Recession education

In the recession, does advanced education really pay off? Slate’s Emily Bazelon asks 20somethings how they’re planning their futures.

“College and graduate school are generally a good bet,” she starts. “But it doesn’t tell you that every single degree pays off financially at every single point in time.”

As Jonathan, a college graduate in North Carolina who had been working at a used-book store, puts it, “I have a B.S. in sociology, and its value bears a strong similarity to its initials.”

She cites a Chronicle of Higher Education story, which advises would-be graduate students in the humanities: Just Don’t Go. Hide out in grad school to avoid the recession and you’ll emerge in your 30s with no experience and no money, Thomas Benton advises.

Even those with practical degrees are hurting in the short term, writes Bazelon.

Gordon, who is 29, has an undergraduate degree in computer engineering from Boston University, three years in IT, and an MBA and a master’s in information systems. How much more sturdy and practical can you get? But after a year and a half, he lost the job he got after graduation. He has $60,000 in student loans even though he had full scholarships for both undergrad and grad school (living expenses). That comes out to $500 a month for the next 10 years.

He fears that his degree is “underwater.” Experts say the educated will do fine once the economy recovers, but when’s that going to be? And will an MBA bounce back to its previous value?

My daughter’s earning a law degree from the University of Chicago in a few months.  She thought her class was the last to get seats on the gravy train, but the train has derailed. The law firm that offered her a very well-paid job, starting in the fall, has now offered her six months’ pay to defer her start for a year. She plans to do Legal Aid work without pay to gain experience. (The non-profits that used to pay a minimal wage to new lawyers have realized they don’t have to.) If the law firm job has vanished by then, well, she’ll cope. She doesn’t expect a return to the cushy days of yore.

About Joanne


  1. Maybe its less the degree and what its in. “Sociology”, whatever do you do with that? Become a social worker? I mean really, its like my children, one accountant, one computer science and one history major who is not a teacher. Guess which have jobs? Only one, the history major and the computer science major are getting advanced degrees. The computer science major is nicely paid as a graduated assistant.
    Engineers, computer science, accountants, a few business majors, these people all find jobs. All my husband’s business students find jobs out of college. Fine Arts? English? Where’s the demand for that?

  2. Regardless of the recession, many bachelors degrees are a waste of time and money. Sociology, liberal arts, leisure studies, hotel and restaurant management? Some offer no jobs except teaching it or consulting, and others are degrees in fields in which the most successful people simply went to work.

    The American obsession with a bachelor’s degree leads to an incredible waste of time, money, and resources.

  3. As I’m sure you both know, a Chicago JD will get her a judicial clerkship with any court in the country, which is definitely a prestigious and lucrative way to get experience and wait out the recession. It’s certainly what I would’ve done if I’d made into a law school ranked that high.

  4. IT only looks practical in theory. It’s always overhead in any business and is the first to go when corporations merge or downsize or go for outsourcing. As they say in Boston, “he’s scrod.”

    I’ve always had lots of options with my English degree. I choose to be a teacher because I really enjoy it, but it’s a second career and was in no way a fall-back decision. Don’t be so quick to knock it.

  5. Ponderosa says:


    I disagree that liberal arts degrees are necessarily useless. A traditional liberal arts program of literature, philosophy, history, languages, science, etc. amps up language skills and an understanding of the ins-and-outs of humanity (ergo the name, “humanities”). I believe that this kind of broad education can also make one a more creative, “out of the box” thinker –because one can draw on disparate knowledge domains when confronting a given problem. Of course, potential employers may not see it this way…

    I do agree with you that we have a silly fixation on achieving bachelor degrees in this country. I am dedicated to the mission of trying to beef up k-12 education because I believe that pupils can and should get a solid liberal arts education BEFORE college.

