22 Signs Your College Degree Might Not Be Worth the Money

There is more than a grain of truth in the old joke that goes something like this:

The engineering graduate asks, “How will it work?”
The physics grad wants to know, “Why does it work?”
And the liberal arts graduate asks, “Do you want fries with that?”

A recent study by Bloomberg Businessweek evaluated over 500 American universities and colleges. Here are the top 15 that provided the best net annualized returns on investment:

1. Georgia Institute of Technology
2. University of Virginia
3. Brigham Young University
4. Colorado School of Mines
5. College of William and Mary
6. University of California – Berkeley
7. University of California – Los Angeles
8. University of Michigan
9. Virginia Polytechnic Institute
10. University of Florida
11. University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
12. California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo
13. Texas A&M
14. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
15. California Institute of Technology

Now take a look at those top 15 schools. What do you see that stands out?

Yep. There is exactly one liberal arts college on the list: William and Mary.

However, there are six institutes of technology (highlighted) on the list that specialize in engineering, science and/or technology degrees (including my alma mater, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo).

The reason for this is simple. Fewer people get technical degrees, which keeps demand for engineers and scientists high, which in turn keeps their salaries high in relation to most other professions.

Obviously, the trick for you folks in college who aren’t interested in pursuing a technical degree – or becoming a lawyer or doctor – is to make sure you don’t get caught spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a degree that ends up being a complete waste of your hard-earned money.

Okay, Len. So how do I do that?

Well, consider the following list of 22 real-life college courses:

1. The Joy of Garbage (University of California – Berkeley)
2. Oprah Winfrey: The Tycoon (University of Illinois)
3. The Beatles (University of California – Los Angeles)
4. Surfing* (The University of Plymouth)
5. Arguing with Judge Judy (University of California – Berkeley)
6. David Beckham Studies (Staffordshire University)
7. Circus Stunts (Triton College)
8. UFOs In American Society (Temple University)
9. Philosophy and Star Trek (Georgetown University)
10. Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond (Univ. of Texas – Austin)
11. Stupidity (Occidental College)
12. Bob Dylan and America (Alfred University)
13. How to Watch Television (Montclair State University)
14. Whitewater Skills (West Virginia University)
15. The Art of Walking (Centre College)
16. Animal Cognition (University of California – Berkeley)
17. Underwater Basket Weaving (Rutgers University)
18. Learning from YouTube (Pitzer College)
19. Cyberporn and Society (State University of New York – Buffalo)
20. Ghostbusting* (Coventry University)
21. The American Vacation (University of Iowa)
22. The Phallus (Occidental College)

Now take a look at the highlighted classes above. (In this case, that would be all of them.) What common characteristic do you see that stands out?

Yep. None of them require any math skills. But more importantly, unless you plan on making a career out of teaching people how to walk properly, speak Klingon, argue with Judge Judy, or identify phallic images from random cloud formations, all of these courses add very little toward making you more competitive in the marketplace.

Think about it. Are there really employers out there looking for graduates who can juggle five balls in the air, and moonlight as a second-rate dog whisperer? Or knows that the Walrus was Paul? Of course. But there aren’t many.

It’s true; there aren’t many bosses out there pounding on their desks and demanding their high-paid headhunters find them a guy that knows — I mean really, really knows — how to watch the boob tube. But you can bet your bottom dollar that they are absolutely begging for people who have taken numerous courses in mathematics, engineering, chemistry and/or physics.

So before you go off and spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on an expensive college education, you’d be wise to select a degree that requires you to take courses that are always in high demand by employers — if you plan on getting a reasonably quick and decent return on your college investment worthy of an Ivy League portfolio, that is.

And if your college degree of choice requires you to take any of the aforementioned 22 real-life classes, you may want to think about finding yourself a new major — or a great job without a college degree. Stat.

Unless you plan on getting a job after you graduate asking customers if they want to super-size their value meal.

* Actually an entire degree program.

Comments

  1. 1

    Laura says

    I recognize that a lot of your posts are more than a little tongue-in-cheek, so I’ll try not to be that idiot who takes something way too seriously that was meant to be a joke.

