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A college degree vs “Who Wants to be a Billionaire?”

I ran across an old article – dated three days before the lockdown in 2020. It was about the need for a college degree. The item featured quotes from eight entrepreneurs whose party-line advice to readers was that you don’t need a college degree. It was clearly aimed at young people who were trying to determine how to earn a living – while leaning into a pandemic.

The article’s headline referred to a quote by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, who said that “college is not for learning.”

Of course, the article didn’t mention that Musk earned his college degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He also attended the University of Pretoria and Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, and later dropped out of Stanford. (Musk also pursued a sketchy path into the United States, but that’s a different subject altogether.) Nor did it mention that at least two of the eight interviewees also graduated from and/or dropped out of universities. Or that another went to work for his dad and eventually took over his father’s (already well-established) company.

One of the interviewees mentioned that high-profile companies like Apple and Google will hire people without college degrees. In fact, you can work in Apple’s retail and technical support environments without a college degree, but if you want to work with Apple’s software, hardware, or AI and machine learning divisions, you’re going to need a college degree or two. Preferably three. And Google. If you visit their Careers page, you can sort their open positions by the college degree Google requires. “No degree” is not an option, although “Pursuing Degree” is. (Except for the internships those jobs are almost all overseas.) The vast majority of Google jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree.

A college degree must have value for the student

The article’s grand fault is that not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, so the audience is rather narrow. The other oversized problem is that not everyone gets to be a billionaire, or a multi-millionaire, or even a millionaire. There simply aren’t enough billions and millions to go around.

Undoubtedly, a person can succeed in life and employment with no college degree. Happens all the time. I know a woman who runs two multi-million-dollar companies and never attended a day’s worth of college. But how do community colleges compete with billionaires who say that college is over-rated?

From the looks of it, hundreds of thousands of high school graduates are listening. And why shouldn’t they, when the best their community college comes up with are $12-per-hour job “opportunities”?

As a rich community, we pay our extensive collection of community college executives top dollar to develop educational programs that steer graduates clear of the poverty line. But when a Michigan high school diploma is worth $33,375 per year and a Michigan community college degree is worth $38,900, it’s really easy to see why billionaires like Elon Musk say that college is over-rated.

Our handsomely paid community college executives owe this rich community and its students educational programs that generate more than an extra $2.65 per hour for graduates. Right now, employers are learning a very hard lesson: maximizing profits by minimizing wages works only as long as the short end of the stick doesn’t become too short.

Our community college executives must focus more on student needs and less on employer needs. (Yes, that is actually possible.) Only when students perceive a clear benefit from a college degree will enrollment increase.

Photo Credit: Penn State University, via Flickr