Opinion:  Do you need a BA, MA, MBA, JD, and PhD?
Can it be that earning a college degree is no longer enough to lift one from the daily grind?
May 2nd, 2012
12:22 PM ET

Opinion: Do you need a BA, MA, MBA, JD, and PhD?

By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at The George Washington University. He is chairman of the Korn Ferry Higher Education Practice and senior client partner at Korn Ferry International, an executive recruiting firm.

(CNN) - Over the last several decades, the reasons used to justify acquiring a university education has morphed from the academic to the applied, to the sublime and the ridiculous.

Once characterized as a noble intellectual pursuit - something one did to gain knowledge and wisdom, contemporary references define college as utilitarian and practical: Without a college degree, one cannot hope to successfully enter the job market. Stay in school and you'll "earn more," as some like to say.

The children of the incumbent middle and upper classes are increasingly the offspring of college graduates and for the most part they follow their parents' lead (especially young women). They understand that to maintain the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, getting a degree is important both for image and long-term prospects. It is the thing to do, what is expected of the daughters and sons of doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, civil servants, etc. There are, of course, a small number of entrepreneurial types (the up-and-coming Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) who forgo college and seek their fortunes in garages. But most people trod a conventional path; they seek to get jobs rather than to be Jobs.

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    May 9, 2012 at 10:59 am |
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    May 5, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  3. Sick

    All interesting comments. I agree that a resurgence of vocational schools is needed. For some people, this will work wonders who want to enter a particular field and immediately become employable. For others the track of a liberal arts degree supplemented with a more advanced degree like MA, PhD, JD, etc. is a good track for them, provided they assume the responsibilities of paying off for their education. I greatly dislike when someone from a liberal arts major tries to tie "soft skills" with a liberal arts degree as if those who chose another route are socially inept and un-wordly people. I was an engineer (Comp Sci – appealing job prospects when I entered) but in addition to the technical courses, I supplemented it with a minor in business as well as electives to get my "soft skills" up. I agree there are some liberal arts majors that will not touch anything else as well as engineers that stay away from anything non-engineering but for us engineers, I feel quite sterotyped as that "socially inept" engineer. Happily employed, I consult with clients on highly specialized technical issues. I have to keep sharp socially or else I will lose my client and technically or else I won't get my work done.

    Long story long, a degree is what you make of it and there is not a "one-size-fits-all" degree for everyone, in my opinion.

    May 4, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  4. sj

    I don't discount the value of a good liberal arts education, which educates you and makes you more well rounded, ideally teaching you critical thinking and analytical skills which can be applied in any career field, even if it is one not directly related to your major. However, I think far too many people simply go to college because they've been told it is the thing to do and that it is some kind of golden ticket to success. They graduate four years later with no idea what they want to do, who they want to become, or how their degree will help them. Some of them go on to get higher degrees, believing yet another degree will help them figure it out. When I got my MA, I was shocked at the number of classmates who were spending tens of thousands of dollars for their degree with no clear idea of what they wanted to do when they graduated.

    The time to figure out what kind of education you want/need is not after you've graduated and become burdened down with debt, but before you start. This includes examining vocational schools and apprenticeships, which I feel are woefully ignored as viable options by most high school guidance counselors, who seem to push students almost exclusively towards the four year bachelor degree option.

    May 4, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  5. Susie the Bear

    Some people need to understand that to be successful interacting with others requires two sets of skills, hard skills and soft skills. The hard skills prepare you to perform in your area of expertise while the soft skills prepares you to think critically and learn how to make good decisions. Soft skills also prepare you to interact with others on both working and social levels so that you can have intelligent discussions such as Maslow's theories in social behavior or knowing when to be an active listener. Further, obtaining any degree also requires fulfilling academic requirements that include many soft skills courses. Others see soft skill degrees as nothing more than a piece of paper without realizing that many of our teachers, mathematicians and historians graduated with Liberal Arts degrees. I am currently employed as an aerospace quality engineer and hold two degrees, an Associate of Arts in Humanities and a Bachelor of Science in Management. I also graduated at the top of my class from two career training centers with certificates in automotive repair ATCOA Automotive Training Corp of America, and Medical Billing, neither of which propelled me into high paying jobs. The misconception that Liberal Arts degrees are nothing more than paper is just "stinkin thinkin."

