Why Your Degree Doesn't Matter

By Christina Sterbenz

College students have developed a gambling problem. We throw $200,000 on the table for a degree, ask the pretty blonde to blow on our dice, and hope for a job. But the odds don’t fall in our favor. Half of college students don’t graduate, leaving them to fight for a career, sans degree. And those that survive all four years still face massive debt in a poor economy.

UnCollege, a social movement created by Dale Stephens challenges the idea that college is the sole path to success.Stephens says “academic inflation” has degraded the value of a degree—intellectually and economically. Right now, the national unemployment rate hovers around eight percent (even higher for the 25-and-under crowd), forcing grads into jobs that barely require simple math, let alone organic chemistry. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog, “Innovations,” over 317,000 waiters, 80,000 bartenders, and 18,000 parking lot attendants hold some type of degree.

As the college-educated flood the job market, they’ll soon discover their degrees don't entitle them to a six-figure salary. Degree-holders take unskilled jobs from the non-college population, hanging them to dry on the unemployment line. Requirements for minimum-wage work naturally increase, and students feel even more pressure to attend college. If the trend continues, saying “Do you want fries with that?” might soon require a B.A. in English.

Unfortunately, we can’t exactly buy a degree off the dollar menu. Our preoccupation with college can break even the plumpest of piggy banks. Vice President Joe Biden claims that tuition rates at public universities have jumped 300 percent in the last 30 years. With this rise comes a surge in student debt. Last November, the Huffington Post ran this headline: “Average Student Loan Debt: $25,250.” For those of you who never learned long division (but got into college anyway), that means about 10 years of monthly $210 payments.

Yet all the debt in the world can’t dispel the social branding of college. With higher education consuming us, we grossly undervalue “non-professional” labor like construction and auto-mechanics. Since the world always needs transportation, mechanics have more opportunities for entrepreneurship and advancement. Still, society shuns them as grease monkeys—dirty, blue-collar workers. Stephens, however, wishes the U.S. offered skilled apprenticeship programs like Germany or Switzerland. “There are jobs that don’t require you to put on a suit and tie that are respected,” he says. “You should be free to decide whether you want to go to college or don’t—and not have stigmas attached to that.”

But today’s relentless insistence on college can make the path less-traveled almost impossible. Parents want us to go to college. Society wants us to go to college. Hell, most of us want to go to college. And universities realize they have both the ambitious and the afraid-to-fail in the palms of their hands. Professor William Coplin, head of the public affairs major in Maxwell, is a long-time dissenter of the modern university. He says that as profit-making institutions, colleges want to enroll as many students as possible, even if they don’t meet the requirements. According to career and education coach Marty Nemko, 76 percent of college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school won’t earn a diploma. Colleges also want to graduate as many as possible—the ultimate self-promotion. But they have to lower curricula to meet students’ lack of ability, making our degrees less meaningful in the real world to further their own financial agendas.

Now, we obviously shouldn’t abolish college. Students do, however, need to make active decisions about their education. If you want to stay in “summer camp that costs $200,000” as Coplin says, by all means, keep writing those poli-sci papers. But if not, don’t feel pressured by a society that wrongly equates success with an overrated piece of paper. Steve Jobs didn’t.