    But I gotta say, I was pretty shocked to see that “Animal Cognition” is on your list of classes that are so silly they are a sign your degree might be worthless. Did this make the list because you think that animals don’t have any cognition worth studying? Because I’d be surprised if you could find many psychology departments that didn’t offer credit towards a major for a similar class; studying animal cognition is an important way of gaining insight into the human mind. Not only that, but psychology classes actually DO require math skills – you can’t understand or do research in the social sciences without knowing a fair amount about statistics.

    If what you’re saying is that social sciences like psychology are also useless on the employment market, then fine – that’s an argument you’re entitled to make. But I think it’s going to take a bit more work than the easy target of humanities bashing…

    • 2

      Laura J says

      I completely agree about the Animal Cognition class. I was very surprised to see it on there. We are allowed to do a lot more experimentation on the animal brain than we are on the human brain. Plus, animals are a lot smarter than most people realize. They just can’t voice their thoughts. About half of my class on “Learning and Memory” looked at mice and monkeys.

      Anyways, I also found it funny that 3 of the do-not-take classes are from UC-Berkley, which is number 6 on the salary list. They’ve gotta be doing something right in those classes.

      I can understand the sentiment though. That you should waste your money on courses where you aren’t learning anything. When you pick out a your program, you need to make sure that you’ll be learning some kind of monetizable skill.

  2. 4

    Emmy T says

    I am in this situation right now. I work as a Financial Aid Counselor, and as such, have a hard time justifying completing my Masters Degree in Marketing. Will it help me in my current job, no. Is there any demand for marketing grads, no. So now I am 3 classes into a degree I love, and stuck between completion and the cost.
    Everyday I assist students entering into a nursing masters from various backgrounds. It is a shame that we cannot support careers that do not entail math, science, or technology. What are the rest of us suppost to do when we are not inclined towards those academicly?

    • 6

      Emmy T says

      Ha ha-I am a bad speller (also typing on an iTouch). I am at home sick today, so how about some sympathy?

  3. 7

    says

    @Laura and Laura J: Uh oh. Let me have it, ladies! Why am I suddenly beginning to feel like I missed out by not taking an Animal Cognition class when I was in college? ;-)

    @Laura J: I noticed that too when I was writing this piece. I think the main reason UCB ranks so high is they graduate a lot of folks with technical, medical and law degrees.

    @Emmy: There is support for careers that do not entail math and sciences. However, the competition for those jobs is much fiercer – which lowers pay and makes jobs tougher to find. There may be far more marketing grads out in the market right now than jobs, but don’t let that discourage you. If you truly love marketing then you have a big advantage over a lot of marketing grads/majors that don’t. That’s because folks who love with they do are typically also among the best in their fields – which should bode well for you, Emmy, over the long haul.

  4. 8

    says

    I’m all for supporting mathematics and science, but not everyone wants to be a physicist or engineer. Yes, liberal studies colleges may seem like a waste of money; however did you know that most teaching credential candidates major in liberal studies? I’m sure you’re now thinking, “No wonder our education system is in a state of decline!” Yet, the idea behind these majors entering into teaching is that they are “well-rounded” in many subjects.

    So, I agree that students should take the time to think about their earning potential associated with their degree of choice, especially if they are borrowing money they will need to pay back. However, some employers are fascinated with degrees, such as say anthropology, and will hire you on that basis alone. ;)

    Who knows, maybe the next working generation will need to know how to speak Klingon.

    • 9

      Phil S says

      I have majors is Chemistry and education and minors in computer science and physics. I teach high school. Even though a tight economy makes it tougher to find a new teaching job, I’ve never been unemployed.
      My sister, a music major, has never been paid to perform.
      Argue the details all you want, but, the main idea of this article is dead on.

  5. 10

    says

    I totally agree with this post. I got a BA in Geography and Environmental studies…and the only thing that saved my butt was that I focused on Geographic Information Systems. THAT was a certificate added on which got me my first job.

    I’m now balancing it out with an MBA in Finance hoping that the two will be seen more as ‘diverse background’ rather than ‘lacks any sort of direction’. But, when you’re young you’re fairly stupid. I’ve seen that first hand discussing a potential marine bioligist degree with a friend’s kid. Great, if you don’t live in a landlocked state (‘But I really don’t want to be that far from my parents’ HUH?!). And it wasn’t even 10 years ago that I was that stupid kid myself. :D

    So fun.

