Does a College Degree Lead to Higher Lifetime Earnings?

As a former high school counselor, I continue to be frustrated by the myth we have so resoundingly bought into. Namely–the idea that a 4-year college degree is the single BEST option for students to pursue after high school. Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that a 4-year degree is not a GOOD path, I’m just suggesting that it is simply that… A path–not THE SINGLE BEST path for ALL.

One of the arguments I often hear to support this myth is the idea that on the average, over their lifetime, college graduates will earn about 62% more than non-college graduates. This argument presumes that a ’cause and effect’ relationship exists. In other words, the argument by default implies that it was the college degree itself that leads to the higher earnings. Pile of Money

Without a doubt, there are some high-paying, career paths that require at a minimum a 4-year degree just for entry. Certainly, it is easy to see how one might jump to the conclusion that higher-paying opportunities are synonymous with a college degree.

However, one might also argue that the reason college graduates enjoy higher lifetime earnings has more to do with the type of individual who successfully graduates from college than the degree itself. In other words, is it possible that college graduates are smarter, more motivated, more talented, and/or naturally more goal-oriented than persons who don’t graduate from college? Perhaps this same group of students would have been just as financially successful without a college degree just because of ‘who they are.’ Case in point–Bill Gates or how about Kevin Bacon and Walt Disney. Kevin and Walt not only didn’t go to college, they dropped out of high school.

An article in Forbes recently reported,

“According to a number of studies, small differences in SAT scores, which you take before going to college, correlate with measurably higher incomes.”

HMM. So maybe it’s less about graduating from college and more about having attributes associated with college graduates.

Lest you think, I’m suggesting high school graduates shouldn’t go to college, let me be clear. I’m simply suggesting we are doing a real disservice to many kids when we proliferate the idea that college is the best path. In my mind, it is only the best path if a college degree is what a student needs for entry into the career path they wish to pursue.

I’m also suggesting, kids would be much better served if we turned our energies from trying to ‘cram’ a college prep curriculum down the throats of all students, to providing comprehensive career counseling to help students better understand who they are and what they would like to do in life. Students should know “WHAT” they want to do, before they decide “WHERE” to enroll to earn the credentials. There are many viable paths beyond high school. (Apprenticeships, College Degree, Military, Technical School….) All have the potential to lead completers to satisfying, valuable career paths. The question is which option is the most appropriate path for an individual student to achieve their vocational interests.


About Deb

I am a lifelong educator with experience in special education, counseling and staff development. Special interests outside of my chosen career field include entrepreneurship, investing and financial literacy.
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