The Value of College

Big life lessons on display in the last few years: Don’t lie to the FBI. Don’t sexually harass coworkers. Don’t bribe people to get your kid into college.

The college bribe scandal exposed this week is interesting because college is so competitive, involves so much money, and is driven by so much ego – the trifecta fraud fuel – that I’m surprised this is the first big one we’ve heard about. Maybe it’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s almost certainly the tip of the iceberg.

But the truth for law-abiding folks is that going to college is more important than ever.

Over the last 27 years – a full generation – all net job growth has gone to people who went to college. Pulling data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are fewer jobs today held by people who didn’t go to college than there were in 1992, when the working-age population was one-third lower:

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This doesn’t mean college was required to ride the job growth train. Some people go to college and then work in jobs that don’t require a degree.

But I almost think that doesn’t matter. For better or worse – I’m not sure which – the idea of having a job without a degree is rare. If you break this out by generation, it’s going to keep getting rarer. And then forget the ROI, forget whether you’re learning practical job skills. A top reason to go to college becomes, “Because I don’t know anyone who didn’t.” The value starts to become more social than economic. Which – at a pathetic and illegal level – is what a parent who Photoshops their son onto a picture of a football player to get them into USC is after.