    Thanks for the great post!

        • 14

          kletus says

          So you went to a college ranked at 71 instead of a college ranked at 25 lower because you “enjoy diversity”

          You just cant make this stuff up.

          • 15

            Sib says

            Actually, “kletus,” these rankings that you speak up can be “made up”.

            Did you realize that a significant part of the way rankings by US News and World Report are calculated, has to do with the ranking given to it by its president and provost? And the “reputation” they consider about other schools? There was a big to-do recently when people learned that the president of Clemson University was ranking his school very high in comparison to Ivy League schools. Essentially, when you’re looking at 100 schools spread out over a tier, you’ll roughly get the same kind of education. We are not living in the 1600s when Harvard was substantially better than the little red schoolhouse.

            If you go to Swarthmore, you’ll probably get the same education as someone who went to Brown, maybe better depending on specific programs and your and the school’s personality. Surely you realize that people teaching at your #71 school may have degrees from the one you rank as “25 lower”… and vice-versa. People from Georgia Tech end up at Michigan, people from Michigan end up at Vanderbilt, people from Vanderbilt end up at Berkeley.

            Speaking as someone who went to a school “merely” ranked as #100 among liberal arts schools, diversity comes in a lot of forms. I certainly got sick of all the people from New England and the Middle Atlantic states asking me if I grew up on a farm, merely because I’m a Midwesterner.

            Some people want to go to schools where they will meet people from different places, backgrounds, and countries, and other people choose to be “normal” at Texas A&M.

  6. 16

    Jenna says

    Some of the best courses I took in college had crazy names: History of Sex and Drugs (history course) and Monsters and Mad Men in Lit and Film (literature course). Best discussions and good arguing skills learn there. Sometimes the “easy” looking courses are the most challenging.

  7. 17

    Pineview Style says

    I have a friend from college who majored in Leisure Studies, and I kid you not, it took about 10 years for him to graduate.

  8. 18

    says

    I think that one problem is that young people don’t think enough before choosing their major. I have a bachelor’s in history, but am now studying for a second in computer science. I don’t believe that the first bachelor’s was a total waste, though, as I did find the study interesting and learned French and German as well.

  9. 19

    says

    In my opinion, the whole “get a degree and you will make money” period is over. Specializing in a career field or becoming an Entreprenuer is what is going to pay off. A general degree with no career focus probably won’t.

    I also agree with Little House that not everyone is cut out to be (or would enjoy being) an Engineer or a Scientist. Nothing is worse than working in a field you hate for 40 years, just because it pays well. A lot of Lawyers are figuring this out right now.

    I think people like Emmy should go for Marketing if that is their passion, with the understanding that it will be difficult. I have a friend who is a V.P. of Marketing at Skechers and she loves her job. It took her years to get there and she works really hard.

    One more piece of advice for Emmy, you don’t need the Masters degree to get started. Get a job in Marketing first. There are some openings for people with a Bachelors degree. A Masters degree with no work experience isn’t so valuable.

  10. 20

    says

    Hey, if I didn’t need financial security, I would totally pursue a ghost busting degree. That sounds like a ton of fun – either ghosts are real and you learn how to suck them up or ghosts are fake and you get to work with eccentric people all day – either option actually sounds fun to me. Sadly, I rather not live on Ramen again…

  11. 21

    says

    I went full-time for an MBA, and can see some years later that many of my former classmates are in more quantitatively oriented jobs now. Additionally, I have directly seen how people with math and science backgrounds can be sought after.

    Now, I’m all for balance and well rounded, and believe there is significant value to liberal arts education, though it might not manifest itself in immediate starting salaries.

    That said, that value doesn’t extend to classes like underwater basket weaving. It says something about those schools that offer stuff like that. Worse, it says something about the clowns that spend tuition money on such low ROI classes

  12. 22

    Carrie says

    Underwater Basket Weaving! I always thought that was just a joke going around but now I see it is real! :-)

    I’m of the opinion that no education is wasted, if someone is serious and passionate about it. I only worked for one year in my field (Human Services—I went to a technical college. I worked as a job coach, helping people with disabilities find jobs) after graduation before I quit to be a SAHM. But I still value my education and am glad I went to college.

