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Is a more-educated retail sales force worth the money?

Is the expense of going to college worth it? When you consider not only tuition and books, but also opportunity costs, the answer is sometimes “no, at least from a financial standpoint.”

The Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education, naturally enough, is an advocate for spending on higher ed. It cites, among other things, salary premiums enjoyed by college graduates over similarly situated people without degrees.

So, for example, “marketing and sales managers” who have a degree earn on average 62 percent more than managers without a degree.

But we also read that the wage premium exists in other fields: 84 percent for cashiers, 63 percent for cooks, 38 percent for auto mechanics, 34 percent for cops, and 23 percent for postal service mail carriers.

Now, I’ve run a cash register before, and I have to ask a few questions. Is having a college degree a prerequisite to working as a cashier? Does having a college degree make a cashier 84 percent more productive? Given the low wages of cashiers and the high costs of going to college, has going to college paid off, financially, for the cashier? Has it paid off for the taxpayers, who in various forms subsidize college education? I could ask similar questions of cooks, auto mechanics, and so forth.

Now let me interject a few qualifications. First of all, many people would benefit from some sort of post-secondary education. It just doesn’t have to be what we have historically called a “four-year degree.” For example, automobiles are pretty sophisticated devices, so perhaps a would-be mechanic ought to pursue a technical (“two year”) degree or a certificate from a community or technical college. A second qualification is that often–though not always–when a college graduate works as a cashier, cook, or what have you, it’s a temporary situation. In a down economy, you take whatever you can get. (In my case, my first post-college job involved asking strangers, “would you like fries with that?”) And finally, there are certainly non-financial benefits to the college experience. Being introduced to, say, classic debates in philosophy, is good for the mind and even the spirit, if not necessarily the wallet.

But neither students and their families nor taxpayers can ignore the wallet. The inflation rate of tuition consistently and significantly outpaces that of the economy as a whole. College graduates–and even those who leave college without a degree–leave the campus with significant amounts of debt. The public fisc, meanwhile, faces ever-increasing pleas for more money from colleges and universities.

So while the “wage premium” argument has some appeal, it deserves some scrutiny. And–this is the topic for some significant reflection and analysis that goes beyond a single blog post–we ought to rethink the college experience and the role of government in it.