The Value of an Education

I have student loans.  Oodles of them.  My mother elected not to pay for my education because she didn’t want to have to pay for a college education for all of her kids, which is somewhat ironic because I’m the only one of the bunch who went to college.

In exchange for my student loans, the payments of which eat up a substantial amount of our monthly income, I have a degree in psychology from a respected institution.  And self respect and blah blah blah.

What I have to wonder is, what is really the value of that degree?  I know not everyone goes the whole graduate-get-a-job-get-married-have-beautiful-babies-stay-home-with-beautiful-babies route, so maybe this isn’t applicable to anyone but me, but I am curious: Was my college degree worth the tens of thousands of dollars I paid for it?

Wes and I were discussing this the other day and are at a bit of an impasse.  He went to college but didn’t graduate.  He started off studying music composition, left school to pursue an internship, started working full time, and never went back.  Then, when his sales career took a nosedive thanks to the economy, he went to a trade school, got the proper certifications, and now he makes way more than I ever will.

His education took him less than a year, cost a quarter as much as mine did, and he makes more than twice as much per year as I’ve ever made his first year out of school.

Obviously, Wes is not everybody (because he’s awesome), but if this kind of thing is possible, is it even worth it to get a four year degree if you’re paying for it yourself?

I suppose you could say that my degree enabled me to get a job out of college, and that if I hadn’t gotten that job, I never would have hated my job, started blogging, and then switched to blogging as a career.  I have to wonder, however, if I wouldn’t have found blogging some other way.  You certainly don’t need a degree to be a successful blogger.

The reason this is on my mind is, having one parent who graduated college and another parent who didn’t presents an odd example to our kids.  I mean, can I reasonably make a case that it’s important to graduate from college when I’m no longer sold on the value of a college education myself?

(This is obviously not an applicable discussion when applied to careers that require advanced degrees, such as doctors, therapists, lawyers, brain scientists, etc.)

My degree was fun to earn, and I learned a lot, but I can’t honestly say that college prepared me for the working world any more than any of the jobs I held during school.  I can tell you how to correctly cite an academic article in an APA style paper, but I have never used that skill outside a classroom.

What do you think?  Am I just jaded by huge student loan payments, or are college degrees worth it?

This discussion is continued in part 2, which you can read here.

10 thoughts on “The Value of an Education

  1. I’ve been reading some HR / Managerial type blogs and one by a guy who is a dean at a community college recently (specifically: askamanager.blogspot.com, evilhrlady.blogspot.com, & suburbdad.blogspot.com) and the consensus seems to be that for the most part (with some exceptions) a college degree is the new HS degree in that it is the minimum level of education looked for for even the most entry-level of positions.

    In that sense, in this economy, a college degree is worth it (unless of course you have years of relevant experience in which case you are no spring chicken and that’s another consideration) as a way to not be discarded if you are looking for a new position. The value, then, vs. a technical or trade school is not in what subject you studied but that you have a liberal arts education which allows you to, in theory, use the skills you honed in attaining that education rather than the information gathered in the course of study.

    I have a degree in Sociology…do I use it? No! Do I want to use it? Well, since my philosophy now is that people are stupid, perhaps it’s best that I don’t. Do I use things I learned about working with others and how to learn or acquire new skills and information? You bet your patootie I do! As the woman (my former boss) who gave me a chance when I wanted to switch directions put it, “it’s not what you know, but that you can learn.” That’s the value of the college degree – a certificate stating that you can learn.

    Now, whether that certificate is applicable to your life or not, only you can judge. I’m leaning towards that you are currently jaded (and how much of that has to do with reading your most recent alumni magazine and seeing how people in your class or behind you are making mega-bucks and promotion after promotion and feeling bad in comparison? or was that just me until I decided to embrace my lack of drive to be the best and embrace what makes ME happy?) because it really does stink to see that $ disappear into the ether every month and not feel like you are getting the value out of it for whatever reason. Regardless of how well thought out and appropriate that reason might be for your life being as it is and not as some ideal version of your life.