    I agree that those courses sound like jokes. (OK, people, except animal cognition which I know nothing about!) I can’t believe they are legitimate. Why would you need to weave a basket underwater? :-)

  13. 23

    says

    In my state (Nevada), the post-secondary education system has been the primary topic of conversation since as far back as I can remember. Every suggested cut to colleges and universities is met not just with campus protests, but adults who are old enough to know better whining about how we’re shortchanging our children. Because, you know, without a college degree you can’t get a job.

    Which is nonsense. Plenty of well-paying jobs don’t. Given the choice between becoming, say, a mechanic or a carpenter with a year of training, then earning money right out of the gate, or incurring 4 years’ worth of enormous debts to earn a degree in women’s studies or sociology, isn’t the recommended solution obvious, at least from a financial perspective?

  14. 24

    says

    @LittleHouse: Well-rounded is definitely good. I guess I just wonder how much value one really gets from paying big money to a university to take a seemingly self-evident subject like, say, The Art of Walking or How to Watch Television. I’m not certain how much that really adds in the well-rounded department. :-)
    @Christa: We’ve all been there. I’ll take wisdom over youth any day of the week.
    @Jenna: Okay. I’ll trade you Advanced Linear Algebra for the History of Sex and Drugs. ;-)
    @Pineview: LOL! That just made my day!
    @Bret: “In my opinion, the whole “get a degree and you will make money” period is over.” Agreed! I think the colleges have brought it upon themselves too. The costs are so ridiculous now that they have made it quite obvious that the return on investment just isn’t worth it for many many majors – at least for the higher priced universities.
    @TheWiseSquirrel: It also is an indictment against the college system itself. I say offering up some of those classes is tantamount to a con artist selling a counterfeit painting as the genuine valuable article.
    @Carrie: I know. And I agree with you that no education is wasted. It’s just that some educations are more cost effective than others. And some aren’t cost effective at all.
    @Greg: They have the same protests over here in California, Greg. And I agree with you about the value of being a mechanic or carpenter. So many kids have been told that college is the only way to “make it,” which is pure hog wash. I would say three out of five kids in college today really would be much better off if they never went to college.

  15. 25

    says

    The point is, that there is really much job for both technical postgraduates and humanists. But employers need real specialists, but not the students that have been doing nothing throughouttheir studies. I’m getting a humanists education and I see, that most of my mates are not ready for doing the job they are studying to do. The people are just getting education for the fact of getting it, bit not for future working in the sphere. This is the problem.

  16. 26

    says

    That’s a pretty keen observation. I know plenty of people working in the technical field, without a degree, previously including myself. The field is easy to get into, because technology is readily available, but I see why degrees in the field are so important. With all the uneducated techies out there, just plugging along, finding one with a degree is the holy grail.

    Len, you are one sharp cookie.

  17. 27

    financialwizardess says

    Excellent article! I will save this one for my kids when they get old enough to understand it.

  18. 28

    says

    OK Len, you’ll probably shoot me after this comment and I don’t totally believe it myself, so bear with me. In my first MS degree in Counseling and Personnel Services we learned that historically, college is designed to offer a broad liberal arts education to instruct in critical thinking, problem solving, and a breadth of knowledge. I think it’s a good premise.

    Unfortunatelly, in today’s economy, most can’t afford that luxury.

    • 29

      says

      Barb: I think we are pretty much in agreement. I’m not knocking lib arts degrees, per se. My main point is that in most cases, people expecting to maximize their monetary ROI from their college education would be better off focusing on a technology degree – as opposed to a lib arts degree.

    • 30

      Rob Lewis says

      Barb, You’re correct, 200 yrs ago, the landed aristocracy and rich folks sent their kids to college to study Greek and Latin, the classics, history, etc. They were then qualified to win debates in parliament and live a very elegant and informed life. The technology of the time could be managed by craftsmen who learned on the job, and was advanced slowly by a few brilliant self-taught fellows.

      As the industrial revolution progressed, a much larger number of more highly trained people was required. West Point and Annapolis were founded to supply technically trained officers for the Army and Navy and schools like #14 above were founded (1861) to fulfill this need. The Morrill acts at about the same time led to the proliferation of colleges providing technical education. The GI bill after WWII increased the availability of college and technical education to a much larger segment of the population. These students also learn critical thinking and problem solving along with their practical skills.

