Tales from the relatives: Why you need a college degree

A common pf blog (and news article) meme is the admonition not to go into huge debt for a college degree.. is it worth it?  Obviously it makes no sense to come out from a BA with 6 figure debt.  But there’s some amount of debt that it’s worthwhile to take on for the better earnings power.  Liz Pulliam Weston suggests one year’s expected salary in your major field from your school and that seems to be a good heuristic to me (YMMV).

The folks for whom this should be the biggest concern are those from low income families– they don’t have as much of that family safety net to fall back on.  But, so long as the parents are willing to fill out a FAFSA, the students in question should be able to get financial grants conditional on being accepted to school.  School may not be as expensive as anticipated, and indeed, there’s an excellent study that’s been done by a handful of famous economists working with H&R Block that finds that helping parents fill out the FAFSA when they put in their tax returns dramatically increases college participation.

For all the discussion of a how a university degree isn’t worth it, the sordid world of jobs that don’t require more than high school degrees is beyond belief, especially since union power is declining, and companies are even getting around unions by using unprotected contract labor.

My partner’s large extended family mostly lives in a small town and has a wide range among educational and income spectrums.  We hear a lot about what can happen in jobs for the less educated.  The kinds of jobs that many of us took in high school but some people need as adults.  Here’s some snippets from the family that convince me how much nicer life is with a college degree:

Had worked at the video store for 3 years, manager decided to replace her with one of his friends.  No notice given, no two weeks pay, just, tomorrow you’re gone.

Fired the first week on the job because the daughter of the manager wasn’t working, she told the daughter to work, and the daughter told her mom some sort of lie, and the mom believed her daughter.

Worked as a waitress, a competitor tried to hire her, she said no.  Then the competitor bought the bar where she had been working at and laid her off.

Hurt his hand off working hours.  Didn’t have insurance.  Got fired because he couldn’t work.  Went bankrupt because medical bills + no income.

Can’t get a job at the Dollar Store or Walmart because when you don’t have education, they check your credit, and your credit isn’t great.  (Not all folks have poor credit, but for jobs requiring more education, they are less likely to run a credit check on you.)

Contrast this with the kinds of jobs my college and higher degree educated friends have– they always get at least 2 weeks notice, they almost always get some kind of severance package.  If they’re let go they’re generally laid off; it’s more difficult to get flat-out fired.  There’s generally a lot of notice about what’s happening, and sometimes they get furloughs instead of lay-offs.  We tend to complain about not getting raises, not about being fired with no notice for no good reason.  The cost of our benefits keeps going up, but we have benefits!  If we get hurt we’re insured.

When you’re in one of these marginal labor markets, there’s less job security, there’s less fairness.  Even when you’re protected by law, the company is more likely to ignore the law, because what can you do?  Especially when it’s a your word vs. someone else’s word situation.  Education makes you more powerful, it allows you entree into labor markets where this kind of treatment is less prevalent.

Do you know anybody in the low-wage job market?

25 Responses to “Tales from the relatives: Why you need a college degree”

  1. Donna Freedman Says:

    My daughter was managing a small apartment building. She saw a job managing a much larger place in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The guy who owned the place seemed anxious to turn the dilapidated (but still classic) building into something much nicer. They talked about the place’s possibilities and how nice it would be when they got done fixing it up.
    This was right around the time I left my marriage and fled to Seattle. I stayed with her (sleeping in what I think was the former pantry of the office/manager’s apartment) and spent a bunch of hours cleaning empty apartments. (Without pay; I just wanted to help her out.) She spent a lot of hours doing the same.
    One day the owner showed up, talked to DD briefly and left. She was fired and had three days to get out. “What did I do wrong?” she asked. Nothing, was the reply — but he had a friend he wanted to give the job to, so could she just get out, please?
    Three. Days. To find a new apartment and get everything out. Another employee shamed the guy into giving us a week. Talk about trauma — DD had exhausted herself moving (she has a chronic illness) and had been working a lot of hours (which happens when you’re the live-in help).
    But she had no recourse because, yep, the contract she’d signed said it was an at-will situation and if management fired you then that was it. The contract even mentioned the three-day policy, which of course DD never dreamed would apply to her because she isn’t the kind of person who gets fired. She’s the kind of person who spends hours in the evening using Brasso on the mailboxes so they’ll look nice. Sigh.

