Rocket scientist or plumber?

If you’re not a “rocket scientist,” skip college and become a plumber, advises New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “It’s hard to farm that out … and it’s hard to automate that,” said the mayor. Plumbers make more than some college graduates, he added.

“College is a good investment” for most students, responded Mark Kantrowitz, a student aid specialist.  “The only schools that cost $40,000 or $50,000 like the mayor said are elite schools,” he said. Students who aren’t rocket scientists typically go to less expensive colleges.

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  1. One wonders in what sense Mr. Kantrowitz means “elite” – elite in price perhaps; but in academic quality?

    The full freight cost of Sarah Lawrence is about 61K – easily qualifying for elite status? Where’s the money go? It’s not like they’re supporting a nuclear engineering program. I just picked on SL because they frequently make the top of the expensive list – yet there aren’t many Nobel Laureates, Fields Medalists or the like associated with it.

    Plenty of schools cost 40 to 50K. I doubt they’re all “elite”.

  2. Except…. good plumbers need to be really smart. They need to study a subject in depth and have excellent problem solving skills. It’s not ‘if you’re not a rocket scientist’ so much as ‘if you’re a smart guy but hate working at a desk all day….’

    • Yes Deirdre,
      I totally agree with you. My husband is a plumber & he certainly is a very smart man. To say if your not a “rocket scientist” skip college & become a plumber is a bit offensive. You can’t be “a box of rocks” & be a good plumber. As you mention, problem solving skills are a must along with physical ability while working in the field of plumbing. Not to mention the heating end of the business is very high tech & requires education.

      • I think he should have said ‘If you don’t WANT to be a rocket scientist’…because engineer, medical worker, teacher, etc, require college, but are by no means the only jobs that require intelligence. My husband and I, both STEM geeks, have our kids watch Mike Holmes a lot so that we can show them how much he knows, because you have to be smart to solve problems, whether they be in a house or on the moon. There’s a reason that most people call plumbers and other tradespeople, even for small jobs.

  3. Patti W. says:

    How much does Kantrowitz think college costs these days? At our local state school you’re looking at $5,000 per semester minimum.

    At any rate, plumbers who are good at what they do are pretty smart people. Especially if they can figure out the plumbing disaster that is my house. Our favorite plumber has a master’s degree and he makes more as a plumber than in his official field. He’s training his daughter to be a plumber because it will always be available as a profession no matter what the economy does.

  4. A few years ago, I read a Canadian study (have tried to find it again to provide a link but can’t), where it was estimated that it would take an engineer 10 years to “catch up” to the accumulated earnings of a apprenticed plumber. The study took into consideration cost of apprenticeship; cost of engineering degree, “lost” income while engineering student was studying while the plumber was working and finally the amount of time an engineer spent as a junior (and less paid) engineer. In that amount of time, a money-smart plumber could purchase a house and put a significant amount of money into retirement savings.

    • Forbes ran a similar story based on work by economist Lawrence Kotlikoff of Boston University:

      The plumber winds up with $33,200 a year of spending money (in inflation-adjusted dollars) over his adult life. The doc can spend only a little more: $33,700 a year.

      A lot more there comparing high-priced schools versus low-priced schools, high payoff majors versus low, etc.

      A column by Kotlikoff at –

    • The only really big downside I see to ‘plumber’ versus ‘desk work’ is that plumbers also have to retire much sooner, since it’s physically demanding work and demands the flexibility to scrunch into all sorts of weird spaces.

      • But by then, hopefully you’ve got apprentices and junior plumbers to offload some of the more ornerous tasks to. I could see it being especially nice to pass a thriving practice down to child or children and have them buy you out. There’s got to be brand value in a good practice.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          We had a stone wall built on our property some years ago. We hired an old (around 70) Portuguese guy to do the work. He spent most of the time sitting in a folding lawn chair (he provided) drinking coffee and bossing around 20 year old immigrants. It was a dry stacked fieldstone wall and was absolutely beautiful.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        My grandfather was an electrician. Certain trades are certainly hard on the body – think mason or tile setter. But modern plumbers and electricians work with better/lighter materials and tools -think pvc. These trades are less physically demanding then they were 20 or 30 years ago, and working behind a desk with little exercise can be awful for your health.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    A plumber’s also a businessman. Being able to plumb is a separate skill. So that’s two. He’s also a people person because there are other plumbers. And he may make good money subcontracting to a general contractor in a build or remodel. Different from showing up to install a toilet. Got to be able to work in concert with the other contractors.
    Just wrenching isn’t sufficient. IOW, some guys who can wrench aren’t necessarily going to succeed.

