It is a common cliché in the popular discourse that education is of crucial importance to social advancement and personal development. Often, when such claims are made, the allusion will be to the importance of post-secondary education and the attainment of a college degree. However, is there some substance to this claim, beyond the frequency with which it is repeated? Marty Nemko (2008), in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, takes the contrarian view to this dominant opinion, his position provocatively summarized in the text’s title: “America’s Most Overrated Product: The Bachelor’s Degree.” There are two main reasons why such a provocative assertion could in fact be defended. Firstly, there is a simple almost economic law of supply and demand. Not only is it the case that college degrees are no longer markers of exceptional achievement, to the extent that there are more and more college graduates than ever before, but also it appears that there are only very specific degree programs which yield economic and social benefits. (Chisholm et al., 2016) Secondly, the structure of post-secondary education in the United States is economically debilitating, leaving students with long term debts, turning them into debt slaves even for decades after graduate completion. From these perspectives, college can be considered, somewhat provocatively said, as a waste of time, when one considers that not all degrees have the same job market value as well as the debt slavery that results from post-secondary education.
Certainly, as mentioned, this is a viewpoint that contradicts the mainstream narratives. But such a discourse in favor of college degrees does seem to have some quantitative support. There appears to be a “meritocratic power” that is manifested in the degree holder. (Torche, 2011, 764) Such meritocracy is reflected in statistical evidence makes a difference in economics, as “by the early 21st century, college graduates received earnings about 90% higher than their high school graduate counterparts.” (Torche, 2011, 764) While such data seems to be irrefutable, what is not factored into such statistic is future trends, firstly, that there are more and more college graduates, who have degrees in areas which may not be relevant to the economy, and, secondly, the higher earnings do not reflect the debt slavery that arises because of post-secondary education. It is such factors that force us to re-consider the standard claim of the indisputable benefits of a college degree.

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Thus, a key reason for questioning the value of a college degree is the omnipresence of degree holders, without a simultaneous understanding of what college degrees are in demand within society. If a college degree was once a mark of distinction in the job market, it is now something that merely indicates the conformity to an accepted standard, as opposed to representing the exceptional qualities of the prospective employee to the employer. But moreover, the blanket statement that college education is beneficial fails to distinguish between the different degrees which colleges offer. According to quantitative and empirical studies, “an analysis of more than 900 colleges and universities found that some institutions and concentrations of study actually have a negative return over 20 years.” (Chisholm-Burns et al., 2016) There are two key components to this argument which are overlooked in the mainstream “college is unquestionably beneficial narrative.” Firstly, colleges offer an entire variance of different degrees. According to the demands of society and economy, not all these degrees are of the same merit. (Chisholm-Burns et al., 2016) Looking exclusively from the perspective of the future graduate and her financial potential, such as finding a job and income, the blanket statement about the merits of college education is simply too broad a statement to accurately reflect socio-economic realities and what the market wants and looks for in a graduate. (Chisholm-Burns et al., 2016) However, there is another crucial point to this argument, and it is that there is a value which is conferred to degrees from certain institutions as opposed to others. In other words, clearly and intuitively, not all degrees from colleges are viewed in the same light: degrees from some institutions are more valued than others. What the defenders of college education fail to realize is that the nature of the U.S. education system means that some post-secondary institutions are considered elite in comparison to others. The extremes to which this can be gauged is demonstrated in the statistic that graduates from Bluefield College, for example, will earn over a twenty period of employment $123,000 dollars less than high school graduates. (Chisholm-Burns et al., 2016) In contrast, those individuals who receive degrees from Carnegie Mellon University within the same twenty period will have earnings 678,500 higher than high school graduates. (Chisholm-Burns et al., 2016) The blanket defense of college education fails to see the nuances in the types of degrees colleges offer as well as the social status of specific post-secondary institutions.

A second key reason why the college education is irrefutably beneficial narrative must be opposed is the phenomenon of debt. The structure of the American post-secondary system is essentially that of neoliberalism, whereby educational institutions are also viewed from the perspective of generating profit above all else. This is why “four-year colleges admit and take money from hundreds of thousands of students each year” (Nemko, 2008), which clearly fits this neoliberal model, insofar as, firstly, admission standards are lax, so as to increase profit, and, secondly, prices are high, thus creating a situation where a student is ultimately faced with a “mountain of debt.” (Nemko, 2008) It is important to underscore that being admitted to college does not mean that a student will get his or her degree, but they will still be in debt to the institution. (Nemko, 2008) What makes this more harrowing is the evidence that shows that this debt cannot be easily paid off even by degree holders, as mentioned above. From this perspective, the crippling financial costs of college must be rationally scrutinized, so as to understand if such an investment is ultimately worth something more than merely the paper the degree is written on. Tying this point into the previous argument, such debt could potentially be justified, but only on the grounds that, firstly, the student is enrolled in a degree program that is desired by the job market, and, secondly, the student has been admitted into an academic institution that is held in high esteem by the job market. Without satisfying these two criteria, the student is only left with economic crippling debt and no means to pay off this debt. It is precisely the narrative that all college is beneficial which overlooks the hard realities of student debt.

Accordingly, the mainstream discourse about how beneficial education is must be placed under hard scrutiny according to the actual “situation on the ground” with regards to college students and prospective graduates. The point is not that education should be questioned, but rather that the socio-economic situation of college graduates must be taken into account when pondering the value of college education. To the extent that college degrees are no longer rare and that not all college degrees are considered equal, both in terms of the field of the degree and the institution that offers the degree, the blanket statement of the value of college does not hold up to the demands of the job market. Furthermore, when the crippling nature of debt slavery is taken into account, the student must take into account the potential returns on his investment, according to the realities of the neoliberal education system. Odes to higher education sound nice, they encourage young people to improve themselves and develop, but in so far as they do not take into account of socio-economic realities, the pursuit of formal post-secondary education could do more damage than good.

  • Chisholm-Burns, Marie A., Gatwood, Justin, Spivey, Christina A., & Dickey, Susan E. (2016). Break-Even Income Analysis of Pharmacy Graduates Compared to High School and College Graduates. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. Vol. 80, Issue 3, Article 44.
  • Nemko, Marty. “America’s Most Overrated Product: The Bachelor’s Degree.” Chronicle of Higher Education. May 2008.
  • Torche, Florencia. “Is a College Degree Still the Great Equalizer? Intergenerational Mobility across Levels of Schooling in the United States.” American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 117, No. 3, November, 2011. 763-807.