One of the questions I regularly pose to my economics students is whether a college education is a contributor to productivity. Intriguingly, what I get in response often parallels the views of Greg Ip of the Wall Street Journal (2008, “The Declining Value Of Your College Degree”), who argues “college-educated workers are more plentiful, more commoditized and more subject to the downsizings that used to be the purview of blue-collar workers only. What employers want from workers nowadays is more narrow, more abstract and less easily learned in college.” In essence, the value of a college degree is said to be “not what it was.”
Nonetheless, a college education remains an important predictor of productivity (and earnings) in the marketplace. Even Ip concedes that “the average American with a college diploma still earns about 75% more than a worker with a high-school diploma and is less likely to be unemployed.” Given these facts, how can it be that students are so vexed by the value proposition of their education?
I have previously written about our new economy, the need for good people in our society, as well as the importance of polyvalence in the workplace. I argue here that there exists today a crying need for people with versatile skills sets in what is a transforming global economy and that the university offers the best opportunity to acquire the knowledge required to succeed in this environment.
This leads to the next contention I often hear from students, that “experience counts more than education?” My response to this view is, “not really,” because what is paramount is neither experience nor education, but skills, and if one is complacent in acquiring new skills experientially, embedded knowledge eventually becomes obsolete. The good news is that experience often translates into new more refined skills. The bad news is that breadth and depth of knowledge are not assured through experiential learning. Hence, attention is required to ensure one’s career track includes a multiplicity of experiences in organization and management across a diversity of functions, and eventually industries. In my view, the university offers the most efficient place to acquire breadth and depth of knowledge, as opposed to the workplace, where resources and opportunities for the same are typically limited. Experience that does not result in additional skills has little value in the workplace.
Finally, there is the matter of college graduates who are anomalously incompetent. This happens, and when it does, these people are released for cause. Those who finish a college degree program while somehow avoiding skill acquisition, do so at their peril. Acquiring new skills is the responsibility of all workers who wish to enhance or expand their careers, but especially college graduates. To attend a college or university and not acquire new knowledge along the way is a bewildering and perplexing outcome that defies good judgment.
Concluding, a college education is the most reliable track to improving skills, productivity, and earnings. And while experience can certainly result in new skills, the typical worker will find acquiring the breadth and depth of knowledge necessary to enhance or expand a career through experience alone, challenging. A college degree is still the most profound symbol of embedded knowledge available in our society today.