    I also think that many colleges and universities are guilty of fraud akin to that of the unscrupulous mortgage brokers who helped get us into this mess…they’re peddling many astronomically expensive degrees that have abysmal earning potential. How is a MA in philosophy with $80,000 in debt ever going to recoup his “investment”? The colleges know, but don’t let on, that they’re leading this students down the road to ruin. They are morally obligated to either warn the student of the likely train wreck ahead, or radically reduce costs so that one can study a non-lucrative subject without incurring giant debt. I suspect government regulation is the only way to protect our young people from this kind of snare.

  6. Great topic. I addressed how the recession impacts teaching a few weeks ago (here). I’ve also written on the whole concept of having to go to school and get a degree: Is Education Really That Important (Part 1) also read Part 2.

    My contention is that a degree is only as important and useful as the person who has it. All a college degree shows is that you are willing to work hard enough to finish the goal. What you learn in those college years are far more important than what your degree says.

    I think too often people lock themselves into one career path or another simply because of what the paper says they are qualified to do. Recessions are where those who are willing to work crazy hard end up having the easiest shot at being successful. Why? Because those who just want a comfortable job often sit back and do the easy thing rather than push the innovative envelope.

  7. It strikes me as quite possible to study the humanities without running up massive debt doing a full-time university degree. The sciences and mathematics may require a steady and logical approach with a lot of time dedicated to the subject, but the humanities in my experience tend to be more adjusted to how us humans think and easier to learn in that way (although doing really good work in the humanities seems to be even harder than doing really good work in the hard sciences as the world doesn’t provide such clear feedback as a lab.) And the possibility of finding people on the Internet now to have intense discussions about any subject you like somewhat reduces the benefit of the like-minded people at university.
    If someone is really fanatical about studying history, or English, I’d say go for it, but I’m a lot more doubtful about the value of full-time university study of humanities for the non-fanatic.

  8. Homeschooling Granny says:

    A degree in the humanities is by no means the only avenue to its knowledge as it seemed in my youth. A degree in the sciences or mathematics has many applications and avoids the political indoctrination concomitant in many (most?) colleges while one may make the study of the humanities a life-long avocation, as I hope my grandchildren will do.

  9. Ponderosa,

    I agree with everything you say, especially the value of a true “liberal arts” or “classical” education. If these bachelor degree seekers were, in fact, in pursuit of the degree of study – the kind people like Franklin and Emerson and Jefferson achieved – the kind that is integral to many elite private schools in this country – the kind that is extremely rigorous in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom to create “people on whom nothing is lost – then I would endorse the practice.

    Yet, judging from reports of achievement on college campuses nationwide, most of these students are in pursuit of the degree and the status, not the knowledge and technical expertise that is supposed to go along with it. For far too long, I have heard people argue that teenagers truly grow and benefit in ways they could never imagine by pursuing that degree rather than working. That’s true for some, but not the majority.

    As Mike Rowe noted in an engaging speech at a Silicon Valley technical convention, “some people should follow their passion, some people should follow their skill, and some people should just follow the market.”

  10. Tom West says:

    Defending the arts degree (although I was a Computer Science student), I’d say the vast majority of today’s jobs simply require somebody reasonably diligent and clever, which is where having a degree helps. There’s not a lot of formal education that helps you be a standard mid-level employee at a large business.

    Most people find their first job through a combination of personal connections, luck, and interviewing well. Specific formal education is probably only apropos to 20-30% of those jobs. (The college degree does signal some work ethic, though).

  11. Universities refuse to admit the obvious – that Art, English, and most other (but not all) Liberal Arts “soft” degrees can be self-taught these days, as long as you have access to the Internet, a local Half Price Books store, and enough natural interest to generate some mental discipline.

    If the general public in the U.S., Canada, and Europe ever figures that out, there will be a LOT of Liberal Arts professors out of a job, and a LOT of lost money and prestige at even major universities in the Western world.

