Guest Column

The value of a four-year degree is over an entire career

March 28, 2014
| By Lou Glazer |
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The Grand Rapids Business Journal reported that Gov. Rick Snyder, at the economic summit he hosted in Grand Rapids, said: “Michigan education is “too often focused on a diploma or a degree, and not saying, ‘Are you career ready?’”

The Business Journal writes: In determining Michigan’s economic future, “probably the single most important issue is talent,” according to Snyder — specifically, technically skilled talent for Michigan manufacturing and agriculture. (Emphasis added.)

At about the same time, Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, said at the South by Southwest Technology Conference: “If all you care about is money, you should go to college. If all you care about is culture and creativity, you should go to college. If all you care about is having fun, you should go to college. Go to college. I can’t be any clearer.” (Emphasis added.)

If facts matter — and increasingly they don’t in our politics or public conversation — this should be conventional wisdom, rather than what is fast becoming conventional wisdom: that if you don’t get a four-year degree in a STEM field, you are better off going to a community college to become a machinist (or similar technical occupation).

As Schmidt said, it can’t be clearer: The value of a four-year degree during the course of a career is rising, not falling. A recent report from the Pew Research Center makes the case that no matter what you hear, the reality is millennials with a four-year degree are doing substantially better than their peers without a four-year degree. End of story!

The key Pew findings for today’s 25-32-year-olds:

Unemployment rate:

  • Bachelors or more: 3.8 percent
  • Two-year degree or some college: 8.1 percent
  • High school degree: 12.2 percent

Median annual earnings for full-time workers:

  • Bachelors or more: $45,500
  • Two-year degree or some college: $30,000
  • High school degree: $28,000

Does the Michigan economy need more young adults after high school to pursue careers in the skilled trades and other technical jobs requiring the equivalent of an associate’s degree or occupational certificate? Of course. Not mainly in manufacturing and agriculture, however. Those two sectors are a declining component of the American and Michigan economies.

But the need for more skilled technicians should not be in place of more Michiganders earning four-year degrees. The best way to meet Gov. Snyder’s career-ready standard is getting a four-year degree or more.

The evidence is overwhelming: Those with a four-year degree earn more and work more over a career than those with less education. And the gap since the onset of the Great Recession is growing, according to the Pew report, not, as conventional wisdom tells us, shrinking.

The value of a four-year degree or more is far more than how quickly a graduate gets a first job and how much it pays. Rather, the payoff is over an entire career. It comes from having skills that give you a competitive edge in all industries and most occupations, in having skills that may not be in demand today but will be in the future, and in learning how to learn so that you can better spot new opportunities and take advantage of them in a constantly changing labor market.

The value of higher education is in developing broad skills — including becoming a lifelong learner — that are the foundation of successful 40-year careers. These are careers that will look much more like rock climbing than ladder climbing. Building a foundation to do well over a long career is only going to grow in value in an economy where technology and globalization accelerate creative destruction that is destroying jobs and occupations and creating new, unimaginable jobs and occupations at a quicker and quicker pace.

If the goal is an education system designed to prepare career-ready students, then Michigan’s education system is not too focused on college degrees. One can make a strong case that the opposite is true: Both the Michigan public and its leaders are not committed enough to the need to increase four-year degree attainment.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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