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Does College Pay Off, Even for Cashiers?

Recently there has been something of a debate about the worth of the college degree. The lines have been demarcated by self-interest: academics and their friends in mainstream media have argued that a college degree is worth the money and the effort while others, especially those in the business world, like Peter Thiel, have claimed the opposite—Thiel called a degree “speculative and ill advised.”

Indeed, the business world does not place much of a premium on a degree alone—it is, in and of itself, a necessary but not sufficient factor in a hiring decision for the simple reason that there are too many college graduates out there—the greater the supply of applicants with a college degree, the lower the premium associated with the degree. For a degree to mean something again, it would have to become harder to get.

Because the business world does not regard a college education, in general, in high esteem, many—millions in fact—who graduate from college or university can end up working in jobs that do not require a degree, a particularly ironic turn for those who labored through college under the illusion that a degree would serve as entrée into the world of better paid jobs.

Because a college education has in general little value, investing enormous resources into it is indeed speculative because the investment can often end in enormous financial and personal failure that has life-long negative repercussions.

Nevertheless many claim that a college degree still pays off, even if a graduate ends up working the cash register. But is this assertion really true? Is a degree so valuable that it offers benefits in any employment situation? Does a person who spends years training his mind benefit by working retail? Or are such ideas nothing more than a hard sell of a special interest group desperate for more students and more federal dollars?

There is good reason to doubt the value of a college degree, especially in the light of data pointing to the fact that not merely a handful but, in fact, millions of college graduates are not able to use their degrees, having instead to work menial jobs. Richard Vedder at The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed last year the stunning statistics: “Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17 million Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree. This is even true at the doctoral and professional level—there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.” There is obviously a great excess of college graduates in America, so much so that millions are forced, due to absence of suitable employment, to take menial jobs, displacing those who have no degrees into joblessness. Because of this excess the degree has come to mean virtually nothing.

Despite such grim statistics, some claim that a degree is so valuable that even college graduates who enter the low-wage work world still somehow benefit—there are even claims (largely unsubstantiated by impartial and objective studies) that they make more in those jobs than employees without degrees.

Consider David Leonhardt writing in The New York Times that “Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off.” Leonhardt makes an incredible assertion in his piece in regard to the earnings of college graduates working in menial jobs, writing: “Construction workers, police officers, plumbers, retail salespeople and secretaries, among others, make significantly more with a degree than without one. Why? Education helps people do higher-skilled work, get jobs with better-paying companies or open their own businesses.”

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  • Realist

    Since Einstein allegedly couldn’t balance his checkbook despite understanding astrophysical math, I have to vote in the negative.

    Besides – this debate about the value of college is only necessary to convert college from the path to a better existence for the masses to one of economic elite-only status and privilege.