NPR did a fun story on “All Things Considered” yesterday (audio here) riffing on the TNR piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the cicada-like reoccurrence of “Is College Still Worth It?!!!” scare stories. The best part is when they splice in audio from the bad stories in question and then later when they interview someone who was the subject of one of those stories 20 years ago. And while it’s not in the radio piece, the NPR web site has a quote from an “All Things Considered” story circa 1978:
“Lately there have been a lot of complaints from young persons, that the degree has not proved valuable at all, and that they are mired in jobs which could easily be done by someone who never had read a work of Kierkegaard or struggled through the close meshes of quadratic equations. And when one has paid $20,000 for a ticket to the good life, this seems a reasonable complaint.”
The ticket is more expensive now but otherwise this could be have been published yesterday.
In addition to the long-term trend of increasing returns to technology-enabled skills and so forth, there’s the sequential nature of education to consider. I, for example, graduated from college in 1992, which was a classic post-recessionary bad year to be entering the labor market. My first four jobs were camp counselor, sporting good salesman, waiter in a chain rib restaurant, and camp counselor. At one point, no lie, somebody tried to hire me to sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door. If you had checked in a year after graduation, I would have been an “underemployed” college grad.
Then I went to graduate school, which they don’t let you do unless you’ve gotten a bachelor’s degree first. And as good as things have been for people with four-year degrees over the last 30 years, they’ve been even better for people with graduate and professional degrees. Now I get write things like this for a living. I also married another college graduate who also went on to more education (both a graduate and a professional degree, in fact) with all the commensurate benefits of job stability and career progression and the rest. By contrast, a lot of other, less-credentialed people who were also working crappy retail and food service jobs in 1992 are still working crappy retail and food service jobs today. If they have jobs at all. For me, it was a brief and increasingly distant memory. For them, it’s their whole working life. That’s why virtually everyone who has a say in the matter sends their kids to college. And, why it’s important to provide health insurance, education, and other services to people who end up on the wrong side of these long terms trends.