Is a B.A. Worth It Anymore? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Several readers have smart takes on this question:

Marxian Economics provides an interesting view of the “value” of any degree. The profits of a company can be divided into two parts: the amount that’s needed to sustain production, and the surplus. Training employees does not directly result in production for a company, which means it must come from the surplus. But the company has many other things they want to spend the surplus on, so they would prefer if their workers were able to do a job from Day One with no training. That means the bill for education/training falls on the individual or the state—which the company also doesn’t want to pay. That’s a different problem.

The readers before me eloquently argued that universities currently have a monopoly on verification for skills; this is sadly true. Even more distressing is the fact that universities operate as companies themselves. Students must pay more money than the value of the education they receive or the system will crash, which is why—I hazard a guess here—they’re forced to take unrelated classes, instead of being speedily prepared for a career.

Now, I learned the basics of this theory from a university lecture, but I haven’t payed a penny.

It’s free on Youtube. Unfortunately, if I want to prove that I know what I’m talking about, I’d need to have a shiny degree—which ironically I would understand is worth less than what I paid for based on the classes I received!

Is this a problem? Yes, it’s a trillion dollar problem. But the universities are getting their money, the politicians work for the corporations, and the corporations only care about their bottom line in the next quarter, so it’s not a problem that’s going to be solved, even though cheaper education is better for literally the entire human race.

Another reader cites a helpful book:

David Labaree’s pessimistic take in Someone Has to Fail is worth quoting in discussions about the value of the B.A. Labaree describes a race between educational access and the demand for educational privilege, and he places it at the center of the history of movements for educational reform. He thinks it unlikely that such a core tension will be resolved in the years ahead, and he imagines an inflation in higher education degrees that will continue unabated for some time:

… consider where the current pattern of expansion is taking us. As master’s programs start filling up, which is already happening, there will be greater pressure to expand access to doctoral programs, which are becoming the new zone of special educational advantage. So it seems likely that we’re going to need to invent new forms of doctoral degree programs to meet this demand, something that universities (always on the lookout for a new marketing opportunity) are quite willing to do. When that happens, of course, there will be demand for a degree beyond the doctorate (the current terminal degree is American higher education), in order to give some people a leg up on the flood of doctoral graduates pouring into the workplace.

In some ways this has already happened to science Ph.D.’s who have to complete an extensive postdoctoral program if they want a faculty position in an American university. We may end up going the direction of many European universities, which require that candidates for professorships first complete a Ph.D. program and then prepare a second dissertation called a habilitation , which is in effect a super-doctorate. This puts people well into their thirties before they complete their educational prepartion.

Another gets into the weeds with a previous reader:

I want to take a moment to reply to the update provided by your reader.
For the most part, he or she is correct that you must have an ABET accredited engineering degree to take the FE exam.  A few states allow work experience to count for academic experience, but it isn’t common.

The purpose of the FE is the first step towards obtaining a PE (Professional Engineer) license. A candidate passes the FE, is graded the title of engineer in training and starts to gain work experience.  After a number of years, they apply to sit for the PE exam.  A number of PEs that they have worked under will provide professional recommendations and the state licensing board grants the PE license.

The reason for all of this process is liability.  Only a licensed Professional Engineer can approve construction plans for buildings and public works projects.  This is a response to the failures and loss of life that has occurred when these things are not designed and built correctly.

Don’t get me wrong; just because a PE was involved doesn’t negate the possibility of something going wrong.  The intent is to minimize that possibility. It’s for the same reasons the bar exam and the medical board exam are required.

As a result, most PEs are in the civil engineering field. Many of the rest are engineers working in related fields, i.e. HVAC, plumbing, electrical wiring, fire suppression, etc. They are working on structures and their supporting systems for construction related to buildings and roads.  There are plenty of engineers who never take the FE, and have very successful careers. We are covered under the industrial exemption, or it isn’t a consideration.