The College Degree Has Become the New High School Degree

909 words | 4 page(s)

Years ago, a college education was an entitlement of the upper-class. Prestigious universities such as Harvard and Yale offered liberal arts educations, replete with courses in literature, philosophy, and ancient languages, which taught students how to think critically, but not necessarily how to do anything. With the end of World War II, the advent of the G.I. Bill, and availability of college loans and low-cost or free community colleges, students from all socio-economic strata invaded the ivy halls (Cox, 2009). As their numbers became more plentiful, and in response to changing technological and employment demands, colleges of that by-gone era for many students transformed into specialty schools, teaching skills for specific employment or post-graduate professional training. To get a job in the IT industry, one needed a college degree computer sciences, and so forth (Kleiman, 2104, p.1). So entrenched has this concept become, that a recent New York Times editorial warned that students who decide to attend college should “think long and hard about what they want to do for a living and select his or her major wisely, focusing on skills that will land them a job post-graduation” (Kleiman, 2104, p.1). Is college now a learning terminus, designed not to broaden one’s experiences but to teach skills for future employment? Even more importantly, if this is the case, is college as effective in fulfilling this role as was high school for generations of youth who never aspired to higher education, yet sought and obtained satisfying or at least economically-sustaining jobs? The answers lie in the numbers, and according to them, there are still numerous reasons, most of them financial, to attribute more intrinsic value to a college degree than the comparable certificate from high school.

Despite some insinuations to the contrary, college degrees are not on a par with high school degrees of the past. From the 1960s onward, each successive generation has experienced an ever-increasing earnings gap between college and high school graduates, as shown by the following graph:

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Despite large numbers of recent college graduates encumbered by heavy student loan debt (Pope, 2014), and examples of underemployment abounding (the coffee-serving “barista with a B.A.”) (Kutlzeben, 2014), the return on investment of even a basic two-year associate level degree over a high school degree exceeds half a million dollars during a forty year span (UHCC, 2015). While more students may be graduating from both high school and college today than in the past (Ganzel, 20007; Cox, 2009), the opportunities available to each respectively are not commensurate, nor have they ever been. For instance, for those seeking to better their lot dramatically, “education is the only way to break the cycle of generational poverty” (Boyers, 2012, p. 1) According to Boyers, short-sighted secondary school graduates believe they can earn as much initially out of high school as they could after graduating college, so the time and money spent (or debt incurred) is not worth it. This is far from the truth, he explains. “A college graduate’s educational value is not based on the salary received for their first job. Students must realize the big picture: the most significant returns on educational investment come from the jobs following their first post-college position” (Boyers, 2012, p. 1).

According to another study, the disparity is not so much dependent upon the improvement of today’s college graduates over those of the past, but the worsening conditions faced by individuals who only have high school degrees (Pew Research Center, 2014). While many college graduates may be underemployed, often working at minimum wage jobs, they still have an easier time obtaining employment in these harsh economic times than do their high school graduate counterparts (Kurtlzeben, 2014). Given the overall disparity in lifetime earnings, the disproportionate impact of economic downturns on those without college degrees, and the personal, even familial, satisfaction attendant to educational achievement (Boyers, 2012), it seems clear that a college degree today holds greater value than a high school degree of this or any previous era. While many may feel compelled to treat college as a means to an end rather than an opportunity to learn for the sake of learning, there is still the option, even for majors in technical fields, to study subjects in college that will make one “interesting and well-rounded” (Kleiman, 2014). The fact that some college graduates are filling slots previously left to high-school graduates only does not mean that their degrees have been relegated to equivalent status. College degrees today, akin to those of the past, are set apart from high school degrees both in terms of economic and broadening experiential opportunities.

  • Boyers, J. (2012). Is Higher Education Even Worth It?” Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/
  • Cox, E. (2009). “Teen-aged Life in the 1950s.” Rewind the fifties. Retrieved from http://www.loti.com
  • Ganzel, B. (2007). “Education in Rural America.” Wessel’s Living History Farm. Retrieved from http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org
  • Kleiman, J. (2014). “Why Getting a Liberal Arts College Education is not a Mistake.” Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com
  • Kutzleben, D. (2014). “Study: Income Gap between Young College and High School Grads Widens.” US News & World Report. Retrieved from
  • Pew Research Center. (2014). “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.” Pewsocialtrends. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/
  • Pope, J. (2012). “College Costs: New Research Weighs the True Value of a College Education.” Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com
  • University of Hawaii Community Colleges (UHCC). (2015). “High School vs. Associate Degree Earnings. University of Hawaii Community Colleges. Retrieved from http://uhcc.hawaii.edu/

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