Value of a College Degree : References change, Value holds

In May of 2014, SAM shared a New York Times article highlighting the value of a college education and degree. When it comes to one of the greatest investments of time and financial resources an individual makes in preparing for their future, the question Is College Worth It? is considered not once, but repeatedly. In an effort to keep our data and information valid on the topic, we now share an updated view of the topic written by Dr. Peter Osborne.  His review of the question Do College Grads Really Earn More Than High School Grads comes to the same conclusion: a resounding YES.  

Dr. Peter Osborne serves as Vice President for adult learning at Cornerstone University and an associate professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary 

Dr. Peter Osborne serves as Vice President for adult learning at Cornerstone University and an associate professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary 

Do College Grads Really Earn More Than High School Grads?

By Peter Osborn on November 29, 2016  

(reprinted with permission by author)

We've all heard stories about people dropping out of college to start multi-million dollar businesses. People like Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell and Steve Jobs who threw off the chains of higher education and got right down to making money.

These stories lead some people to conclude that a college education isn't necessary. That all you really need to succeed is grit, grind and old-fashioned street smarts. That college is just a waste of money.

Additionally, many graduates have had difficulty finding employment in their field of study. This leads people to believe that obtaining a degree doesn't guarantee a higher paying job.

Porter Stansberry recently wrote:

I'd tell any teenager today the same thing: Forget about college. Instead, travel for a year. Go to several major cities. Work and intern in many different industries. Get a sense of the world. Meet people from other cultures. Learn what makes people tick. Learn history and geography.

Are these people right? Is college just for suckers who don't know any better? Are those who don't obtain a higher education just as likely to succeed as those who go straight into business after high school?

To answer those questions, we need to look at the data. Anecdotal stories are often misleading, and can be more inspiring than informative. 

So what do the numbers actually say?

The Rising Cost of Education

Before we can answer the question of college, we need to acknowledge that it's costly.

There's no disputing that the cost for college tuition is increasing. When adjusted for inflation, the average cost of tuition has more than doubled since 1986.  (Image via

Image via

Additionally, attending college costs a larger percentage of household income, making it more difficult to attend without incurring significant debt.

But does that mean you shouldn't attend? Let's look deeper.


A recent blog post by researchers Jason Abel and Richard Deitz dug into the post-college careers of those who graduated from college between 2009 and 2013. Their findings are somewhat startling, at least on the surface.

45% of the graduates are working in a "non-college job," meaning a job that doesn't necessarily require a bachelor's degree. On the surface, this seems to show that a college education isn't necessary after all. If you're going to end up as a barista, why spend 4 years and thousands of dollars at college?

But, as usual, there's more to this story than meets the eye.

When you break the 45% down by job type, half are working in relatively high-paying jobs, like information processing and sales. Another 25% work in modest-paying jobs, such as office and administrative support. Only 20% of all recent graduates are working in low-skilled, low-paying service jobs. And in these categories, graduates are making more money than those with no college degree.

Additionally, those with degrees are much more likely to transition to much higher paying jobs. As Abel and Deitz say:

In addition, the composition of jobs held by recent graduates changes within the underemployed occupation categories as workers age. The percentage who are employed in the low-skilled service category drops by half, suggesting that these jobs were temporary for a good number of young graduates. By age 26 or 27, only 6.6 percent were still working in these low-paying jobs. The other two groups with the most significant declines include office and administrative support, and sales.

BOTTOM LINE: Underemployed graduates don't stay underemployed for long. These jobs are usually stopping points before better paying jobs.

More Lifetime Earnings

A recent study from Georgetown University found that, on average, college graduates earn $1 million more in earnings over their lifetime. Another recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the median yearly income gap between high school and college graduates is around $17,500.

By choosing not to go to college, you are essentially forfeiting $17,500 per year and $1 million over your lifetime.