    • anonacademic Says:

      woah that’s horrible…

      at-will stinks even if they don’t do it that way… worked for a college in an at-will state where EVERYONE was at-will, faculty included (no tenure)… never saw anyone not given at least two weeks notice (and those were cuts due to budget problems) but the fact of the possibility hanging over one’s head? Not a fun way to live even when you don’t think it would actually happen…

  2. bloggerclarissa Says:

    My husband has a PhD from a prestigious university in the US. He got fired with absolutely no notice and no apparent reason (at least, not one that anybody has been willing to disclose to him.) On Friday everything was dandy and he was complimented by his team leader for resolving an important issue that had been bugging the project they worked on for a while. On Monday morning, he came to work and was told he had 15 minutes to pack up his stuff and vacate the premises.

    In this economy, no kind of a super brilliant education is a guarantee of anything.

  3. Linda Says:

    Yes, but many of my relatives with no college education are living far enough away from me that I don’t hear about issues like this. However, I was at an out of town family funeral a few weeks ago and some of the non-college educated relatives were there. We had a morning free to us and it was a beautiful day so a visit to a well-known local garden and art venue seemed like a great idea. I ended up going by myself because none of my relatives could afford the $12 entrance fee. That was quite an eye-opener for me.

  4. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Obviously it makes no sense to come out from a BA with 3 figure debt.


  5. Molly (Mike & Molly's House) Says:

    I don’t ‘use’ my college degree and it’s a BFA which does not guarantee a ‘job’ compared to other degrees. Saying that, having it on my resume has gotten me shifted to the top of job applications. I applied to Whole Foods years ago. I was applying for an entry-level job. They saw my education and said they wanted to consider me for the manager track. I didn’t take the job but it reminded me once again how useful my degree really is.

  6. Spanish Prof Says:

    Depends on the situation: what about some trade school degree? I have a friend from Grad school, whose family comes from poor, white, rural, southern background. I got to know them pretty well. Certainly, those with a certain specialized knowledge (airplane maintenance, welder, etc – by the way, not all of them were males) were doing much better than those without. But at the risk of sounding elitist, some people in that family were not made for college. An AA in something specific would serve them better.

  7. bogart Says:

    It’s an interesting question.

    Of my DH’s family, he’s the only one of his siblings who went to college. He had a good (for the reasons you list) career at a state educational institution and retired with a modest but positive pension and health insurance coverage in retirement.

    Of his siblings, one’s made a good but volatile (as far as I can tell) career in retail, mostly management. One had what I think was a decent job in manufacturing (no, really) for many years until ze quit it, stupidly (by hir own admission), shortly before the economy tanked. Ze’s unemployed, surviving (I think) on retirement account savings, and has health insurance only through a spouse (from whom ze’s actually separated but to whom still legally married). One I’m not even she what ze does but believe ze is employed. Also married; spouse is a nurse. One is a great example of the good affirmative action can do; she was working nights for low pay cleaning an office building and got offered a job (and training?) through one of the firms being cleaned … road construction. Now earns good money in a unionized state driving heavy equipment (though wants to move south but can’t afford to due to lack of unionization). Interestingly when she “loses” her job every winter (precise date unpredictable, basic pattern 100% predictable) she — along with all her mostly male colleagues — then collects unemployment until she is rehired in spring; contrast this with the fate of e.g. (mostly female) teachers in the summertime. Remaining sib is mostly a SAHS with some work in retail off and on.

    So those are my data points (no one in my generation / my side of my extended family lacks a college degree except one cousin who has been a SAHP and a military spouse since reaching adulthood); my mother does lack a college degree and the combination of that + motherhood unquestionably held her back (mostly in acquiring pension benefits as she worked part-time for most of our childhood), but otherwise her career / situation more or less parallels that of my DH.

  8. Cloud Says:

    In my immediate family, everyone has college degrees. In my extended family, not so much. I have cousins working in all sorts of jobs, including one who screwed up things pretty badly, but has worked his way back onto a good track via the military. He drove trucks in Iraq at the height of the conflict. Say what you want about college, but I think it is an easier path to a good job than driving trucks in a country where insurgents are trying to blow up trucks.

    I have said before that I think the working parents who have it hardest are the ones working service industry jobs. Long, unpredictable hours (unless you luck into a good boss), low pay, often no paid time off, no job security… My life is a cake walk in comparison. I work in a very volatile industry. I could walk into work any day and find myself laid off. I have walked into work and been surprised by mass layoffs and watched half the company leave. BUT… we get severance. And my high salary allows me to save a good buffer to cushion lay offs. So I still think I have it easier than someone working in the service industry- by a long shot.

  9. darchole Says:

    Sometimes getting parents to fill out the FAFSA is problematic for all sorts of reasons – including divorce, bad parents, being in foster care, and parents who just can’t for whatever reasons, which happens more often to low-income families, and to get financial aid you HAVE to fill it out, so these people don’t have a chance to go to college and have a change at a better life (not my problem, but have seen it plenty of times before to others).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s probably why the H&R Block experiment has been so successful.

