Why Go to College?

Why Go to College?

It's easy to figure out that a college degree is a sound investment for an individual. Whether all those college graduates are good for the economy is a much trickier calculation.

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THE SOURCE: “How Many College Graduates Does the U.S. Labor Force Really Need?” by Paul E. Barton, in Change, Jan.–Feb. 2008.

Few but the foolhardy would dispute the value of a college education. In addition to enjoying the intrinsic benefits of four years of education beyond high school, college graduates simply make more ­mon­ey—­a lot ­more.

But Paul E. Barton, a senior associate at the Educational Testing Service, asks not whether higher education is good for you or ­me—­it ­is—­but whether more college graduates are necessary to American prosperity. That answer is far less clear. The occupations that are expanding most, he writes, don’t require a degree. The fields that do aren’t adding large numbers of new ­jobs.

Take the government’s estimates of the needs of the 10 fastest-growing occupations between 2004 and 2014. These occupations range from home health aide (No. 1) to computer engineer in applications (No. 5) and in systems software (No. 8). Only 39 percent of the jobs in the 10 occupations require a college education. That’s 615,000 jobs. The total number of U.S. jobs is expected to increase by nearly 19 ­million.

The outlook is different when researchers study the 30 occupations with the greatest projected job growth in absolute terms, rather than percentage terms. These occupations, led by salesperson and registered nurse, are expected to need about 8.8 million new workers. But only 30 percent of these positions will require a college ­degree.

Overall, a mere 29 percent of all jobs required ­post­secondary education in 2004, and that proportion is expected to rise only to 31 percent by 2014. Such modest growth actually outpaces the norm. Between 1984 and 2000, a period when highly technical occupations became more numerous, the rise in the number of jobs in these occupations was so small that the average level of education needed for all jobs stayed exactly the ­same.

There is no question that higher education enriches society, but the real benefit is to the individual. Barton quotes the late political scientist Stephen K. Bailey: “I get an education so that later in life when I knock on me, somebody answers.”

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