Periscope Depth

now here’s a mickle truth


Again, that’s adjusted for inflation. A private college education’s share of your household income has more than doubled in the last three decades. It’s gone from about a fifth to nearly half. You can always go to a state school for cheap, but then the quality of your education hinges more on accidents of geography – what state you happen to live in – than your merits as a student. Virginia: congratulations! Missouri: I’m so sorry.

(I’m surprised more parents don’t take advantage of this. “Well, honey, we can’t afford to send you to Cornell. So why don’t you go live in Virginia for twelve months to establish residency? You can wait tables or work at Old Navy; we’ll send you a little something to help pay the rent. Then, after a year, you apply to UVA and we pay the very agreeable Virginian-resident tuition. Sound good?”)

Those are the facts. Here are the surmises: the quality of college education has not more than doubled in the last three decades. Sure, kids who went to university in 1979 didn’t have the benefit of White Noise or classes on the philosophy of the Matrix. But they still managed to do all right. I’m sure the burden of keeping a campus network running 24/7, streaming porn, Twitter and Facebook at torrential volumes, raises costs. But the savings on interoffice memoranda alone should more than make up for it.

And as my esteemed colleague Joel Grus has pointed out, college has not become twice as good at preparing young adults for modern industrial society. Paying work has not risen in complexity on par with the rising price of a humanities degree. Getting a degree not only fails to prepare you for a real job; in many cases it can hurt. My dad recently observed that getting an MBA can make people less employable, as it bumps them into a higher salary bracket. My first (real) job out of college was doing temp data entry for a medical supply firm. The last question I got asked in the interview was, “Aren’t you really overqualified for this job?”*

College is (and I’m not the first person to assert this) an expensive form of signalling. It tells future employers that you had the money to spend on four years of being lectured, the discipline to attend 8 AM classes and write papers on authors you hated, and the ability to work in a lab or study group without driving your peers to murder you. Those are valuable skills in the office economy. The problem with college – as with all forms of signalling – is that it soon becomes cheaper to buy the signal than to manifest the effort the signal represents. Just as RayBan knock-offs allow everyone to look like a movie star, so do increasing student rolls allow everyone to look like a college grad.

No discussion about the importance of education can be taken seriously unless it addresses this issue first: that college gets more necessary (for any but the hottest and noisiest jobs, to quote The Simpsons) and more expensive every year. Your future earnings become substantially higher if you’ve been to school, and the cost of school becomes substantially higher as well. And what do those future earnings translate into? Household income – the first column in the chart above. The “bonus wage” that you get from your fancy college education is being eaten up, in increasing bites, by the “entry fee” of a college diploma. We can’t go on; we go on.

Update: commenting on my mirrored Livejournal post, Alexandra pointed out that the figures for “household income” include both people with college degrees and people without. But people with college degrees have substantially higher incomes than people without, per the National Center for Education Statistics. So a college degree’s still worth it, if you can service your debt and aren’t holding out for your dream job and go to a decent school.

* I was, and said as much, but you should have seen the job market for English/Econ majors back then.