Home > And More > What’s a college degree worth?

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.
That’s right.  Your run-of-the-mill college degree is worth just under $1 million dollars over a graduate’s work-life.  And this guy goes as high as $2.2 million.  Why?  We all know the reason (even my opponents from last night).  Most decent jobs require a college degree before they will even look at your resume.  That’s it.  A degree.  Not a degree from someone who could work their alarm clock.  Not a degree from someone who was on the Dean’s List.  Not a degree from someone who thought Dark Side of the Moon was just fine without additional help.  Just a degree. And these figures aren’t looking at a Stanford degree vs. a Ferris State degree.  Or engineering vs. philosophy.  Just a “degree.”
So, how much is a football player being compensated by getting a scholarship to a school like Southern Cal?  Well, assuming they wouldn’t have qualified on their own…at least $1 million on average.  And since we’re talking about a more highly-ranked school like Southern Cal, probably more.
So, here’s my message to those out there that believe we should pay college athletes, specifically football players, because they don’t earn enough: you’re wrong.  It’s a simple as that.   Unless you think we should pay them more than a 1-2 million bucks to play college ball.  And if you do, then you’re not just wrong, you’re mentally challenged.
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  1. Matt
    October 30, 2011 at 1:21 PM

    How you missed this last night and continue to miss it escapes me. No one is or was arguing that a college education is “worth” more than it’s cost. It’s cost, however, is all the athlete is being compensated. He’s not being given the full measure of its “worth” since there is no difference in worth between a free education secured by an athletic scholarship and that same education paid for out of pocket. As such, it is disingenuous (at best) to argue that the full value of the education is what the student athlete is compensated. It’s not. What he’s being compensated is the cost of that education. Which, again, is insufficient given the return he bestows on the university.

  2. October 30, 2011 at 1:23 PM

    You conveniently skipped over the part about the player on getting into college in the first place. There’s a big difference between the education he wouldn’t have received had he not received the scholarship. Or would Reggie Bush have qualified to get into USC all on his own? You should read the Forbes article I linked. You might find it enlightening. Although I doubt it.

  3. Mary
    October 30, 2011 at 1:47 PM

    We will not be discussing this at Christmas.

  4. Guest
    October 30, 2011 at 2:13 PM

    Set aside for a minute the “players should/should not get paid” discussion for a minute (which they are being paid via that college degree they may not have otherwise received), and you’ll see that paying college athletes isn’t even feasible. First and foremost, only 14 of 129 FBS athletic departments made money in 2009 (http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=5490686). Most revenue is generated from football and basketball, but do you know where most if not all of that goes? You guessed it – costs for equipment and maintaining and operating all of the arenas, stadiums, facilities, etc that they use and get to play in. Second, even if all college athletic departments were making money, you would never be able to divide up the money evenly among athletes. If you pay one set of athletes, you have to pay them all – softball players, gymnastics, swimmers, etc, and you can’t honestly justifying paying 100k evenly to a football and softball player.

  5. Mary
    October 30, 2011 at 2:53 PM

    Here’s a novel thought. Let’s return colleges and universities to their stated goal of educating people. Let the NFL, et al, run their own farm teams. If sports rivalries betwixt colleges and universities is desirable, let each institution hire gladiators and pay them from the proceeds of such rivalries.

  6. Matt
    October 30, 2011 at 5:55 PM

    Guest,

    No one is saying we should pay all athletes in all sports. In fact, no one is saying we should even pay all athletes at a given school. However, the athletes whose services return a profit to their school (primarily, DI football players) should be paid. They are employees whose “jobs” often require well in excess of 40 hours a week (which they “work” while going to class full time), and their non-profit employers are profiting handsomely from their work (and “paying” them a pittance by comparison). Also, please don’t believe the NCAA line that no one’s making any money. It’s ridiculous.

    Gross Revenue Figures (football only): http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/sports_college/2009/07/how-much-revenue-did-your-favorite-fbs-school-take-in-in-200708-this-chart-will-tell-you.html

    Net Profit Figures: http://kaarme.com/Most_Profitable_College_Athletic_Programs

  7. October 30, 2011 at 8:27 PM

    Guest,

    No one is saying we should pay all athletes in all sports. In fact, no one is saying we should even pay all athletes at a given school. However, the athletes whose services return a profit to their school (primarily, DI football players) should be paid. They are employees whose “jobs” often require well in excess of 40 hours a week (which they “work” while going to class full time), and their non-profit employers are profiting handsomely from their work (and “paying” them a pittance by comparison).

    Also, please don’t believe the NCAA line that no one’s making any money. It’s ridiculous.

    Gross Revenue Figures (football only): http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/sports_college/2009/07/how-much-revenue-did-your-favorite-fbs-school-take-in-in-200708-this-chart-will-tell-you.html

    Net Profit Figures: http://kaarme.com/Most_Profitable_College_Athletic_Programs

  8. October 31, 2011 at 10:40 AM

    Mary, this is a family blog. keep your “gladiator” desires about shirtless football players wearing leather chaps while wrestling to yourself.

    – The Management

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