That's $1 million less in retirement and $17,500 less in disposable income every year. Before you don't go to college, consider what you would do if you had an additional $1 million available when you retire. Would you buy a home? Create a fund for your children? Travel Europe?

BOTTOM LINE: Not attending college costs a lot. Much more than people think.

Less Unemployment

Finally, the unemployment rate for those with college degrees is significantly less than those without. Consider these statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

The unemployment rate for those with a high school degree or less is three times higher compared to those who did attend college.

BOTTOM LINE: You are far less likely to be unemployed if you have a degree.

So Why Are So Many Underemployed?

Of course, these statistics raise the question: why are so many recent college graduates underemployed?

There are several reasons for this. First, and most obviously, the number of workers with degrees has increased over the last forty years. Since 1965, the percentage of graduates has tripled, rising from 10% to 30%.

Image via

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More graduates in the workforce means more competition, fewer available jobs, and less pay. 

Second, the U.S. economy has been in the Great Recession since 2008, and recessions always lead to higher unemployment among recent graduates. As the Economic Policy Institute says:

Unemployment of young graduates is extremely high today, but not because of something unique about the Great Recession and its aftermath that has affected young people in particular. Rather, it is high because young workers always experience disproportionate increases in unemployment during periods of labor market weakness—and the Great Recession and its aftermath is the longest, most severe period of economic weakness in more than seven decades.

It's not that there is a problem with higher education or that college degrees are somehow a waste of money. The economy as a whole has been hurt, which in turn contributes to unemployment and underemployment.

From the data, it can be tempting to conclude that trying to make it without a degree might be a valid solution, but this isn't the case.

While it's true that that it's currently challenging for graduates, it's even harder for those without degrees. Paul Taylor, the executive Vice President of the Pew Research Center says:

"The driver of that widening [gap between income] is not so much that today's college graduates are doing better than yesterday's college graduates are doing; it's that today's high school-only graduates are doing worse than yesterday's high school-only graduates," he says. "The real story is the collapse in economic opportunity for people who do not continue their education beyond high school."

Yes, college graduates are facing more challenges than before, but it's even more difficult for those who have never attended college. Ultimately, not going to college is a decision that sabotages you for the rest of your life. Your income and earnings will always be lower and you will always have to fight harder for a job.

It's trendy for people to advise against college. They say things like, "If Richard Branson didn't go to college, why should you?" And while there's obviously a little bit of truth to this question, it misses the main point: most people aren't Richard Branson.

If you want to be a rogue entrepreneur who relies on no one and clears his own path, then maybe college isn't for you. But the percentage of people who shouldn't get a degree is very low.

If you want to set yourself up to succeed, a college degree is clearly the way to go.

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Educational statistics and rankings: what they do, and do not, represent

Dr. John Stockwell: Executive Director, Spartanburg Academic Movement and Member, SC Education Oversight Committee

Dr. John Stockwell: Executive Director, Spartanburg Academic Movement and Member, SC Education Oversight Committee

US News and South Carolina’s Education Ranking

US News and World Report caught the bull by the tail three decades ago when it launched its annual “college rankings” issue. Though the print magazine is defunct, the rankings live on, now including healthcare, crime, infrastructure, opportunity, economy, and pre-K through 12 education. 

Their popularity resides in the reduction of complicated comparisons to simple digits. Few of us have the inclination to dig into their methodology, but we should.

Earlier this month US News issued state-by-state rankings of pre-K – 12 education. South Carolina ranked 48th.  To argue with the ranking sounds defensive.  On the other hand, letting the bull rampage the china shop is irresponsible.

There is no single ranking that can represent with validity the complexity of education. For example, comparing “states” with one another masks the incredible disparities that exist “within states.” In one of South Carolina’s counties, the 4-year graduation rate is 59%.  Spartanburg County’s is 87.2%. It is meaningless to declare that the graduation rate is 73.1%.  Yet, this is the simplistic analytical model upon which much of the rankings are based.