    May 4, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  6. Navin Johnson

    Many "vocational" schools want more money than a real degree from a real college. I have a butt load of computer certifications but when I was laid off 2 years ago I decided to get more training. I looked at ITT Tech and they wanted $40k for training, which did end up with a 2 year degree. I decided to go to community college which will cost me around $15k when I am done for the same degree. After my first year, it allowed me to get another certification which lead to a GREAT job, but they require a degree so I had to sign a paper saying within a year I have to finish my degree. I am going to school while I work.

    May 4, 2012 at 6:03 am |
  7. Toddymae Volkman

    My son went to vocational school and leaned a trade – he makes $28 an hour doing something he loves. The college want $30,000 for his degree – cost of vocational school $2,500. He's trained in a wonderful job and has no school loans to pay off.

    May 4, 2012 at 4:04 am |
  8. The_Mick

    Even when I graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1973, the good jobs for chemists required M.S. or Ph.D.'s. B.A. qualified you mostly for "tech" jobs. The two years I spend getting a M.S. were extremely worthwhile and added 15-20% to my salary.

    May 4, 2012 at 3:52 am |
  9. pault

    If you cannot make a degree work for you, or you cannot figure out how a degree can work for you, then college is a waste of your time and energy. You go to college to get an education, not a job. Some jobs require almost no formal training, but many careers require large amounts of formal training. While you are in college, you have to think about how to leverage that experience. Whether it be internships while you are in school or doing research on campus and gaining publications or patents,etc...whatever..make it work for you. The people I know that are the most bitter about going to college, simply went to class then graduated. They did no research, they joined no professionals societies, they gave no public talks, they did no internships, they did not network, they did the bare minimum to graduate. Then they did graduate, and were highly disappointed. They majored in topics that are incredibly difficult to market with only a bachelors degree, they never interacted with their professors,etc..they were not involved. It killed them, they could not get graduate school fellowships, many could not get into a graduate school,etc...then they blamed the school, declaring it a waste of time. They wasted their own time, the school did not have to waste it for them.

    May 4, 2012 at 1:30 am |
  10. Loro

    When I was in high school I was told to go to college if you wanted to get a good paying job. I went to college, got the BA. I then got out and could not find a job, except making 7.25 as a customer service rep. So off I went to get my Masters. Got the Masters. I got out and could not find a job. I took a job making 8.25 an hour. Found an internship and they eventually hired me at 12.50 an hour. I could not believe how I wasted 10 years of my life getting the same amount of money if I had just gotten a job out of high school and stayed there. Plus the student loan debt. Colleges are there to make money, not develop you for your future. No one cares about your degrees, only experience. My degrees are in a envelope in the bottom of my closet.

    May 3, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  11. j g

    The reality is it has been drilled into todays youth the only way forward is to goto college, I see it even in our elementary schools, more work is put into preparing the child for college the actual education / life skills. In the end all we are doing is failing our society by pushing the majority of kids into college for jobs that SHOULDN'T require a college degree, all the while those that actually want to goto college for academics, knowledge and the betterment of society are being pushed out because that kid over there got perfect grades so he could get his degree to become some middle manager paper pusher.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Tom

      Unfortunately, there is what SHOULD be, and there is REALITY. The reality is that unless one wants to work a minimum wage job standing up all day ringing a cash register, a college education is required. Its not necessarily required to do a job, but management won't hire you unless you have it. What many parents and college age young adults forget, is that you don't have to live 4 years on an ivy league college campus to get a degree. That's super expensive. Do do years of community college then finish the other two at a state school. Take a lighter academic load and work part time if you need to. Think outside the box. College CAN be affordable if one is creative.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  12. Kim

    Both my husband and I have the basic college degrees. We have thought about getting our masters, but both of our professions (digital marketing and IT) have lent themselves better to experience than book smarts. My husband is a manager and didn't need a masters to put him there. I was a manager and didn't need one either. I have found especially in the digital marketing world that hands on experience far outweights sitting nights doing online classes or in a classroom all weekend to get me farther ahead. I'm rather tired of people expecting that book smarts somehow is better than the real world experience you can gain.

