Thursday, July 21, 2011

What's the value of college?

Just a couple of months ago, I attended the college graduation of my youngest son, William, marking the third time in four years I've sat through one of my children's college commencements. It's become somewhat expected now that a high school graduate will move on to college, but historically that's not been the case, and I've begun to wonder lately if the experience isn't a bit overrated.

My father was one of eight children, all of whom were raised on a farm, and of the eight, I believe only two had any sort of post-high school education, involving what was then known as "Teacher's college." I may be wrong, but I don't think there is a single four-year degree among them, and all went on to have productive lives as business owners, farmers, postal workers and such, even a newspaper editor.

These eight Droogsmas produced nearly 40 offspring, and among my first cousins I would guess that two-thirds of us went on to attend college, a generational change that would seem to be in line with the usual American demographics. Now, in my household, the percentage of college grads has risen to 75%.

But will that college degree help them achieve more vocational success than they might otherwise have had? I'm beginning to wonder.

It's a bigger topic for another day, but I've been thinking about it lately because of a series of posts at the National Review website. One today, in particular, frames the question in an interesting way. It was written to NR's John Derbyshire, an exceptional mathematician and author who is largely disdainful of higher education. Here's a letter he received, which I'll just reprint here and write more about later, but it's interesting food for thought. Enjoy:


Saw your post today about college and thought you would find this interesting and depressing.

I work as an energy trader and recently took a customer down to Appalachia to visit some coal mines. On our visit to one of the mines, there was a large sign prominently displayed: Accepting Applications. Once the meeting and mine tour were finished we were in the mine manager’s office and I asked him, “How come you’re hiring? Did you just lose some workers?”

“Hell, no!” was the reply. “We are always looking for people.”

Not sure if you have had the chance to visit Appalachia, but there are large pockets of poverty here, especially when the overall unemployment throughout the country is close to 10 percent. Hard to imagine there would be any job openings. So I asked him again, “How come? Don’t you pay enough?”

He explained to me that a high school graduate can start working at the mine and make roughly $40K a year. After 90 days of training (or in the industry lingo, when a worker goes from being a “red hat” to a “black hat”) that pay jumps up to about $50K a year.

Now granted, this isn’t easy work. It’s a 50-hour work week (with overtime of course), which includes night shifts and weekends. But $50K for a high school graduate?

The manager went on to explain to me that, “If you know which end of a wrench to pick up” the company will be glad to train you to be an electrician, equipment operator, etc. in which case your salary will rise to $75–$100K a year.

I asked him, “Then how come you can’t get workers?”

His reply was telling. “All you have to do to get a mine job is come to work every day, work reasonably hard, and pee clean. We just can’t find people who can do this.”

Apparently it’s not even illegal drugs. Legal prescription painkillers are the main cause. People will shop doctors and get multiple prescriptions. Doctors are happy to prescribe these, because they run clinics and make money from Medicaid selling the pills.

Finally I asked the manager, who was in his mid 50s or so, “What about your kids?”

He replied: “Oh, they both went to college.”

“What are they doing now?”

“Working for the state government.”

“How much do they get paid?”

“About $25 grand a year.”

I won’t waste your time describing how many things about this 5 minute conversation made me depressed about the current state of the U.S.A. I’ll focus on one thing.

How can someone rationally decide that it is a better choice to go to college, waste time and money for four years, only to get a job that pays half or less of another job you could get? Are people so deathly afraid of hard work?

I grew up in a steel mill town in eastern Pennsylvania. Before unions ruined the mill in the early 80s, I can recall most of the men in the town being happy, well paid, successful blue collar workers who could afford nice homes, nice cars, vacations, all while having a sense of pride and accomplishment in what they were doing.

Where has this attitude gone?

I’m fortunate enough to make a comfortable living sitting behind a desk, but if I could make more as a laborer, I would do it in an instant.

1 comment:

  1. Now find an article that justifies my thousands of dollars of debt, please. It will give me some reading while on break at my crappy job.