US News relies on proxies to calculate rankings: ACT scores, graduation rates, 8th grade math and reading, pre-K enrollments; and it selects arbitrarily how it will weight these proxies to arrive at rankings.

US News uses the ACT as the chief indicator of college readiness. It fails to mention who takes and doesn’t take the ACT from state to state. Among the five states ranked highest (MA, NJ, NH, CT, and VT), less than one-third of high-schoolers take the ACT, and they self-select to do so. 

South Carolina requires 100% of 11th graders to take the ACT. Why? Because we want a realistic look at post-secondary readiness among all students, not a self-selected few. We want the capacity to advise all students where to turn for post-secondary certification. We want to create the possibility that a surprisingly good score will persuade an uncertain student to go to college.   

Of course, requiring the ACT of all 11th graders “hurts” our statewide average, but it helps us immeasurably learn more about our graduates. Were we to limit testing to a self-selected few, we too could trade away that knowledge for higher rankings. But which is the better practice?

South Carolina requires 24 credits for graduation. New Jersey requires 22 and other states among the so-called top five require 20 or fewer. Their graduation rates are slightly higher than ours, and that simple fact – absent the hours required to graduate – yields higher ratings. Which is the better practice?

Research demonstrates that the return on investment in early childhood education is substantially greater than any other stage of learning. South Carolina’s pre-K quality rating by the National Institute for Early Education Research is 4th in the nation. Is the credit in the rankings equal to the ROI?

State Superintendent Molly Spearman points out that we’re leading the country in our apprenticeship program. Not credited in the rankings.

The “Profile of the South Carolina Graduate” expects schools to address not only world-class knowledge but also world-class skills and personal characteristics. The ambition of the “Profile” is a national best practice. Not in the rankings. 

Finally, what fails completely to get attention in the rankings is the profound impact of household poverty on academic achievement. It is no accident that the top five ranked states have incomes substantially higher than South Carolina’s. Yet Spartanburg County is addressing poverty and academic achievement head-on, witnessing some of our greatest gains among our most disadvantaged populations. Not in the rankings.

Consider interventions across our county impacting academic achievement from cradle to career: declining teenage births, increasing birth weights, Quality Counts child care centers, expanding 3K and 4K in schools, developmental delay interventions, programs to address summer slide, individual graduation planning starting in 8th grade, rich array of AP courses, dual credit opportunities, expanding apprenticeships, increasing graduation rate seven years running. None credited in the rankings.

Why does US News “rank” states in the first place? In the somewhat patronizing words of assistant managing editor Mark Silva, “as many balances of power shift from Washington, D.C., to the states, it’s essential to understand which states are doing best at what matters most to Americans.” Sounds good. Sells well. But it masks some really sloppy social science, and thereby damages reputations.

South Carolina’s teachers, schools, Department of Education, Education Oversight Committee, and we here in Spartanburg County are undertaking the more rigorous science of examining what really works in teaching and learning. And we are looking the difficult challenges of poverty straight in the eye, addressing learning disparities directly.

If we’re going to look the bull straight in the eye, it’s wiser to take it by the horns than by the tail.

John C. Stockwell, Ph.D.

Executive Director, Spartanburg Academic Movement

Member, SC Education Oversight Committee

March 17, 2017

Read, Rattle, and Roll

On October 29th the Spartanburg Academic Movement will host “Read, Rattle, and Roll” in partnership with Help Me Grow South Carolina and the Bridge at Green Street.  “Read, Rattle, and Roll” is a free developmental screening event for families in Spartanburg with young children ages 2 months – 5 years. The event will take place at the Bridge at Green Street located at 446 Brawley Street in Spartanburg’s Northside community.

What is developmental screening?  

Early childhood developmental screening is the process of detecting delays in reaching typical developmental milestones, referring children for additional assessments, and initiating early intervention services.  According to the South Carolina Developmental Screening Landscape Survey, the most widely used screening tool is the Ages and Stages Questionnaires (ASQ-3).

