David Leonhardt's article, The Value of Education in a Recession, in the Wall Street Journal echoes what I have always espoused -- getting an education is worth the effort. While college graduates have been hurt by the recession, like almost everyone else, 4-year college graduates earn about 54% more than those without a college degree. The unemployment of 4-year college graduates is also lower than those with less education.
For anyone who wants to know how getting a degree is going to get them a job, my answer is, "that's not the purpose of a degree." While getting a degree does not guarantee anyone a job, not having a degree is often a huge roadblock to getting a job. That's the difference. The degree doesn't get you the job, but the lack of it becomes a barrier...a huge barrier.
The value of a degree isn't necessarily apparent right away. I taught part-time, evening students at the college/university level for more than 20 years. A common question that arose was, "Why do I have to learn this to get a degree, how is it going to help me on the job?" It was often difficult to get that student over the hurdle of understanding the difference between job training and an overall education. Their goal was to get a degree so they could get a raise or move into a higher-level position in their current organization. To them, the degree was about job safety, security, or advancement.
Sometimes students would come in with the mindset that they could get the syllabus, write some papers, and show up every few weeks to "catch up." They had family demands. Their work lives were busy. They often worked late to keep up. They didn't have time for a demanding college course or professor. Education wasn't their priority. Getting a degree so they could advance in the organization was their priority. Their goal in getting a degree often conflicted with my goal of teaching a subject and, more importantly, educating them.
I also have a long history in providing training, so I do know the difference between job training and education. My basic philosophy is, "Teacher or Educator?: you teach a subject, you educate a mind." Job training is about teaching a subject; getting someone ready to perform a task or series of tasks. Education is about helping people learn how to learn, broadening their perspective on a variety of subjects, and developing the capacity to learn. Hey, even old dogs can learn new tricks -- just ask Raymond, our 12 year old Labrador Retriever. He's trained us well.
It's interesting to see how much of my own education has come into play over the years. Many things I "learned" that I thought I would never use have helped me incredibly in my work and personal lives. But the most important thing that college degree did was to put me on a path of choices about when, where, and for whom I work. I have multiple choices because I can compete for jobs and have an advantage over people without a degree.
That credential of a degree has opened doors. I still have to compete for the job once I get in the door, but the door is open to me. In advising job seekers, I have heard repeatedly from some people that degree preferred really means, "don't bother applying if you don't have a degree." While I don't believe this 100%, I do know that when there are 100+ applicants for every job opening, the quickest way to trim down the list is to drop everyone who applied and didn't have a degree. If the remaining pile doesn't look good, then they might go back and look through the drop list for someone without a degree. But if the first pile has good candidates, they never seem to get back to that circular file.
There are some job areas where a college degree doesn't seem to make much difference in salary, but those areas are diminishing. If you can, get the degree. Start at a community college. Take one or two courses at night to get started. Apply for scholarships and financial aid. Do what you can to move in that direction. Get your Associates Degree (2 years of full-time college study). Once you get into the rhythm of studying and working, just keep going. It takes time, but it is possible. I know. I worked full time, got my undergraduate and graduate degrees at night, and haven't stopped studying since. Even while teaching, I took courses just to learn about that topic. I still attend workshops and seminars on many topics. I know it's not leading to another degree, but I have the basic credentialing and use training to keep my skills updated and broaden what I know. This helps me remain competitive in the job market.
Does a college degree help anyone? Yes, it does. And not having a college degree can actually hinder you. If you haven't "studied" in many years, or were a marginal performer in high school, at least try to take some training courses or preparatory college-level courses. Get started. Do it now. You'll thank yourself later.