  12. Ponderosa…a few things:

    1)re the value of liberal arts education, these interesting comments by the noted management consultant Michael Hammer. Note that Mike was talking about a *rigorous* humanities education coupled with a serious scientific education, not the mush that too often passes for liberal education today.

    2)”I also think that many colleges and universities are guilty of fraud akin to that of the unscrupulous mortgage brokers”…totally agree. Since university administrators often seem to be missing a conscience, maybe we need federal disclosure regulations for any university accepting government money. These would provide data on the employment and earnings of graduates in various degree programs.

    3)However, under the present administration this is unlikely to happen…Obama seems to believe that degrees are magical tokens, and all that need happen is send money to schools and colleges and process as many millions of person-years through these institutions as possible. I see these attitudes as making life more and more difficult for people who lack college degrees (and increasingly, advanced degrees) and hence harming economic productivity and restricting class mobility.

  13. David,

    You’re right, the threshold for “done enough to live a good, Middle Class life” in the U.S. keeps going up, to the point that most people can’t keep up anymore.

    In the 1960’s, a High School Diploma was good enough to ensure that, with a good work ethic, you’d be able to live a Middle Class life.

    By the 1990’s, a Bachelor’s degree from a University was required to ensure that, with a good work ethic, you’d be able to live a Middle Class life.

    Now, in the late 2000’s, you need a Master’s degree from a University – in a market-savvy major – just to get a job with health insurance.

    At this rate, by the 2030’s the only people not living in poverty will be those with PhDs from Universities with market-savvy majors. The Bacehlor’s degree holders will be forced to work retail, the High School diploma holders will be forced to dig ditches, and… what happens to those by then with none of the above?

  14. I don’t know what the figures are like in the US and Canada, but here in the UK there are not many degrees that improve your job prospects.

    Law, medicine, maths, physics, chemistry and engineering have a good payback, while biology, sociology, business studies and most humanities and arts subjects don’t pay back enough to cover the debt.

    The UK government wants to have over 50% of students completing degrees, so there has to be simple and worthless qualifications for those less bright or motivated to be awarded. Needless to say they are completely unemployable now outside of fast food outlets.

  15. Cait…of course, those who profit from the vast expansion of the education empire are quick to say that all this is necessary “because we’re not in a knowledge economy and there’s so much to learn now than there used to be.” They don’t, though, specificy exactly what this “knowledge” consists of and precisely how it is imparted by the typical K-12 and college curricula. Indeed, most of the people making this economy have limited or no experience in doing economically productive work and have very little understanding of what is involved in it.

  16. Cait Sith,

    I think you are over-looking the huge market for skilled labor in this country. Many in the labor field – especially electricians, plumbers, IT technicians – are earning solid middle class wages.

    Additionally, in the service sector, managers in retail and banking as well as public service, also pull in middle class wages. Associates degrees need to, somehow, gain the credibility they deserve, and employers must be more adept at evaluating talent, rather than credential.

    In terms of benefits and respectable wages, I think we will see a resurgence in organized labor and collective bargaining. The health insurance issue will have to move away from the employer-based philosophy, and we may be at a tipping point for that to happen. The Healthy Americans Act (HAA) offers good hope for that.

  17. Michael…”Additionally, in the service sector, managers in retail and banking as well as public service, also pull in middle class wages”…a bank branch manager or chain store manager with a bachelor’s degree or even an associate degree might do OK in terms of current salary. But when it comes to time pick the next Region Manager, he is likely to be bypassed in favor of someone with an MBA (or even a much less-relevant advanced degree) and much less practical experience.

  18. The worst degree you can get at a university is not, IMO, a liberal arts degree; the worst degree is a narrow degree that *appears* to prepare you for a job in a specific field but that does not. Specifically, fields like health care administration, recreation, or sports management, to name a few. (A relative had a bad experience with her hospital administration degree – while it probably taught her things that would be useful if you were a hospital administrator, it did not prepare to get a job as a hospital administrator; those jobs were typically held by people with accounting degrees or MBAs, or else by people who worked in the area that they were administrating – doctors, nurses, physical therapists, etc.).