      • First Gen American Says:

        My mom doesn’t read or write english, so I filled out the fafsa on her behalf. All she had to do is sign it. I think if the kid is motivated enough to get the hell out of poverty and has the drive, they’ll read the 8000 forms, call the helplines and figure out how to do it themselves. I understand not everyone is me or has trusting parents that will sign a document like that, but I think on some level it’s also up to the kid to take the initiative and find out what their options are. I luckily had some mentors (one being an older boyfriend who qualified for financial aid), so that helped alot but I still think there are people like guidance counselors, etc who could also help. No one wants to see a student with potential fail because of lack of experience in form filling.

  10. hush Says:

    This is depressing reading, but a very important topic nonetheless. I have some ne’r-do-well uncles and aunts who I swear are these total supergeniuses who just made some bad choices right after high school, and who are now in their 50’s working jobs like building houses for pigs, and working in retirement homes. Sounds shitty. The income gap between the many kids in my dad’s family is pretty shocking – the older kids in the family (born in the 40’s) had things like the GI bill to get them an education and their first mortgage, but their younger siblings born 10+ years later came of age in the 70s, did a ton of coke, had some teen pregnancies, and well, it was just a different world by then. Hell, it is a different world now. I can’t even imagine not having a door-opener like a degree from a decent school.

    • SP Says:

      And the “decent school” part isn’t even as important as the degree (assuming it is not some sham for-profit). I went to a basic and cheap state school (and not one of the famously good ones, though regionally known). While most of my coworkers went to much more prestigious schools, we are now working side by side for the same jobs. A decent/great school is better if you can swing it, but any school that provides a real education will help.

      I know someone in the credit score trap. How can she improve her score if she can’t get a job?

      Although, you do have to consider trades. My dad is an electrician and it can be hard physical labor (at his seniority he often is foreman and is more of a manager than a laborer – but not always). But the pay is solid and they have similar 2-weeks notice and general rights. If you don’t want a college degree, getting a skill of some sort will help out a lot.

  11. First Gen American Says:

    I am on the fence about this assessment. I’ve said this before but my father in law categorized people into 2 buckets…the workers and the non-workers. He never got a college degree and was an orphan but ended up doing fine financially. My brother in law is the same way. He is now a general contractor and is comfortably middle class with no college education. Everybody I know who is uneducated but is doing well financially is a hard worker and has built marketable skills over time. The people who are living at or below poverty level in my life can’t hold down a job for all the most basic of reasons (not showing up, not being professional, not performing to the minimum expectations of the company, etc.). I’m not sure that having an education would help them do things like show up to work.

    Again, most successful people put a ton of time in their 20’s to their livelihoods so that they can reap more financial stability later in life. You can do it either by getting a college degree, being an apprentice at a trade, or starting a side business and slowly building up a client base. My brother in law did his contractor job in addition to his day job for almost 10 years before he quit to do it full time.

    As I write this, I think the differentiation to me is not the college degree, but the learning. You don’t need to do it in a university, but it has to be there so that you can build skills that people are wiling to pay for. And even if your life threw you all in the wrong directions and you’re forced to be a cashier or waitress, there’s no stopping you from becoming a shift supervisor or manager someday. Then a regional manager….and on it goes. In fact, when I was in college, those positions were offered to me in not 1 but 2 of the places I worked and it was the early 90s (another recession period). So, I’m back to my original theory, you’re either a worker/learner, or you’re not. The formal education bit is just one of the potential ways to get there.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I had a fantastic response, but wordpress ate it. :( Here’s a shorter version.

      Basically, I think there’s a large part of selection going on… BUT I also think that if you have two people who are equally good workers, the one who was lucky enough for the stars to align to get the college degree will have better opportunities and a better working environment. Yes, some people will always do well no matter what, but there are a lot of kids who are on the margin, and there are a lot of college grads who aren’t as conscientious, smart etc. as their counterparts who weren’t able to go to college… the marginal college student isn’t necessarily that good at following directions, being responsible etc. But they still benefit from the stereotype that college grads are better on average. The degree is a signal and even though it isn’t enough to get you into a “good” job, not having one can make it a lot harder. Especially if you’re geographically stuck for family reasons.

  12. Carnival of Personal Finance #332 - Beating Broke | Beating Broke Says:

    […] Nicole from Nicole and Maggie: Grumpy Rumblings presents Tales from the relatives: Why you need a college degree […]

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