Assessing the Economic Value of a College Education


While I personally happen to think there’s absolutely nothing better  than being able to read, write, and talk vigorously about ideas, I recognize that it’s not everyone’s thing. In particular, Maine’s governor has gone on record repeating the notion floating around the Republican presidential nomination race that college isn’t for everyone. I have met plenty of very bright people who never attended college. LePage is no doubt speaking to and for those people when he says, “study[ing] a little more…it’s not for everyone.”*

In the past, perhaps particularly in Maine, it has been possible for people to gain non-collegiate, apprenticeship-based training in a field that has provided them a very reasonable lifetime career. Since the last recession, however, that has become increasingly less likely.  Even now that employment is picking up, people with only a high school degree are three times as likely to be unemployed as someone with a college degree. The new economic reality is one in which people must be comfortable with technology, both for improving production and communication, with rapid regulatory changes, and with the massive price competition of an internet-enabled world. If you own a convenience store, a roofing company, a landscaping business: you are not going to be able to compete without some college education unless you paid very close attention in high school and are also excellent at learning on the fly. Community colleges are full of people who have realized that they are going to need more than a high school education but are not necessarily in it for the idea-work.

For those have a similarly practical world orientation — not here for the ideas, just looking for a good solid job — the Wall Street Journal had a detailed run-down of the best college majors for securing employment. For people interested in Maine’s economic recovery, the state’s Center for Workforce Research and Information tells the story the governor needs to be telling: occupational groups requiring higher levels of education account for most job growth.

* It’s hard to be as charitable about his motives, however, when he disparages Maine’s education system by giving a falsely low number for Maine’s high school graduation rate and then in the same speech tells people that “reading newspapers in the state of Maine is like paying someone to tell you lies.”  Our governor adheres rather strictly to the Roveian principle that power makes its own realities.

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