    Do I make any sense whatsoever with this?

  2. -Blanche, No apologies necessary! I was genuinely hoping to have a discussion about this!

    I’m in no way arguing that a college degree opens certain doors. What I’m trying to ascertain is the degree’s value. Is it worth what you pay for it, especially if you have to get student loans and end up paying four times as much over the life of the loan thanks to interest?

    What you said about a degree showing that you can learn, not what you have learned, is interesting. I suppose that’s true, but it seems equally likely that work experience and a good interview can display the same thing.

    I’m pleased as punch about my life. The jadedness has nothing to do with feeling like a failure or feeling irritated with how my life’s progressing. I’m just aghast looking at Wes’ income, and how much time/money he paid for his education, and mine, and realizing that my education cost a small fortune and I’ll be lucky if my lifetime income is equal to what we end up paying for my education.

  3. I’ve been having some of the same thoughts… we have some pretty hefty student loans and I feel like we’re going to be paying on them for the rest of our lives. I got a Master’s in linguistics, and although I enjoyed both undergrad and grad school and did learn a lot, I’ve begun to wonder if incurring that much debt was wise. Then again, if I hadn’t gone to grad school I might not have re-met Jon and married him… and then who knows where I’d be now.

    Jon got a degree in Japanese… now he’s a software engineer. Non comp sci degrees don’t count for all that much when you’re a programmer. It probably counts for something though, and I’m glad he has his degree. I’m less convinced that mine were worth the price I’m paying for them.

    P.S. Wes started out studying music? So did Jon! Our families are ending up having more and more in common. Now let’s move near each other so we can hang out all the time, and betroth our babies to each other. ;P

  4. -Kelly O., Your last sentence made me laugh out loud, how incredibly ridiculously hilarious would it be if our babies ended up together? I’d laugh myself silly.

    See? That’s what I’m saying right there about Jon’s degree having little to do with his profession! What is the point of crippling student loan payments if you end up in a profession that has little than nothing to do with your degree? I didn’t know Jon studied music!

  5. Erika – not to argue with your point about work experience, but what I’m seeing is that you can’t get to the interview without the minimum bachelor’s degree. Work experience on top of that is what gets you the job. Not saying it’s right – just how the market seems to be currently working.

    Of course, both my husband and I were lucky enough to have family willing and able to cover the bills while we got our degree (or degrees since DH went back to get his Masters after a few years in the work force) so we’re not in quite the same position of facing the never-ending loans. Just our mortgage(s).

    And I thought my little one had dibs on Aidan…. :P

  6. -Blanche, HA! Aidan’s going to have his pick of cute little girl babies, I guess! In any case, I’ve told him girls are trouble and no dating until he’s 18. Because I’m sure he’ll listen :)

    It’s so hard to say what job searching without a degree is like if you have one! Wes didn’t have any trouble finding a job without a degree, though, and I know for a fact that I’d have been able to get my current job without a degree.

    I think colleges propagate that saying about degrees being the new HS diploma :) But seriously, I once heard that if your yearly income your first year out of college is not equal to or greater than the sum of your student loans, your degree isn’t worth it. Seems to make sense to me!

  7. Hmm, good question. I guess it depends on the individual. I definitely think my college degree was worth it, even though I am also a stay-at-home-with-beautiful-baby, because it made me into the person that I am and that person is a better person than high school me was. But then again, I don’t have any student loans and I feel like that lack of debt is something that really allowed Matt and I to get where we are today. But college was where I became confident and adult and ME.

    So I guess I am saying that I am not qualified to answer your question. ;)

  8. -HereWeGoAJen, Ha! No, no, you definitely have something to add! So far, the consensus on Facebook and here has been that, if you don’t incur any debt from your education, a college education is a wonderful thing. If, however, you end up at the end with a diploma and debilitating debt you’ll be paying off for the rest of your life, well, not so worth it unless you’ll be making oodles of money when you graduate.

  9. Pingback: The Value of an Education, Part Deux | Parsing Nonsense

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