In the recession, does advanced education really pay off?

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April 10 2009 2:27 PM

Help, My Degree Is Underwater

In the recession, does advanced education really pay off?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Education pays. That's the lesson of study after study on the income effects of going to college and graduate school. In general, you make more money if you get a higher degree. Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz have written that since 1980, "[t]he increase in the relative earnings of college graduates and those with advanced degrees has been particularly large."

The studies that show this finding typically crunch broad swaths of data. They look at the census, or other large population samples, and show a positive correlation between income and years of education. This means that college and graduate school are generally a good bet. But it doesn't tell you that every single degree pays off financially at every single point in time.

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This insight helps me understand the hundreds of e-mails I got in response to my question about how the recession is affecting twentysomethings' decisions about graduate and professional school. (I mention that there were hundreds to absolve myself for not answering them individually. Your notes were heartfelt and moving; I read them all, and please forgive me for a lamely collective thank you!) I heard from twentysomethings in law school, business school, Ph.D. programs in the sciences and the humanities, and master's coursework in a variety of subjects. And if more school is usually an unbeatable bet in the long term, it is not looking that way to a lot of students in the here and now. As Jonathan, a college graduate in North Carolina who had been working at a used-book store, puts it, "I have a B.S. in sociology, and its value bears a strong similarity to its initials."

To be sure, plenty of students appreciate school as a refuge from the dreaded job market. "It's a brilliant safe house and one I would gladly (if naively) choose, if I hadn't just finished my Ph.D. dissertation last month," writes Laurel, whose subject is art history.

Despite the research mentioned above, Ph.D.s like Laurel won't see an immediate payoff. She is lucky, compared with her peers, because she has no debt for all her years of school. "For the past seven years, someone has paid me to be a graduate student," she wrote. But if she doesn't owe money, she hasn't saved any, either. This is, of course, the traditional Ph.D. penury: Live like a church mouse, pore over old documents in your garret (or in Laurel's case, on fellowships in Venice, Italy, and the Adriatic Coast), and emerge with the credentials for an academic job. The problem is that this is not the year to graduate. "Many of the academic jobs that I applied to were cancelled," Laurel writes. "I've been scouring Craigslist but thus far I haven't found a position that requests familiarity with obscure art historical literature from the 18th century written in Serbo-Croatian."

Now maybe we shouldn't worry too much about Laurel. She sounds smart, and so far she's been successful. Maybe the university hiring freeze will prove to be a temporary bump along the road, and in a year or two she'll move into the art history job she trained for. But as universities offer more adjunct teaching and fewer tenure-track gigs, I can understand the title of this January piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go." I can also understand Laurel's consternation as she looks ahead. "I am hurdling toward being the saddest type of graduate student—the one who has finished and is at a loss for what to do next. I'm going to be the one sitting on the front steps of that Ivory Tower with my elbows on my knees and my chin in my hands just begging to be let back in."

According to my inbox, the recession means that in the short term, this is not merely a problem in the humanities, plaguing people who devote themselves to tiny, impractical bodies of knowledge. I heard, for instance, from broke or worried Ph.D.s in bioengineering from UC-Berkeley and UC-San Francisco ("It's wrenching to have a Ph.D. in engineering and not even earn my rent in a bad month") and physical sciences at Stanford ("I can stick around this place for another 3-4 years, the pay is bad, the hours are shit, but at least I know that I'm not going to get laid off.")

More anxious are the twentysomethings with professional degrees that were supposed to help them find work but aren't. Gordon, who is 29, has an undergraduate degree in computer engineering from Boston University, three years in IT, and an MBA and a master's in information systems. How much more sturdy and practical can you get? But after a year and a half, he lost the job he got after graduation. He has $60,000 in student loans even though he had full scholarships for both undergrad and grad school (living expenses). That comes out to $500 a month for the next 10 years. "I would describe my current state of fear as a dull persistent thing that colors all of my life decisions," he writes.

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