What’s a college degree worth?
This post is what’s known as catharsis. I took part in a loud discussion last night with my extended family. In fact, it was so loud, some of my family members completely wuss’d out and left. We have words for those people in these parts: losers who would be the first to be eaten during a zombie apocalypse. The discussion centered around whether college football players should be “paid.” I’m sure you’ve heard the argument before: these schools make huge dollars off of these poor, sad college athletes, and they can’t even afford to buy a pizza. Oh, and their knees will hurt forever. Of course, when one of these sad athletes breaks the rules, they aren’t caught with free pizzas; they’re caught getting free tattoo’s, or cars, or houses; but I digress…. Now, some argued that there shouldn’t be any athletic scholarships for academic institutions. That’s fine. I can appreciate that argument, and even support it. There is something a bit off when one person needs to score a certain SAT score or have a certain GPA to get into college, while some other guy just has to be able to be 300 pounds and spell his name. But that wasn’t the point of the argument.
The discussion hit its “loudness” apex when someone actually uttered something about slavery. And by “apex” I mean that’s when I started to get truly loud because the comment was so absurd I almost spit out my drink. And this person was one of my more conservative family members! Give me a break. Nobody is forcing the poor kids to play a college sport. They do it voluntarily. And with good reason. They don’t have any problem getting chicks.
I’ve always argued that the “should we pay college athletes” is a non-sensical starting point because we already pay them. And if you ask all of the Occupy-Wall-Streeters, we pay college athletes a lot…since they come out of college with no debt. And don’t forget about room and board, and that stipend they get to, you guessed it, buy pizza with if they’d like. At that point, several people said to me, and I’m paraphrasing here, “who cares if they get a degree? It’s not like they’re going to class or getting a real education.” I’m not sure what is meant by “real education,” but I’m guessing it involves something other than not going to class and graduating with a worthless major. Later, someone else argued that a college degree is only worth the tuition amount, while the school is raking in a disproportionate amount in revenue. It’s at this point that I, admittedly, lost my mind. Not only because it’s a completely ridiculous argument, but because it’s a completely disingenuous argument…and by disingenuous, I mean no one defending the argument actually agrees with the assertion in their own lives.
I asked one of my family members if they would be sending their kid to college. Knowing the answer before they answered the question, I asked “why?” Well, they didn’t answer the question, only offering a sly smile. Others accused me of “brow-beating” or asking irrelevant questions. It wasn’t surprising that my opponents aggressively avoided this point. The answer is obvious. You send your kids to school because a college degree — any degree — vastly improves their chances of living a comfortable life. Does it matter if the kid got an “education” when he was in school, whatever that may mean? Is a football player getting a free degree in exercise science any different than a pot-smoking/alcohol-binging student who barely makes it to class, borderline flunks out, and then takes a fifth-year glory lap to graduate with a 2.0 gpa and a communications degree? While doing it on his/her parents’ dime? There’s no difference. At all. At least the football player gives me something to do on Saturday.
The conversation got so far afield that we talked about non-revenue sports and Title IX. Geez, at one point someone divided the football revenue of the University of Michigan and deemed paying every football player a little over $1 million was reasonable. None of this, of course, matters in relation to the ultimate point. The entire argument that we should pay college athletes is based on one premise: that someone getting a college degree, that they would likely be unable to obtain without an athletic scholarship, is of no value; or that its value is somehow less than what they’re getting in return. While shooting from the hip, I offered an argument that would have garnered immediate agreement on any other day (although by that point my opponents had dug themselves in so deep that they wouldn’t concede anything). What argument you ask? That, regardless of the “education” one receives, simply owning that stupid little piece of paper called a degree matters. A lot.
The report titled “The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings” (.pdf) reveals that over an adult’s working life, high school graduates can expect, on average, to earn $1.2 million; those with a bachelor’s degree, $2.1 million; and people with a master’s degree, $2.5 million.