    Liberal arts degrees, at least, do typically require a lot of writing, do typically focus on analysis, and don’t lead most people with the false impression that they will be specifically qualified for a certain type of job. No one with a degree in history believes that, upon graduation, he will be able to go to work as a manager in a history store. There’s something to be said for this, at least.

  19. David,

    I agree with you to a point; however, I know quite a few managers making six figures in those fields who only graduated high school. Granted, my evidence is anecdotal and probably not widespread, though these are national companies that are so well run that they acknowledge their talent, outside of educational status.

    Additionally, your comments about regional managers assumes that all people can and should continually aspire to higher status, jobs, responsibilities, and earnings. That is a notion I’ve battled for fifteen years, as people expect that I wanted to be promoted out of the classroom and into administration. Knowing my earning potential, being comfortable and excelling in my current position, and understanding the “Peter Principle,” convinces me that not all people should logically pursue the next step.

    Far too many of my technically skilled students have made the mistake of going to college because the counselors convinced them that even if they are skilled technicians they should one day aspire to “own their own shop.” Only so many people can be owners and managers and administrators and innovators. The rest of – the great majority – can, should, and will work for those people.

    Sadly, the current owners and managers should recognize talent over status. Far too companies do, but some of the best do. That should be emphasized in terms of reform.

  20. Getting a job is so 20th century. Make your own job. With a law degree, and by passing the bar, your daughter can hang out her own shingle. She might not get rich, but she can set her own hours, pursue her own specialty, and learn a little more about the world around her. She can barter her services, she can charge money, she can work pro bono if she wants.

    I used to work in TV production, until I wised up and figured out that I was at the mercy of the production cycle. I developed a special expertise that allows me to pick and choose my client, and to work as much or as little as I wish. Yes, I am marketing myself all the time (anyone need archival footage or photos?) but it sure beats trying to squeeze myself into those narrow job categories.

    These days, we’re all freelancers, we just don’t all realize it.

  21. Michael…”your comments about regional managers assumes that all people can and should continually aspire to higher status, jobs, responsibilities, and earnings”…don’t think I’m actually assuming that, rather, that people who *do* have such aspirations and the qualifications to go with them should not be held back by often-irrelevant credential requirements.

    I agree that there are many companies and executives who do seriously look for talent, in whatever form and with whatever credentials it comes, but I’m afraid the trend lines are in the wrong direction.

  22. About 2/3 of the students in four-year universities right now should be in two-year trade schools instead. These students don’t have the mindset to learn the kind of knowledge that four-year universities teach.

    It’s all due to the giant fraud of four-year universities paying off high school counselers (or their schools) across the country to persuade any and all students they can that they simply MUST go to a four-year university.

    This doesn’t make those 2/3 of students any “less” of a person than the students that are cut out for that type of study. Trade schools, for everything from electricians, carpenters, plumbers, to technition schools, police academies, cosmetology schools, etc. provide a valuable service to our society, preparing millions of people for valuable jobs that have good job markets.

    And, as someone else said, some of these jobs end up being more secure and better paying than the jobs that ask for a four-year university degree! It’s all a matter of perspective, really.

  23. It’s all due to the giant fraud of four-year universities paying off high school counselers (or their schools) across the country to persuade any and all students they can that they simply MUST go to a four-year university.

    If you have evidence of this, produce it. Otherwise, you’re a liar.

  24. The Bacehlor’s degree holders will be forced to work retail, the High School diploma holders will be forced to dig ditches, and… what happens to those by then with none of the above?

    They will have the options of living off various forms of assistance, crime, or applying for jobs picking crops or working in meat-packing plants.  They will have stiff competition for the latter jobs from illegal immigrants, assisted by personnel departments largely staffed by co-ethnics of the illegals.