Diplomas and Value Judgments

By Deane Barker tags: society, education

Lou Dobbs, who I really respect and enjoy, has posted a column about how to save our failing schools. He includes this statistic:

Workers without so much as a high-school diploma earn on average $18,734 a year, according to the Census Bureau, about $9,000 less than their counterparts who have graduated high school. Armed with a bachelor’s degree, the average worker earns nearly three times as much as a high-school dropout.

While I don’t doubt his numbers, I wonder about the cause and effect here. He claims that not having a diploma cuts your income by $9,000 a year, and not having a college degree cuts it by two-thirds, but are those two pieces of paper what prevents people from getting better jobs? Or is it the intangibles that those two pieces of paper represent?

This may be a generalization, but the ability to stay in school and earn a diploma says a lot about someone’s determination and perseverance. There are exceptions, of course, but to me, the decision to drop out of high school is more a reflection on someone’s judgment skills and ability to stick something out than it reflects on their intelligence or whether or not the system has failed them.

So, when a high school dropout earns much less, is it because they haven’t learned skills that they need to earn more? I doubt it. What do you really learn in the last two years of high school that you specifically apply to a job? Rather, I think that people – potential employers, for sure – make a value judgment: “This guy dropped out of high school. If he can’t stick that out, why would I want him to work for me?”

It’s the same thing with a Bachelor’s degree. Mine is in Political Science, yet I work in I.T. No specific knowledge I learned to get my degree is something I use from day-to-day in my job. But I have a degree, and that says something about the fact that I had the general intelligence to get through college; the determination to see it through even though I entered school three years later, worked full-time throughout, and took five years to graduate; and the foresight to know that having a degree was important to my future, whether or not I used it in my job or not.

When you drop out of school, the problem is not that you missed some classes. The problem is the judgment people make about your character because you dropped out.

I’m not saying this is right, but it’s true.

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