  6. Crimson Wife says:

    My grandmother and her sisters graduated from Regis College, which is struggling these days because it is expensive ($34k in tuition alone) but not particularly selective (it accepts about 3/4 of applicants). They had to go co-ed a few years ago just to survive. A couple of my aunts graduated from Rivier, which is similarly expensive ($28k/yr tuition) but non-selective (accepts 4/5 of applicants).

    It isn’t just the elite schools that are very expensive these days.

  7. Mark Roulo says:

    “The only schools that cost $40,000 or $50,000 like the mayor said are elite schools,” he [Mark Kantrowitz, a student aid specialist] said.”

    Well … no. Tuition plus fees (and not counting any discount) for the 100 most expensive colleges in the US 2012-2013. Don’t forget to add housing costs if you don’t live within commute distance of the one you are attending.


    1. Columbia University $47,246
    2. Sarah Lawrence College $46,924
    3. Vassar College $46,270
    4. The George Washington University $45,780
    5. Trinity College (CT) $45,730
    6. Wesleyan University $45,628
    7. Carnegie Mellon University $45,554
    8. Bucknell University $45,378
    9. Tulane University $45,240
    10. Union College (NY) $45,219
    11. Dartmouth College $45,042
    12. St. John’s College $45,004
    13. Williams College $44,920
    14. Oberlin College $44,905
    15. Connecticut College $44,890
    16. Bard College $44,798
    17. Tufts University $44,666
    18. Colgate University $44,640
    19. Amherst College $44,610
    20. University of Chicago $44,574
    21. Occidental College $44,570
    22. Dickinson College $44,551
    23. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute $44,475
    24. University of Southern California $44,463
    25. Reed College $44,460
    26. Carleton College $44,445
    27. Harvey Mudd College $44,442
    28. Hobart and William Smith College $44,438
    29. Kenyon College $44,420
    30. St. Lawrence University $44,400
    31. Franklin & Marshall College $44,360
    32. Hamilton College $44,350
    33. Bard College at Simon’s Rock $44,225
    34. Bennington College $44,220
    35. Gettysburg College $44,210
    35. University of Richmond $44,210
    37. Bowdoin College $44,118
    38. Middlebury College $44,111
    39. Duke University $44,101
    40. Brandeis University $44,094
    41. Claremont McKenna College $44,085
    42. Skidmore College $44,020
    43. Wheaton College (MA) $44,006
    44. Johns Hopkins University $43,930
    45. Boston College $43,908
    46. Drexel University $43,800
    47. Northwestern University $43,779
    48. Brown University $43,758
    49. Penn $43,738
    50. Washington University in St. Louis $43,705
    51. New York University $43,704
    52. Haverford College $43,702
    53. Macalester College $43,693
    54. University of Rochester $43,666
    55. Scripps College $43,620
    56. Hampshire College $43,580
    57. Barnard College $43,502
    58. Cornell University $43,413
    59. Pitzer College $43,402
    60. College of the Holy Cross $43,400
    61. Washington and Lee University $43,362
    62. Ursinus College $43,270
    63. Wake Forest University $43,200
    64. Stevens Institute of Technology $43,196
    65. Swarthmore College $43,080
    66. Georgetown University $43,050
    67. Boston University $42,994
    68. Emory University $42,980
    69. University of Notre Dame $42,971
    70. Pepperdine University $42,772
    71. Villanova University $42,740
    72. Drew University $42,620
    73. Colby College $42,460
    74. Loyola University Maryland $42,430
    75. Yale University $42,300
    76. Lafayette College $42,280
    76. Denison University $42,280
    78. Bryn Mawr College $42,246
    79. Lehigh University $42,220
    80. Providence College $42,206
    81. Whitman College $42,126
    82. Vanderbilt University $42,118
    83. Wellesley College $42,082
    84. MIT $42,050
    85. Babson College $41,888
    86. Stanford University $41,787
    87. Southern Methodist University $41,750
    88. Colorado College $41,742
    89. Fordham University $41,732
    90. Fairfield University $41,690
    91. Furman University $41,532
    92. Muhlenberg College $41,510
    93. Smith College $41,460
    94. Mount Holyoke College $41,456
    95. Pomona College $41,438
    96. Chapman University $41,404
    97. Worcester Polytechnic Institute $41,380
    98. University of Miami $41,220
    99. Pratt Institute $41,092
    100. Grinnell College $41,004


    Over 100 of these charge $40K+ per year. I don’t think we can make the case that over 100 US colleges are elite.

    Source is college grotto dot com.