Why the value of a college degree doesn't come by accident

Posted May 4

At the end of April and beginning of May, students across the nation trade in their textbooks and I.D. cards for a diploma. And, in many cases, a lot of debt.

That daunting and often years-long task of paying off student loans — which total about $1.2 trillion in America, according to a study by credit analysis firm Experian — tests whether their decision to pursue a college degree was worth the cost.

But advisers and many college graduates agree that while some areas of study reap more financial benefits than others, any degree of higher education can pay off if leveraged and planned for the right way.

“There are unfortunate conversations about college not being worth it, but those not going to college are going to struggle in life to make a living wage,” says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a higher education economist who writes on student aid, college pricing and student debt. “(College) is certainly something people need to be careful about, and use the right information to be informed about their decisions, but they shouldn’t be scared.”

The debt effect

Taking out student loans is most dangerous for those who borrow but never graduate, Baum said. They will unlikely earn enough to clear away the debt.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Labor Department found that median weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary workers in 2014 was $668 for those with only a high school diploma. For those with at least a bachelor’s degree, median weekly earnings went up to $1,193.

“There is just incredible evidence about the different earnings of those with or without college degrees,” Baum says. “I think it’s really important to say that going to college is an investment in yourself. You need to choose carefully to make it worthwhile … it’s worth borrowing money if you make choices carefully.”

Gregory Serrien, an author and business consultant, says mapping out where your education will take you in helping pay off debt and in providing a path to a satisfying career is key to avoiding unnecessary student debt.

“One of the things I teach my clients is that success is not an accident, you must engineer your success. … You must start planning before you set foot on a college campus to ensure you are on the right track to attain your goals,” Serrien says. “At the very least, you must evaluate what you are doing early on in your college years to ensure the degree path you are on is setting you up to attain a career.”

Debt can have a powerful effect on how students evaluate the worth of their education before, during and after graduation.

Outstanding loans affect one’s net worth, retirement savings and more, says William Elliott, the director of the Center of Assets, Education and Inclusion at the University of Kansas.

“Even small amounts of debt, it can affect long-term money accumulation,” Elliott says. Debt can also delay “having children, having a home and family.”

Student debt, or any other debt accrued during college years, often determines what area of study and degree students choose to pursue, in hopes of getting jobs that pay well enough to take care of the debt in a reasonable amount of time, Elliott says.

“We’re talking about the risk of a degree. … I think that risk becomes much higher because student debt is much higher. If you’re a lawyer, you’re much more likely to go into a private law firm because you’ll make more, you need it because of student debt,” Elliott says. “I think there’s real evidence that clear choices are accepted by worries about debt.”

Making the choice

In 2014, the highest average salary — $62,719 — was made by those with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest was for those with humanities and social sciences degrees, with an average salary of $38,365.

But Baum says that those with liberal arts degrees aren’t necessarily doomed to low-paying, unsatisfying careers.

“If you start following those with liberal arts degrees, they go to grad school and make higher amounts of money,” she says. “Most people majoring in English don’t think they are going to be scholars of English literature, they have other plans to either go to grad school or get a job where people value the skills of their undergraduate education.”

Heather Mason, a graduate of Utah State University with a degree in journalism, now owns and runs Caspian Productions, based in the Los Angeles area, which puts on large conferences and other specialized events for companies and private parties supporting and promoting certain causes.

Mason’s original plan was to head to law school and use her writing skills as a lawyer. However, her plans changed to movie production. She worked for a time in script development for films, using many skills learned from journalism, which led to event production.

“I almost feel that what my degree did for me was more about critical thinking … being able to look at a problem and dissect it. … Those are pretty broad skills that I am able to apply to almost anything I do,” Mason says.

Sought after skills

Research backs up Mason’s experience. “Employers overwhelmingly endorse broad learning as the best preparation for long-term career success,” reads a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success.” “They believe that broad learning should be an expected part of college for all students, regardless of their chosen major or field.”

Dmitri Oster, a program director with One World Counseling a community-based outpatient behavioral health treatment program in Brooklyn, New York, agrees with the study’s conclusions.

“One of the ideas that I always held as true in my own college experience is that a good and truly solid liberal-arts education is never a bad thing. I cannot think of one profession — or licensed professional, for that matter — that does not need to have a good command of the English language, critical thinking skills and the abilities to express oneself orally and in writing,” Oster says. “These are skill-sets that just cross all professional disciplines and boundaries, and I would say should be universal for professionals.”

Taylor Dolbin, a senior at Brigham Young University, assessed what he would be most successful at and what employers would be looking for before deciding to pursue a degree in English.

He determined employers in his desired field seek the analytical thinking and soft skills that often come with liberal arts degrees. “Right now, the world in the workplace is shifting a little bit. … A lot of the automated and predictable tasks are being outsourced through technology,” Dolbin says. “What we’re seeing now is that the problems we’re facing are very chaotic, very ambiguous and a lot more challenging.”

He and a fellow liberal arts major decided a few years ago to help those studying humanities to make themselves as marketable as possible. Their idea became the Humanities to Business club at BYU.

“Our entire purpose is to help students get internships and full-time jobs,” Dolbin said. The club helps students find professional opportunities, network and write resumes, no matter their field of study.

Dolbin has worked at Smucker’s as an intern in human resources and safety management, and hopes to find more work opportunities in business after he graduates in May.

Although “the job market clearly got worse during the recession and those entering are going to have a harder time than those already employed, the economy is improving,” Baum said. “Most of that lends to those with higher levels of education … it was better this last year than it was the last year and is improving.”

Contact me at:, @mandy_morg


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