The Value of a College Degree

When I was growing up, it was pretty much embedded in my upbringing that I would go to college.  Money had been set aside, there were options that didn’t cost a lot of money (i.e., community college) and it was generally thought of that a four year college degree was the best route to a good paying job and middle class bliss.  So I went.  My B.A. took longer that the four years expected — mostly because I took a few semesters off for a number of reasons — but I did finish.  Alas, I graduated into a recession and couldn’t find that “good paying job” that was supposed to be there after completing my degree.  So, I tried for a year to find a job, and then made a deal with my father that I was going to get my M.A. (and eventually my PhD) if he would pay for it.

I got accepted into an M.A. program at the same school I did my B.A. (SF State) and spent the next 2 1/2 years completing the requirements for the degree in hopes that “a good paying job” was on the other side of that experience.  If there wasn’t a decent job, then I would continue and get my PhD.  Well, there wasn’t anything remotely good out there. I was planning on teaching at the college level (community college, but teaching was my desired vocation), and the only job I could find was a very p/t position at at Contra Costa Community College.  Around the time I got the offer, I got another offer:  to do my PhD at the University of Hawai’i.  I had applications to other schools to see who would find me a good candidate, and Hawai’i looked like the only taker.

And then…

One of my long shot schools (The University of Pennsylvania) accepted me into a program (American Civilization), but there was a catch:  I had to pay for the first year.  Because of some money that my father left after he passed away, I was able to pursue my PhD at Penn.  Once we moved to Philadelphia, Julie was able to get a job at the Sociology department, and after one semester, she helped me get a teaching fellowship that saved us a ton of cash.

Flash forward to 2000, and I graduate with a PhD from a pretty prestigious school.  I thought, “Well, I guess I can finally start a career that I’ve worked long and hard to achieve.”  Unfortunately, I graduated into a recession that affected academia as well. After sending out my C.V. to countless schools, the only interview I got was at a community college in Livermore.  I got to the second round of interviews, and… no offer.

I looked outside of academia, but because of the recession, it was incredibly difficult to  find anything.  No one wants to hire someone with a PhD because, well, they think that 1. We’re going to ask for too much money (or take the job of the person who is hiring you) 2. We’re overqualified for the jobs. 3. We’ll leave as soon as we find something better.   I’m sure I’m missing some other points, but really it came down to being highly educated and unemployed.

One day while deep in the throes of being seriously bummed about my career situation, the phone rang and the community college that didn’t offer me the f/t job wanted to know if I was interested in teaching a couple of classes. I took the job and spent the next four years teaching on a part time basis at a couple of places while getting rejected for f/t jobs year after year.

During all this, I was working p/t in radio, and between the two jobs, I was bringing in a salary that was well below the poverty line.  Julie had a job that paid a livable wage, but I was falling short year after year.  It was all rather depressing if it wasn’t for the fact that I did derive a good deal of intellectual satisfaction from my work.  It wasn’t until Julie’s employer increased the employee contribution to their benefits that we realized that my career dreams would have to give way to more practical matters: a real job with livable wages.

Fortunately, I was able to find a full time job in radio and rode that gig from 2005 to 2009.  I made “grown up” wages for the first time in my life, and felt grateful for the job, but was also longing from more intellectually stimulating work. It wasn’t until I was laid off in 2009 that I felt I could pursue something else.  I tried, but it was the start of the Great Recession and we all know how that’s going.

For me, fortune smiled and I was hired back at the same place that laid me off seven months earlier. I’m employed, but like many out there who have bought the line that a college degree is a path to a good paying job and good career options, I find myself wondering, ” Was it worth it?”  Well, recently the L.A. Times ran a story that questioned if a college degree (and they are talking about B.A.s) is worth it.  The answer?  No — with some exceptions, of course. What it comes down to in this era of globalization is that chasing your dreams of X or Y by going to college may not be the right thing to do.  Why?  Well, in this age of globalization and technological innovation, the type of career you pursue could be affected by these two macro factors.  According to the article, if you choose a career where the job you do can be replaced by a computer or be outsourced to a country where someone who has the same skill level, means that you could very well lose out on the career you’ve been wanting to pursue.

Yes, it’s all very depressing, but it makes me concerned that my daughter — who in four short years — will be off to college to get a degree that will hopefully get her to a career she really wants to do, won’t need the college experience to achieve what she wants to achieve.  So that means the paradigm that, for me, has been pounded into my skull might not be the right path.  It’s weird to think that if she want to do X, and X doesn’t really require a college degree, but could require a certification, that it would be wise to let her just do the certificate.

It’s all so confounding because what I was brought up to believe was the path to whatever you wanted to be required one to go to college — but now it’s getting to the point where it’s not necessarily the case. What about you?  If you have kids who are a few years away from college, do you wonder if the tens of thousands of dollars you’ll invest (or go into debt) will be worth it for them?

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