There’s scant debate about the value of a four-year college degree. It isn’t a home run — an automatic score — but it is the closest thing there is to a guarantee in today’s job market.
There is worthwhile debate, however, about the wisdom of going to college for students who don’t have a strong chance to graduate, regardless of the reasons why. College isn’t for everyone, and the ever-rising cost of tuition puts a premium on finishing, not just attending classes for a few semesters.
We’re committed believers in Alabama’s need to have an educated, well-trained workforce that dominates its Southern neighbors and competes with the nation’s best. Whether its white-collar workers — bankers, lawyers, inventors, business wizards, scientists, doctors, computer programmers — blue-collar employees or entrepreneurs who own their own businesses, Alabama needs them, and it needs them to be among the best.
Alabama’s future rides on it.
The point, as illustrated in a New York Times report Tuesday, is that four-year degrees today are golden. Critics who say otherwise are mistaken. An analysis of Labor Department data shows that Americans with four-year degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average last year than did people without degrees. That pay gap has been trending up since at least the early 1980s.
The Times’ David Leonhardt points out, however, that this trend isn’t automatic. What goes up can come down, and usually does. “If there were more college graduates than the economy needed, the pay gap would shrink,” Leonhardt wrote. “The gap’s recent growth is especially notable because it has come after a rise in the number of college graduates, partly because many people went back to school during the Great Recession. That the pay gap has nonetheless continued growing means that we’re still not producing enough of them.”
Alabama, as we know, is a shining example of the pay gap Leonhardt references. Poverty rocks many of the state’s rural and inner-city areas, and the affordability of a university degree in Alabama ranks among the least affordable in the United States. It doesn’t take a four-year degree in economics to understand this interplay between higher education, affordability and later earnings.
As for our aforementioned debate, it’s a conversation worth having. Those who enroll in college and then drop out face the worst-case scenario — no four-year degree, no enhanced job opportunities, no career and yet a pile of tuition bills. Less than 60 percent of full-time students who enroll for the first time earn their degrees in six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. For them, the specter of this damning pay gap is real.
The bottom line: Alabama’s hope for an improved future will stall if too many of its college-ready students can’t afford the costs and see it through until graduation day.