I saw an interesting post today about the declining wages of people with college degrees in the US. The author talked about this as if it were surprising and as if there was a need for the government to do something about it but missed the crucial point entirely. The pay for people with college degrees obviously took a hit because of the weakened economy, just as you would expect for any sector, but also it took a further hit because so many people are going to college/university than ever before - the bar is being constantly lowered. The percentage of people who graduate with a degree has been steadily going up but the actual need for those degrees has not been keeping pace. This is abundantly obvious when you check employment ads and discover that degrees are required for all kinds of jobs that cannot possibly make use of them. When I was applying for my job as a mattress salesman, for example, they were looking for people with degrees. Why in the hell would a mattress salesman need a degree, you ask? Good question.
It is not that I believe that degrees bring no value at all. Completing university can, in many cases, give you a wealth of problem solving skills and ways of thinking that can be valuable to a business. The thing is that just as four years in school can be valuable, how about eight? Or thirty? At some point you must ask what the degree is *for* and you very quickly discover that the vast majority are getting them to advance careers that have nothing to do with the degree in question. However, if you want to advance in any given field you are obviously way better off with four years experience than four years in university. Having looked at the folks in university and having seen what they study I can say for certain that if I were hiring I would be much happier with someone with four years of hands on experience in the field than a degree, all other things being equal.
But all other things aren't equal for the person in question. For example, a person with a degree has a towering mountain of debt and someone with experience does not. Even if someone else is paying for the degree you could still take that money and start a business or invest it while you work and end up with a small fortune to go along with your business experience. This is particularly true if you are in one of the more expensive institutions in the US where you could easily end up $200,000 in debt by the end of your four years; a sum that is daunting to pay off by any measure. A degree isn't granting the respect and job opportunities it used to because so many more people are getting degrees. The world needs bricklayers, truck drivers and salespeople and we need to recognize that those people do not need a degree nor a mountain of debt.
It should be noted that getting a coop degree where you get to sample a large number of workplaces, build real experience and heavily mitigate your debt are a great way to avoid this problem. It is entirely possible to end up with relatively minimal debt, a degree and real experience and this strikes me as the best of all worlds... when it works. Which it sometimes doesn't, as I can personally attest.