In the National Review, Heather MacDonald laughs at the New York Times for it’s hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over the idea of rural teenagers using their high school degrees to make good money without first going to college. Teenagers are making an economically rational decision to work for several years, learn a skill, and earn very good money (for an unmarried teen/twenty-something with no financial obligations). They do not see the need to head straight to college as an “undecided” major, rack up debt, and spend four to six years out of the workforce. Good for them.
Now comes the news that graduates with occupational/technical associate’s degrees (e.g. nursing) earn more than their counterparts with bachelor’s degrees, and significantly more than their counterparts with B.A. degrees. There is the usual caution that this is salary straight out of school, not lifetime earnings, but underscores a harsh reality: people are paid to do things that someone else wants to get done, not to be their own amazing phenomenal selves, nor to develop emotionally, think deep thoughts, or engage in preening. People want and need nurses, plumbers, electricians, and paralegals; they do not need someone to regurgiatate third-wave feminist philosophy.
More importantly, the “lifetime earnings” canard is just that. There is no law saying that you cannot obtain a bachelor’s dgree at night or after several years in the workforce. Those kids in Montana may work in the oil fields for several years, then get a degree in petroleum engineering. The plumber could go to school at night. A nurse could continue obtaining degrees if it benefits her career or stimulates her intellectually. This is university with a purpose – not as the mindless pursuit of an aimless teenager, aged out of state-mandated daily schooling and desiring to ape the customs of the nineteenth-century’s upper class.
Moreover, the value in a non-technical college degree had mostly been to show discipline and the ability to learn. Before the days of grade inflation, getting into college, and staying in, were no small feats. The work was harder, the courses more rigourous, and thus, the value of the degree, greater. Consider, however, the modern college student, and compare to the young men highlighted in the New York Times:
“I just figured, the oil field is here and I’d make the money while I could,” said Tegan Sivertson, 19, who monitors pipelines for a gas company, sometimes working 15-hour days. “I didn’t want to waste the money and go to school when I could make just as much.”
Less than a year after proms and homecoming games, teenagers like Mr. Sivertson now wake at 4 a.m. to make the three-hour trek to remote oil rigs. They fish busted machinery out of two-mile-deep hydraulic fracturing wells and repair safety devices that keep the wells from rupturing, often working alongside men old enough to be their fathers. Some live at home; others drive back on weekends to eat their mothers’ food, do loads of laundry and go to high school basketball games, still straddling the blurred border between childhood and adulthood.
While the NYT may think that a young man is “straddling” the border between childhood and adulthood while working 15-hour days laying pipeline, most employers will understand that this is an adult in every sense of the word – in a way that college students, and college graduates, are not.
Who would you rather hire – the young man who has gotten up at 4 am every day for four years, or the B.A., communications graduate, who hasn’t gone to bed before 4 am in four years? Let’s also not forget: should the oil boom dry up, these kids can go to college, but the college graduate, B.A, gender studies, may never get hired for one of these jobs.