How college matters

Date posted: August 8, 2012

In general, people see more doors open and higher salaries if they have a college degree than if they don’t. Does this mean having a college diploma automatically leads to economic prosperity? N.C. State University economist Mike Walden responds.

“Well thanks for that (softball question) … and I’m going to hit it out of the park. The obvious answer is no. Now actually it used to be yes. If you think back perhaps with our parents’ generation, people who were coming onto the labor force in the 1930s and 1940s — I know that ages us — if you had a college degree then you were very unusual. You were very different. And that could pretty much guarantee you a very, very high level pay.

“Today, of course, college is much more prevalent. About 25 percent of all adults now have a college degree, and what that means is it’s not that different. It’s not that unique anymore. And so it’s not necessarily just having a college degree that’s going to get you a good-paying job. Instead it’s going to matter what you learn in college and how you perform.

“So employers are increasingly looking at things like academic performance, the specific courses you took, the major, and even the specific college that you attended and that college’s or university’s reputation.

“So I think what this comes down to is a message to students — it’s not just going to college that’s going to improve your future economic prosperity, it’s what you learn and do with that degree.”

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