What’s A Sheepskin Worth, Anyway?

A college education is one of life’s largest expenses and probably the biggest source of personal debt next to houses.  The costs are all over the board and generally greater for


Westminster College, via Wikipedia

private schools than public.  Just out of curiosity and because it has a good reputation (at least it did 25 years ago) I checked on Westminster College, a Liberal Arts school in Fulton, MO.  About $30,000 a year, with about $18,000 of that being just the tuition and the rest living and expenses.  So, for a 4-year degree:  $120,000, not counting iPad, software and beer.

Is a college degree worth the effort, time and cost? I was inspired to ask the question by an article in USA Today, “. . . We Object“, about law school graduates complaining that either they couldn’t get a job after graduation (12 % of 2009 graduates) or that their schools’ predictions about salaries didn’t pan out.  Included in the article was this:

“Ohio University economist Richard Vedder says the question goes beyond law. ‘We are entering the age of the overeducated American, the person with college degrees who cuts hair, trims trees, drives trucks,’ he says.”

I have talked to more than one waitress in local Joplin restaurants who claims to have a college degree.  We know of one such who earned a degree in accounting, did that for a
few years and recently resigned her position to do something entirely unrelated (and requiring no degree at all).  This is not a good statistical sample of course but it does tend to confirm my impression that not only isn’t a college degree what it used to be, it can be a bad investment.  (It may also say that colleges don’t do a good job of helping students match talent to career.)

What about the intangible value of a degree improving one’s taste and capacity for making good choices and appreciating the more intellectual aspects of life in general?  What a

The Seven Liberal Arts by Marten de Vos, 1590

The Seven Liberal Arts, via Wikipedia

quaint idea.  Some used to think that the mark of a good education was that it made you autodidactic.  Does one get that from a college degree nowadays?  I searched Westminster’s web site for some indication that they have a core curriculum and couldn’t find one.  (Core curricula used to exist.  When did they go away?)  By core curriculum I mean some minimal coverage of, say, English, government and math that would be common to all majors and would mark a graduate as more rounded and complete, intellectually, than non-graduates.  I did find a provision for a “self-designed” major.  Apparently a major can now be whatever one wishes it to be, a’ la Humpty Dumpty.

About 10 years ago I made a point of visiting the Joplin High School office to search their curriculum for similar core courses and also came up empty.  I don’t know if that has changed since, but I read the Joplin Globe every day and don’t recall seeing anything about it.  If I am wrong, and I may be, somebody please tell me.

So, why shell out that kind of money?  Toga parties?  For years the media has reinforced the adage that higher education pays off in higher salaries throughout life.  But Mr. Vedder may be right that this effect has diminished.  For generations the education establishment has touted the earnings-value of a degree, but without meaningful standards the argument is wearing thin, and in the meantime the cost of higher education has been rising faster than the cost of living.  A 2006 report, “Trends In College Pricing”, (page 4)confirms it:

“The data in this report confirm the widespread perception that college prices are rising much more rapidly than the prices of other goods and services. Like last year’s increases, the 2006-07 increases in tuition and fees are smaller than those of many recent years. That said, the 35 percent jump in inflation-adjusted average tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges since 2001-02 is the largest for any five-year period over the 30 years covered by this report.”

And I’m betting the cost has not gone down since 2006.

Where does the students’ money go?  I surmise that the bulk of it goes to the salaries of professional educators, both teachers and management.  And because of the

CHN East Chapel Hill Graduation 2008

Image by Oberazzi via Flickr

susceptibility of the public to branding, consumerism not being taught in high school, I suggest that much of the cost of the more expensive schools is based not on substance but on prestige.  The quality of education at the more-expensive schools, where most courses are taught not by big-name professors but assistants, is a cultural meme in America and is similar to jewelry-store snob appeal.

Such schools capitalize on their prestige to skim the cream of talent from the pool of applicants.  In other words, I am suggesting that graduates of schools such as Harvard,


Image via Wikipedia

Yale, Princeton and Stanford are not better-taught, but that they succeed because they survived the winnowing process and then bought into a label of success.  Because of their prestige these schools have an effective monopoly on a product that is highly valued, not for its substance but for its label. What a business!  In what other field can you have both monopoly and tenure?

