Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Don't Kid Yourself! It's An Investment!

Don’t kid yourself. Your career decision is an investment. The time and money you spend getting job skills and a career are as much or more an investment than choosing a portfolio of stocks and bonds. For most Americans, the notion of education for education’s sake is a relic of a past that never really existed. The lifetime difference between a degree in early childhood education and a degree in petroleum engineering is over $3,000,000.

In the years prior to 1970, a college degree, any college degree was enough to guarantee the graduate a job that required a college degree. That sheepskin was proof enough to a prospective employer that the young person in front of his desk was reasonably intelligent and disciplined enough to survive in a cubicle or an office. That guarantee began to fall by the wayside in the recession of 1973 that was triggered by the first oil crisis.

According to Moneybox, the current unemployment rate for recent college graduates is running about 8.5%. The U-6 rate for recent graduates that includes discouraged workers and those working part time because they can’t find full time employment runs about 16.8%. It is a little more difficult to find a hard number on recent college graduates working full time in jobs that don’t require a college degree, but it is somewhere in the 40%-45% ballpark. Not only are those disappointed unhappy college grads, but their presence in the workforce denies less desirable potential employees the opportunity to take an entry level job.

There is another very bad dimension to this story, a $35,051 average debt load for the class of 2015. That isn’t too much of a problem for the petroleum engineer, but $35,000 will handicap the graduate in early childhood education for maybe 20 years of his life; if he is lucky. Some numbers? Student loans totaling $35,000 at 8% paid over 20 years will cost the unlucky student a realistic $293 a month. That totals out at $70,261.

Every decision we make has consequences, some planned, some unintended.

Probably degrees in the medical field represent the safest possible investment for the foreseeable future. As the Baby Boom declines into dotage, there will be no shortage of work for medical doctors, registered nurses, pharmacists, medical technicians, and specialized administrative assistants of all sorts.

Obtaining a degree in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, one of the (STEM) disciplines, tends to be a pretty solid decision, but be careful. When my father graduated in 1942 with a BS in chemistry, it was the workplace equivalent of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. Today that degree might get you a job washing test tubes. I know a man who once upon a time found himself in this position. Since he could drive a tractor, his employer also let him cut the grass. He returned to school to earn a Master’s degree. Then he was allowed to work as a chemist. When my father retired he was in charge of a small group of chemists working in a research laboratory. Every one of my father’s employees had a Ph.D. If you want to become a chemist it will take seven years or longer, fully 1/10 of the three score and ten years given to man to labor and sorrow under the sun. Without scholarships, grants, or assistantships, $15,000 a year as a commuting student at an inexpensive state school will run you $105,000. At an expensive private school, that number will be more like $735,000.

Wikipedia tells us that, "The liberal arts are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberal, "worthy of a free person") to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service."

As far as I can tell in the more immediate past, the primary purpose of the liberal arts degree was the application of a veneer of culture to the sons (not daughters) of the landed gentry. The universities also offered an education in the liberal arts to bright young men from any social class in order to provide the state church with a reliable source of priests, and generate enough teachers to make the university a self sustaining operation. If you are the son or daughter of a wealthy politically powerful family, the liberal arts degree combined with a Juris Doctor degree might well guarantee you a proprietary seat in congress. If you are planning a career in teaching or the ministry one of the liberal arts might make a good choice. Otherwise I find it difficult to justify spending four years of your life and $250,000 of your parents’ money obtaining a bachelors degree in English Literature from a private university. The social sciences are not much better.

If your first name is Amadeus or Leonardo perhaps you are destined for a career in the fine arts. Like athletics, there are a few big winners, but most students will never earn a living practicing music or art. While I believe music class and art class have their place in elementary education and that offering elective classes such as band or chorus in high school is a fine thing, I don’t think going to college to get a degree in the fine arts is a good investment of time or money for most students. If you want to play the guitar, just play the guitar. If you are good enough, someone will pay to listen to you or learn from you. That is also true of those of us who like to write. Maybe, someday, I will get good enough that people will pay to read what I write, but until then, as the song says:

Let the boy boggie woogie.
It’s in him and its and its got to come out.

Here is a brand new, exhaustive study from Georgetown University analyzing the economic value of just about any imaginable college degree. Of course the selection of a major and a career require that one be attracted to that discipline, desire to do the work required to reach proficiency, and have enough aptitude to make the grades. However, it is still an investment decision requiring some cold blooded, hard hearted analysis.

The Economic Value of College Majors

No comments:

Post a Comment