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When a college degree is not valuable

Business column

PIMCO Managing Director William Gross offers his opinion that college degrees might be overvalued and it is a valid point. Now that might be odd since I’m an educator, but let me explain. The global marketplace has radically changed over the last decade and it is placing more value on math and science, rather than the liberal arts. Therefore, the value of a college degree varies based on area of discipline and academic rigor.

In today’s educational environment, there is more focus on ensuring that all segments of society matriculate through the K-12 system. The primary objective is to lower dropout rates, which is an admirable and worthwhile goal because it has the potential of decreasing crime and boosting productivity. However, achieving that goal by lowering expectations and not insisting students meet key academic requirements has severe consequences for the rest of the student body.

Human behavior revolves around tying action to consequences. There is a perception that many school districts are giving a free pass to unruly or disengaged students. By not intervening at an early stage, there is no incentive to change these self-defeating acts. Not only is this damaging to the low-performing student, it affects the morale and productivity of the rest of the classroom.

If this perception is true and students are leaving high school and entering college without a good foundation, then they are not equipped to fully take advantage of the benefits of a college degree. In a global economy that is placing greater emphasis on math and science, students are avoiding those rigorous disciplines in favor of liberal arts where evaluation is more intrinsic and subjective.

It is certainly not my intention to denigrate liberal arts because there is great value in possessing strong communication and critical thinking skills. However, it is easier to meet minimum requirement in the liberal arts than nursing, engineering, math, and economics, since the later disciplines require quantitative competencies that are more objective and not subjective. In fact, a superior liberal arts students will remain in great demand because they will have a strong foundation in critical thinking that will prepare them for a variety of disciplines.

What is needed is higher standards for not only students and teachers, but also parents. While there are some who believe that will result in more students falling through the cracks, it is my belief that our youth will rise to the challenge of higher expectations.

As an advocate for broad-based economic growth and minimizing income inequality, we must change our paradigm to properly equip all segments of society to deal with the needs of the global economy.

Aaron Johnson is the Assistant Professor of Economics at Darton College in Albany, GA. In addition to his teaching duties at Darton College, he is also a board member for the Albany Dougherty Economic Development Commission and the Albany Dougherty Planning Commission. He also publishes a blog on economic and financial literacy at www.econprofaj.wordpress.com, which highlights research sources for this article and others.