      Now if you come from a rich or landed family, you can still follow the old model of liberal education and end up rich and famous (like the Kennedys). If you are like most of us, learning practical skills that deliver value that employers are willing to pay for or that enable an entrepreneur to provide useful products and services will generally deliver more economic value. If you are going the liberal arts route, you need to have a plan of how it will translate to value in the eyes of employers or customers or be prepared to accept probable low earning power.

      Notwithstanding all this, studying science and engineering tends to leave no spare time for anything else, and the lack of any liberal education (history, arts, languages, geography, political science, literature etc.) means you miss out on some elements of the elegant and informed life. This is a significant loss. It’s important to fill this gap.

      Based on one person’s experience, I would say that it is easier to work hard and focus on the scientific and technical fundamentals in college and fill in the liberal arts later in life than the other way around. Times change, your mileage may vary.

  19. 31

    financialwizardess says

    @Bret – Nothing is worse than working in a field you hate for 40 years, just because it pays well.

    I disagree. Living in your car with your diploma that you are passionate about is much worse, in my opinion, than putting in 40 hr/wk in a job that you hate. Conversely, with a job that pays well, you make enough money to enjoy yourself off-the-clock.

    Also, there’s no guarantee you won’t hate the job you envisioned having when you were loving the education. Just because you loved learning a topic in school doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy the real world job attached to that topic. So a job in marketing is rarely anything like majoring in marketing in it’s day to day tasks.

    It’s hard to love a job that doesn’t pay enough to give you financial freedom. I know I would become bitter and end up hating a job that afforded me little in the way of financial security no matter how much I may have love the job in the beginning.

    But that’s just my philosophy. This coming from an engineer who fully enjoys her time away from work because I am compensated enough to pursue my passions on my own time. I think our forefathers called this sacrifice (or was it just “work”?) :P

    • 32

      says

      Wizardess,

      I’m no stranger to sacrifice or hard work. I have been doing it for 30 years straight. Although my IT job is demanding, I love the work that I do. And, since I spend a lot of time working, it’s important to me that I enjoy it. I don’t see my time off-the-clock as proper compensation for 40 years of drudgery. But, that’s just my philosophy. To each his own.

      Also, I highly doubt someone with a serious passion for a field like Marketing will be living in their car or eating ramen. There is plenty of opportunity for someone who is driven to succeed.

  20. 35

    says

    Hey Len,

    I would classify all those schools such as UVA, BYU, etc. as liberals arts college. I’m actual shocked that UVA is there since it is so well know as a party school. I don’t think any of my friends from there were sober more than 2 days a week when they attended.

    I do enjoy the list of classes. I wonder how much of it is titling to get the kids into the class, classic bait and switch.

    I decided to take the Evil and Decadence class when I was at MIT because of the title. Being young and stupid, I didn’t really read the details. I thought, yippee, a break between science and math. It was one of the hardest course I ever took.

    We started the class with 250 students and less than 25 remained at the end because it was so hard and intensive. It was a literature class and we had to read a book a week, analyze it, write an essay and find real life example of the aberrant behavior but we have to think outside of the box. We also had to debate points of view.

    Did you ever think that the Pilgrims were decadent?

    The finals was taking the theme from one book and illustrated it in real life by using the rest of your classes. i.e. if you have chemistry, you need to utilize that field.

    That is still one of my favorite classes and taught me a great deal that I use today in real life: analysis, philosophy, ethics, assumptions, collaboration and many other social skills.

  21. 36

    says

    Liberal Arts Colleges don’t really do a lot for you these days. I mean sure they give you a better studying environment but in all reality its not what school you went to its what you do at school and what career choice you take. Doing something you love is one of the most important things for both college and work.

  22. 37

    says

    I agree w/your conclusion. However, I happen to have an engineering degree from Georgia Tech AND an MBA (for U or Iowa), but I’m still underemployeed. I think education in a hard science helps. However, I wouldn’t bank on it, especially if you are trying to convenience potential employers in a soft science (in my case, marketing) that having analytical skills is advantageous.

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