But in terms of future earnings, education level matters less these days than in previous generations, and field of study matters more.
Census data show that an associate’s degree in engineering or computers is worth as much or more, on average, than a bachelor’s in education or the liberal arts.
An associate’s degree in engineering yielded $4,257 in monthly earnings in 2009, compared with $4,000 for a bachelor’s in the liberal arts and $3,417 for a bachelor’s in education.
A two-year degree in computers fetched $4,000 a month, the same median earnings as a four-year degree in the humanities.
Even a vocational certificate, a credential that generally requires months — not years — of school, can yield more future earnings than a bachelor’s degree in a low-paying field. Employees with construction certificates earned $4,904 a month in 2009, better than the median pay for a bachelor’s in the humanities.
These data points support what many of us who fear that four-year degrees are oversold already believe. But will they convince the true believers in the wage premium?