I have long been a critic of our high schools for not teaching consumerism, among other practical subjects.  If that ever does happen, the value of higher education should be a prime topic, IMO.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Economics, Education, Personal Finance, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to What’s A Sheepskin Worth, Anyway?

  1. I don’t have specific citations, but my sense is that academic research suggests that the differential between jobs for those with a college degree and high school has widened. This may be more because the income associated with high school has fallen, than it has risen for the educated.

    Lack of the rights skill is at least a part (I think) of the current “crisis”.


  2. johnnykaje says:

    I am one of those “overeducated” Americans. I have a graphic design degree, but currently work as a convenience store clerk. The reasons are several– no graphic design jobs anyway, problems with authority (these days, you have to be insane not to), a post-graduation back injury that prevents me from staying in one position for long periods of time (which not only rules out most jobs in my field, but also most jobs period), and on top of all that, social anxiety disorder. There’s also the ever-encroaching notion in my head that it’s not worth it to contribute to the perpetuation the train wreck that is society. I digress.

    As for colleges- the problems are just as varied. High schools don’t prepare kids for them. They focus more on getting tuition then furthering education. There’s a culture of anti-intellectualism to work against. The cost is too high, limiting your ability to change your mind about what majors to pursue or just to learn in general. Classes have to be dumbed down due to someone being offended. Edu-tainment.

    My solution for future generations? Stowaway to another first world country and raise your generation there. The knot of American miseducation seems much too tangled to be unraveled without radical measures.


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      I understand every point you make in your comment and you have my full sympathy. Not only that, but I agree with all of it, with one exception, i.e., moving to another first-world country for future generations. How do we know the same problem hasn’t spread to them too?

      I have a relative who has anorexia, an anxiety disorder. There is medication that works for her like magic, so if you haven’t already, check it out. You might try the government MedlinePlus web site first. It is excellent. Here is the link:


      You are way too intelligent and articulate to be working as a clerk. Please don’t give up the ship – there is a niche for you somewhere.



  3. ansonburlingame says:

    Kaje and Jim,

    I missed this blog originally because I was out of town. Seeing recent comments on it I have now read it as well as the comments. A good discussion.

    About a year or so ago when I first noticed Kaje in comments on blogs and then found his/her own blog I asked “around” who that person might be. Dave Woods at the Globe told me that Kaje was a Globe employee and I left it there.

    That does not seem to be the case today based on the above personal story. First I am sorry to hear that and join Jim in encouraging you to “get back into the race”. You have far more skills than that required to be a clerk.

    I will also note that “dropping out” is not a current pheomena. I attended college and worked hard to do so in the early sixties. Jim preceeded me in that effort at the same college by a few years. We both went on to achieve and/or contribute to society, professionally for many years thereafter.

    But not all of our contemporaries did so. Those were the days of massive “dropouts” called hippies at the time. They expressed the same disdain in those years for “normal” society and chose a different path to find their own way. Some later rejoined main stream society and went on to high achievment for themselves AND society in general. Some stay embedded in a society of drugs, rebellion, outrage, etc the rest of their lives and remained very bitter people. And some of course became very violent people, Charles Manson being one of them, crazy or sane, who knows for sure.

    Dropping out to find one’s self can be defended if the quest is legitimate and eventually a productive and positive contribution to some society is found. For those more permanent drop outs, well, neither they nor any legitimate society benefits, in my view.

    Good luck Kaje and I mean that sincerely in your quest for whatever you are looking for. And I hope that you find something more beneficial to you and society than simply remaining as a clerk. You seem to be better than that, not that all clerks are bad.



  4. ansonburlingame says:

    Absolutely no quest for fisticuffs.

    Your ability to write and willingness to speak your mind impressed me from blogs. I wanted to know whom I might be disagreeing with. I didn’t have any idea whether you were a “hippie” (however you define it), someone with a real job, or just what.

    My curiosity was perked by your writing and willingness to “engage”. I admired both traits. And if you knocked on my door today I would have no idea whom you might be unless you told me so.

    One other detractor in blogs did take the time to look me up in the phone book and call me at home. That individual made sure he was talking to me then gave me a short message. F… You, Anson Burlingame.

    You zing em like you see em, Kaje and do so with a degree of skill and insight. Keep that up and you will find a niche somewhere.



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