The Importance of Four-Year Degrees

A recent comment from Jeffery questioned the value of four-year degrees for all. This is a frequent question I get in my presentations. So I thought it worth doing a blog, rather than just responding to the comment.

Since we are interested in how to rebuild a high prosperity Michigan, our focus is on what is most important to the state’s economic well being. There the value of individuals with four-year degrees is very high. The places across the country with the highest proportion of adults with four-year degrees are the most prosperous. Michigan’s fundamental problem is that we are thirty fourth in college attainment.

We have never argued that everyone needs a four-year degree. In the states with high college attainment and high incomes the proportion with a four-year degree is in the mid thirties. So for states and regions the more four-year degreed adults you have the more prosperous you are.

For individuals a four-year degree is the best, but not the only, path to a good paying job/career. Our best guess is that the labor market a decade from now will require about 30-35% of workers to have a four-year degree or more and another 25-30% with the equivalent of an occupational certificate or associates degree from a community college. So about 40% of the jobs will be lower skilled. But what is different now is that almost all of them will be low paid.

The link Jeffery provided to the high demand jobs includes many low skill, low pay jobs. We certainly should help individuals get the skills needed to get those jobs. Any job is better than no job.

But the larger policy goal for the state should be to prepare, retain and attract talent so that we can recreate a high prosperity Michigan. And to have a lifelong education system that helps everyone develop the skills needed to get good-paying jobs and careers.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Here’s some interesting data…

    You maintain the data anticipates a need for more degreed folks in Michigan.

    That’s in your view the ticket to prosperity.

    But if low unemployment is also an indicator of “prosperity” (what a relative term that is eh? — I prefer “quality of life”) then look at the lowest 10 states in terms of unemployment and see how they rank in terms of the number of bachelor degreed citizens.

    Based on that comparison, the evidence simply does not support the claim that a “four-year degree = prosperity” Lou.

    And of course we could spend hours chatting about, “What is your definition of prosperity?” — and as a part of a 21st century vision for Michigan it would definitely be worthwhile!

    From what I read on your web site, the best you are able to demonstrate (and that’s not “news”) is that on average, people who earn four-year degrees will most likely, over the course of their lifetimes, have more gross earnings.

    Since it’s clear that the vast majority of people DO NOT earn bachelor’s degrees — by a 3-1 margin — never have in fact since the Census Bureau percent of 25-28% hasn’t changed in decades and there’s no empirical evidence to suggest otherwise given the BLS report just to name one resource.

    1. At the core of our work is recreating a high prosperity Michigan. We are very clear that low unemployment, with low income is not success to us. And that the best measure of prosperity is per capita income. Its the Minnesota/Alabama comparison we detail in our last progress report and a couple of previous blogs.

      Low unemployment states today are farm or energy based by and large. Also tend to be small states with even smaller minority populations. We can’t be like them even if we want to.

      Of the ten states with the highest college attainment, nine are in the top twelve in income. Nothing else comes close to correlating with state income like this. That is the top ten Michigan should want to join. The point we are making is that talent is not evenly distributed. So that you want to be a place where mobile talent wants to live and work. That is the only reliable path to high state/regional income.

      If we could choose a Michigan economy of the future, why would we choose anything else? Its how you get a broad middle class. As our research shows the places with the highest proportion of four-year grads have the highest percent of households with incomes over $75,000 and the lowest percent of households below $25,000.

  2. And one more thought… continuing to claim that the more four-year degreed adults Michigan has the more prosperous the State becomes completely misleads the readers of this web site. Colleges do not set salaries; employers set salaries. Colleges simply provide a supply of degree-holders. Over-supplying the job market with graduates will NEVER magically increase the total number of high-paying jobs. We’re over-supplied now in Michigan and that’s the biggest reason why degreed individuals are moving out of the State. But of course it will certainly keep many gypsy PhDs employed at Michigan colleges and universities.

  3. I completely understand your core work Lou.

    I really do.

    I just disagree how to get there.

    Focusing on 30 percent of the population and ignoring the 70 percent is not the ticket to a prosperous Michigan.

    If Michigan’s future is not about FULL employment but rather focuses on increasing the number of folks with four-year degrees, well, that’s elitist in my book.

    It seems to me that we’d want to flip-flop the equation – I mean, have we learned nothing from the 1980s “trickle down” theory … where is David Stockman anyway?

    Let’s focus on creating an equitable distribution of education and training opportunities for the jobs of the future for the 70 percent instead of fixating on the 3 in 10 high school grads who will earn a four-year degree.

    And honestly, if you look REALLY closely, of the 3 in 10 Lou, less than half are working in their degree field and in a job for which the degree was the critical component of their employment.

    So, then, your group’s focus is really only on 10 or maybe 15 percent of the population for whom a specific bachelor’s degree will be their personal ticket to prosperity.

    And that’s fine… you have a niche market so to speak. Lots of businesses are highly successful in doing just that… focusing on a small market segment.

    I have no problem with that. I am glad the four-year degree folks have you and your web site as their champion.

    Just don’t forget the talents of the 8 out of 10 are the real future of Michigan because they form the broad middle class of the future, Lou. You know, the ones making $25,000 or maybe less a year.

    Look over the list again from the BLS report Lou… how many of those can possibly be exported to some other country? You still going to need to get your suits and shirts drycleaned? Still going to fill up with fuel? Get your car fixed? Buy groceries? Shop for appliances? Work on your home or yard and buy something from a home improvement store? Hire out lawn care? Pest control? Get your home or office cleaned? Dine out? Stay in a hotel, motel or resort? Get your furnace tuned up? How about a new roof? Need an electrician or plumber?

    Finally, along that same line, make a list of all the people you come in contact with over the next 10 days… the ones you write checks to or from whose businesses you swipe your debit or credit card. How many will be here in 10 years? 20 years? And how many of those jobs now or in the future will require four year degrees? Seven in ten Lou.

    That 70 percent is the real silent majority Lou and they will be here a decade from now.

    They’re not visiting your web site Lou. They haven’t the time.

    Lose sight of that fact Lou and you and the rest of the 10 or 15 percent of the folks working in their degreed field (I see you are an urban planner… close enough I guess) and you lose sight of all that’s important in Michigan’s future.

    Jeff Salisbury (retired educator)
    Wayland, Michigan

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