivates, perfects and markets these qualities, eventually producing graduates who are perfectly groomed for the knowledge economy. The liberal arts student has never been so valuable.

However, while currently  thinkers are marketable in knowledge-based industries, I fear that as college becomes more of a norm, an equalizing effect may begin to take place. As a greater supply of critical and thoughtful college graduates enter the work place, their usefulness could decrease. Just because college is becoming more important does not mean it will retain its value.

I worry that the workplace is starting to resemble 1920s Paris without the cigarettes. While college graduates may all have bright and critical thoughts, eventually someone is going to have to write a novel. The Fitzgeralds of today will be the ones who do. They will be the ones who not only think well, but also create the next thing to think about.

Colleges can make their graduates the Fitzgeralds by integrating practical and technical courses in their curricula. As the knowledge economy becomes ever more prevalent, college will continue to become a prerequisite to life.

With the increasing importance of college and the influx of thinking graduates, the few institutions who decide to make their students the doers will retain the value of college. While I do not see myself filling out an application to a Spanish bakery any time soon, I cannot shake the fear of an empty “Skills” section. Could I just ask for an interview instead?

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