Is College Still Worth It?


The Wall Street Journal had a few articles last week about the value, if any, of going to college to get a four year degree.

The articles were not part of a series, it just seems coincidental that they all appeared about the same time.

One article was titled, “College Dropouts Thrive in Tech“, with the subtitle, “Quitting school to start a company used to be seen as risky; now an honor.”

Another article was titled, “A Bachelor’s Degree Isn’t the Only Path to Good Pay“, with the subtitle, “Evidence shows that associate degrees and specialized-training certificates can also lift workers into the middle class.”

A third story questioned if individuals wanting to get a position with a private equity firm would still need an M.B.A. to do so, “Do Buyout Kings Need M.B.A.s?“. One recruiter at such a firm is quoted as saying “Over the past decade or 15 years it’s gone from a must-have to a nice-to-have.”

And while not directly related to the issue of the value of going to college, today’s paper had a story about the attack on University tenure in the state of Wisconsin, certainly a polarizing topic.

I think it is good that people are taking a closer look at the value of going to college, and I agree that it is not necessary for everyone to attend college in its traditional sense.

About 10 years ago I completed an Associate’s Degree at the local community college, and it was the best of my many academic experiences. I became convinced that the ideal way to earn a college degree today is two years at a community college and if necessary, two additional years at a 4-year school.

There are many professions where a college degree is required, such as a certified public accountant (CPA). In most states to become a CPA requires not only a bachelor’s degree, but a total of 150 credit hours as well (the norm for a bachelor’s degree is usually about 120 credit hours).

To become a Professional Engineer (P.E.) requires a bachelor’s degree.

And while technically you do not need a bachelor’s degree to go to Medical School, the odds are likely stacked against you that is the route you want to take.

So yes, there is certainly a need for college degree for such individuals.

But at the same time, as a couple of the articles above point out, there are many good-paying jobs that do not require a college degree.

One issue that the headlines ignore is that college is not meant to just be a training ground for a job. It is a place and a time to allow individuals to explore various options for what they want to do with their life, to get exposed to some of the best minds and great ideas that have helped our society flourish, and perhaps develop an appreciation for the arts and sciences, even if you do not plan to pursue a career in one of those fields.

This is why I always encourage my business students to not double major in two business disciplines, but to use those extra credits to combine one business degree with another degree outside the business school. I think this makes you a more well-rounded student, and in the long run, more valuable in the marketplace. I also tell my students that their employers will likely provide them with lots of on the job training to help them develop the skills they need, so there’s no need to try and learn those skills in college.

However, employers will likely never offer a course in “History of Homelessness”,  “Astrobiology, Planets, & Life”, or “U.S. Public Opinion and Political Behavior” (a sampling of courses offered at Villanova University). And I would argue that such courses are the type that make us better people and better citizens.

So while I certainly agree that college is not a necessity for having a successful career, I don’t agree with the general tone of many articles that just look at college from a return on investment perspective, as measured by something like career earnings. There’s many intangible benefits to going to college that should not be ignored, even if they can’t be measured in dollars and cents.

That’s why I was quite happy this week to hear Bill Gates come out and talk about the value of college. Here is a quote from his blog post on this topic:

Although I dropped out of college and got lucky pursuing a career in software, getting a degree is a much surer path to success. ..College graduates are more likely to find a rewarding job, earn higher income, and even, evidence shows, live healthier lives than if they didn’t have degrees. They also bring training and skills into America’s work force, helping our economy grow and stay competitive.”

I realize that as a college professor I may be a little biased about the value of college, but Bill Gates could be the poster child of the anti-college movement. Yet there he is, writing persuasively about the need for college.

And he’s someone whose opinion I value. Plus, he likes to read.

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