The ASQ-3 is a standardized screening tool completed by family members and others who are familiar with a child’s common skills and behaviors.  Developmental screening is a non-invasive process that considers the age of the child, the typical milestones for the age range, and parent/caregiver responses on the child’s current abilities relative to the typical milestones.

Developmental screening does not provide a diagnosis of any kind, but can be extremely helpful in identifying children that should seek further evaluation and referrals to early intervention services.  Some concerns that may be revealed through a developmental screen include potential speech/communication delays and gross/fine motor delays.

Why focus on developmental screening?

As highlighted in the article, early detection and interventions can have profound impacts on child outcomes.  In the article, “Justin” is described as a third grader who is meeting all of his grade-level expectations and gets along well with others, even though he is on the autism spectrum.  His story is very positive because his parents were able to detect early signs of autism and have him screened at 18 months old – providing for years of early intervention therapies that have allowed him to meet or exceed many benchmarks thought to be impossible.

Developmental screening allows for the early detection of concerns, further assessment, and the provision of early intervention services as soon as possible.  Those early intervention services provide can be successful in addressing the needs of a child and reduce the likelihood for further special education services.  

Many children, however, have not had a developmental screening and may be experiencing developmental delays that go undetected until they enter kindergarten.  At this point, students are at a disadvantage in their ability to learn and the schools incur the tremendous responsibility of providing many therapy services in school.  Of course, therapies will always need to be provided in a school setting, but for many children, the same therapies provided much earlier than kindergarten can be successful in addressing the delay and reducing the need for services later on. 

A recent article from the Institute for Child Success, “Early Childhood Developmental Screening in South Carolina:  Common Practices, Opportunities, and Challenges” highlights the importance of and impact that early childhood developmental screening can have for a community, including economic and social benefits for students, families, schools, and states.

It is SAM’s desire that through events like “Read, Rattle, and Roll” and the collective focus of partners like our child care community there will be a tremendous increase in the number of children in Spartanburg County that have access to free developmental screenings and the connection to early intervention services so that more and more of our children get the very best start on their journey to lifelong success.

Share this event with your friends and neighbors and encourage young families to attend on October 29th.  

Beth Gets Her Black Belt

So we don't have any ninjas in the office, but congratulations are definitely in order! Beth Thompson, Director of Collaborative Action Networks, just received her Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification at our last Board of Directors meeting. The certification was presented to her by BMW associates Mark Fendley and Eric Hayler following her final project presentation.

Pictured from left to right: Mark Fendley, Beth Thompson, Eric Hayler

Pictured from left to right: Mark Fendley, Beth Thompson, Eric Hayler

In order to receive her Black Belt certification, Beth had to successfully complete 5 weeks of classroom training and demonstrate appropriate use of the Six Sigma method throughout her project.  The Six Sigma Continuous Improvement process provides a methodology and set of tools to move the needle on SAM's indicators of academic success.  Beth’s project focused on improving kindergarten readiness outcomes by organizing the Kindergarten Success Collaborative Action Network (“KSCAN”) and facilitating the group’s work through the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) process she learned during her training.  The KSCAN has began collectively implementing actions that will improve outcomes for our earliest learners. 

With Six Sigma, all Collaborative Action Networks are able to have efficient and effective meetings and make data driven decisions every step of the way. In order to improve cradle to career outcomes for students in Spartanburg County, it is important to understand the factors already contributing to the success of students and inhibiting success for others. Continuous improvement is at the heart of what SAM is about, and Beth's success facilitating the KSCAN using the Six Sigma methodology is proof that it works. 

BMW will welcome a second staff member, Dr. Glen Carson, to their Six Sigma Black Belt training program in September. We are forever grateful for BMW’s investment in the continuous improvement work of SAM.  

Congratulations again to Beth for her hard work and wonderful presentation, and best of luck to Glen as he starts his training next month.