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What Every Manufacturer Needs to Know about Higher Education

Author: Christine Schmitz

As the US job market becomes more competitive, parents, students, and even society as a whole seems increasingly hesitant to spend money on a degree they fear won’t help them get a good job. 


Yet statistics from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics consistently show it’s harder to become a high earner in this country without a college degree, and access to the middle class is increasingly reserved for those with at least some higher education under their belts. 


Our field of manufacturing is unique in that it is accessible to those of any education level, from those who did not complete high school up through those who have completed a PhD. There are not many (if any?) other fields which offer this same range.


On the MakingChips blog, we have been exploring different access points for the next generation wishing to enter the metalworking nation, including apprenticeships, high school technical programs, two- and four-year college degrees, and even higher education research programs for those who want to go beyond the four year degree. 

In this week’s manufacturing news section, Jason got pretty heated discussing his opinion on higher education. On the other hand, my husband and I, who both have advanced degrees and have worked for more than two decades as college professors, see things a bit differently. 


Yet it may come as a surprise that, despite working as a college educator, I don’t believe every person should pursue a college education. Even more so, in a few fields, including manufacturing, depending on the specific job one wishes to obtain, I believe a degree does not always pay off. 


Our education system was designed centuries ago, though its roots go back millennia. The modern university is based on the same economic model that powered the rest of the pre-industrial world, and might sound pretty familiar to any manufacturing leader: 


Expert “craftsmen” (professors) spend years apprenticing (studying/researching) in order to master their trade (field of study). Then they handcraft their products (courses and seminars) to sell (teach) locally. 


In the pre-industrial world, each village might have one blacksmith, one butcher, one baker . . . . one university. You get the idea. But as any manufacturing leader knows, once the industrial revolution happened, this pre-industrial model changed for the blacksmith, butcher, and baker. Goods could now be produced en masse with unskilled workers and distributed outside one village to include a wider area. Factories sprung up serving numerous geographic regions, and likely more than one person reading this article is currently working for one of these same companies today.


For higher education, it wasn’t until the internet boom of the 1990’s that education faced its own “industrial revolution” of sorts. For the first time in history, content could be instantly distributed to mass audiences, almost anywhere. Online libraries, journals, blogs, YouTube videos, and more now meant institutions of learning no longer controlled content and/or certain aspects of education. This was, overall, a good change, altering the face of history, politics, production, philosophy (basically every facet of living) and bridging a large, unfair gap between the wealthy, educated class, and the rest of the world. 


However, for better or worse, depending on who you’re asking, educational content as we once knew it is no longer being distributed by “expert craftspeople” to the “local village” but by anyone with an opinion and access to the internet. Discernment is left to the individual - which can be good in some cases and catastrophic in others.


For all the discussion of the rising cost of higher education, the truth remains that higher learning is accessible to all - it just may not always look the same or take as long depending on the route one chooses. 


For example, in the state of Tennessee, where I currently live, our free-college program, Tennessee Promise, has been offering two years of tuition-free community college or technical school to all high school graduates, regardless of income, since 2014. Many TN students, no matter what profession they wish to enter, spend their first two years after high school attending a local community college for free. These credits transfer seamlessly over to the state’s four year colleges and universities and allow many students to ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree for half the price.


Eleven states in all -- Oregon, Nevada, Arkansas, New Jersey, Maryland, Tennessee, New York, Rhode Island, Delaware, Kentucky, and Indiana -- have these sort of “Promise” programs in place and nine more are working on legislation to do so.


In 2017, the state of New York introduced the Excelsior Scholarship, which is the first in the nation to cover four years of tuition without being tethered to academic performance.



According to the US Census Bureau, 88% of Americans had at least a high school diploma or GED in 2015. Thirty-three percent had a bachelor’s or more, and 12% had an advanced degree such as a master’s or professional degree, or a doctorate. 


The following data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics compares average salary by education level and is helpful to show what dividends each level of education pays


  • Median weekly earnings for those with less than a high school degree: $493/$25,636 per year. Unemployment rate: 8%, 


  • Median weekly earnings for workers with a high school diploma: $678/$35,256 per year. Unemployment rate: 5.4%.


  • Median weekly earnings for workers with some college and no degree: $738/$38,376 per year. Unemployment rate: 5%. 


  • Median weekly earnings for workers with an associate’s degree are $798/$41,496 per year. Unemployment rate: 3.8%.


  • Median weekly earnings for workers with a bachelor’s degree: $1,137/$59,124 per year. Unemployment rate: 2.8%.


  • Median weekly earnings for workers with a master’s degree: $1,341/$69,732 per year. Unemployment rate: 2.4%. 


  • Median weekly earnings for workers with a professional degree: $1,730/$89,960 per year. Unemployment rate: 1.5%.


  • Median weekly earnings for workers with doctorates: $1,623/$84,396. Unemployment rate: 1.7%.


As with all statistics, there are a few external considerations when looking at these numbers. For example, if you are comparing yearly salary numbers you have to assume the worker will be employed full-time at the same job for at least one year. For workers with less than a high school diploma often the jobs offered are part-time or seasonal, in which case the annual salary data can be misleading. 


Another factor to consider when looking at the categories “some college and no degree” through “workers with doctorates” is how much college debt will impact the annual budget. A high amount of debt means higher cost of living and can negate the value of a larger salary.


The bottom line is, once a person turns eighteen years old in the US, his or her education becomes an individual choice and responsibility. Writing as a member of the middle class with a full-time job and two children currently in college, I feel as though the options we came up with for our family were both accessible and financially feasible. More importantly, based on the careers my children wish to pursue, I believe a college degree will be advantageous, and most likely necessary.


Thankfully, as Americans, we all get the equal opportunity to make these decisions, and that’s something I think we can all agree on, and maybe even celebrate.



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