    May 3, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  13. John G

    I have always been amazed at how many different things that people do in the world to make a living. College should provide the training (aka tools) to apply in a profession but half the technical knowledge used today will be obsolete in 10 years.

    Thus, occupational skill(s) learning goes on for a working lifetime. With 14 years of college I learned that few schools train students to think and learn on their own. A great teacher does not impart their knowledge on the student, but instead guides the student to their own knowledge.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  14. iceload9

    Since very few parents can take their children into their businesses a college degree is a shot at a job. Most firms won't let you show hiring preference to your children. Unless they own their own business and are going to bring the kids in, the kids are on their own. You can't even bring your kids into the unions. So whats a parent to do but pay the exorbitant college rates and hope for the best. The political system has let everyone down by sitting idly by while the jobs left. If we did that during the revolution we would still be a British colony. We have no more fight.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  15. Ann

    1 Bachelor's, 1 Masters, 1 ABD (All but Dissertation Ph.D.), and 1 Masters' in Education and I make more money running a dog walking service and doing real estate deals here and there as a licensed agent in NYC. It's nice to be educated, but it
    never made me a living or employable sadly.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  16. someguy

    To many folks go way into debt for higher education and end up finding now real way to pay it al back. I think it is like a prescription for what you will actually need and use so "As Needed" should be applied.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  17. smith

    If a person feels that it will benefit them and they also learn more, I dont see why not.

    May 3, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  18. Bristol Palin

    Mmmmmmmmm... anal

    May 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  19. ironau

    While some rare few (Jobs & Gates) are well equiped, intelectually, geographically and temporarly to drop out of college and succeed. there are many many more that drop out and fail utterly.

    Getting a degree is about improving your ODDS of success. Get a BA in Theater and minor in Middle English Lit and you haven't increased your odds much. Get a mechanics certification from a trade school and you've increased your odds more than the theater major. Get a BS in electrical engineering and your odds are better than both.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Light Guru

      I have a BA in Theater (Production & Design). It has allowed me to tour with musical acts around the world twice on their dime, go to every state, make a good salary (plus Per Diem every day I am gone). I get to be creative, don't work 9-5 and I am my own boss. There is no restriction to where I live. I just need a phone and an airport. This life is not for everyone but has made me very happy.

      Degrees show employers that you are able to finish what you started. After that it is up to the individual to make their own successes.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  20. J.T.

    I had a full scholarship but did not take advantage of it and at this point in my life I do regret it as many local governments now require degrees. I understand a dgree gets you a broader knowlege base and that too is helpful.

    The bottom line is that if you work "the street" it is a LOT better to know the "how" than the "why". I wanted to be a field paramedic opposed to being educated to set up and operate an EMS service. Law enfrcement and the fire service are lot like that as well. When you have something burning bad enough that you are running out of sky to put the smoke in then you need practical knowlege. The same applies when you and your partner have to "surround" five or six bad guys.

    I fear that higher education is now more a business than a true place of learning. Just one opinion.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  21. Flamespeak

    Are you going to school to get a good job? Then go to a vocational college and learn a vocational trade. Too often are these schools overlooked by the vast majority of the public because they are seen as 'lesser' schools. The simple fact is that a vocational career will often yield fruit faster and more plentiful in the short AND long run when it comes to the job field outside of education. Apprenticeship is also something that is almost utter avoided these days too. Why spend thousands of dollars going to school for years to be a vet, when you could work the job with a real vet as their apprentice and GET PAID for doing so?

    Degrees are nice to brag about, but they are nowhere near as job necessary or even as unique as they once were. When a market is flooded with people with degrees that are useless outside of the classroom (liberal arts for example) for the most part, then really, is it a wonder that many are finding themselves with a great educational background working a minimum wage job?

    May 3, 2012 at 5:54 am |