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David Nightingale: College Degrees

How important is a college degree? It's an age-old question, and it's related to  unequal pay, useful work in a society, and many other factors.

There have been plenty of examples of people who chose not to get a degree. Drop-outs from Harvard for example(ref.1)  include Robert Frost, Pete Seeger, Adlai Stevenson, Eugene O'Neill, William Randolph Hearst, Buckminster Fuller, Matt Damon – which is only a few from many names we might recognize – and Ben Franklin never went to any college at all.  Nor did Faraday (not by choice) – and Einstein, a high school drop-out (like Edison) only just managed to graduate with a teachers degree.

Peter Thiel, the 43 yr old billionaire who launched PayPal, has been offering a Fellowship since 2010 of $100,000 for 2 years, to a couple of dozen candidates (under 20) who will promise to drop out of college!

In a recent article in TIME Magazine(ref.2) lifetime earnings for a high school graduate are (currently) about $1.4 million, and for holders of a bachelor's degree ~ $2.4 million. So, spread over a typical 40 yr career this amounts to a $25,000 bump in salary compared to someone without a degree. Average student debt upon graduation was stated to be about $26,000.

An oft-heard plea, especially from politicians, is that 'everyone must go to college'. In the sciences, and medicine, yes, a college education is of great value, but are people saying that if you want to be a rapper, a tax man, a postal employee, a carpenter, a stone mason, an explorer, an Amtrak driver, a hair stylist, and for that matter countless other occupations, you should have a degree? This statement about 'everyone' seems far too general.

Nowadays, online degrees, by entities such as Udacity (ref.3) (which is run by a former Stanford professor) offering carefully-presented courses in mathematics, computer science and so on are increasingly popular. Such courses, all almost free, are open to thousands worldwide, with infinite replay chances – and with final exams being taken at secure testing places, such as a school or university. How does such education compare with the expensive tuition in a freshman class of 100 at an Ivy League college – possibly taught by a graduate student with (again, possibly) a difficult accent?

Just the other day I learned that the young man serving me my coffee had earned a history BA 6 years earlier, and, another week, the young woman doing the same thing had a Master's degree in Biology – yet, no jobs. In the summer, the person taking my ticket at the Preserve said she completed her master's in Art Teaching, and the woman selling me my paper said she had recently completed her graduate degree in Music Therapy 2 years ago. So, if quote, 'everyone' gets a degree, what gives?

Now what about these earnings differences? There are college graduates in law, for example, getting 3, 4, 10 times as much as the skilled technician who knows how to keep his car running; and society chooses to reward the legislator who has a law degree far more than the builder, when the former, I submit, may frequently be not as useful (-- yes, of course, useful to whom?) And how can an MBA, manipulating numbers on Wall Street, be 'worth' to society twenty times that of the skilled clothier who made one of his suits?

We can't all be genius drop-outs like Einstein or Edison. For the majority, college will reward us, if we study hard, with a degree. But then, has the 'ed biz' become more of a biz than it should be? As an example, I never forget the famous observatory at Ole Miss essentially put out of action by glare from the new football field – there being more money in sports than in Astronomy. And, is there a tendency to water-down courses just to attract numbers?

The questions go on and on, but I will finish with the obvious: while college frequently offers the chance to open doors, as well as to interact with people willing to see many sides of topics (and who may even sometimes become lifelong friends) a degree is one of the very few things -– unlike money, car, or house -- that can't be taken away from us.


1.  The internet has many such lists, which seem consistent.

2.  TIME, Oct 29, 2012, pp 31-41.

3.  Other online MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) include  COURSERA and edX [mentioned also in Ref.2.]


Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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