Do college degrees get you anywhere?

A lower return on investment for undergraduate degrees is manifesting itself in the forms of salary stagnation and underemployment.

Doesn't take you as far as it used to.
An article in the Wall Street Journal last week pointed to the declining value of your college degree, and they may indeed mean "yours" as the very first example given is of a woman who, after receiving a computer science degree from Maryland's Frostburg State University in 1986 and doing well for several years--peaking with an $89,000 salary as a data modeler for Sprint in Lawrence, Kansas--was laid off in 2002.

From there, things only got worse, with her spending six years in a "career wilderness" of temporary and low-end data processing jobs with a nadir in 2004 when Sprint called to fill a position that sounded remarkably like her former one--paying less than one-third of her old salary.

A degree, the underemployed techie tells the WSJ, "isn't any big guarantee of employment, it's a basic requirement, a step you have to take to even be considered for many professional jobs."

What the WSJ discusses has been documented elsewhere: degrees aren't worth what they once were, but they are still the price of admission to many fields. However, there are more factors coming into play than just a lower ROI on undergraduate degrees.

One piece is salary stagnation. The typical salary of a worker with a bachelor's degree, when adjusted for inflation, didn't rise between 2006 and 2007, and were below--by nearly two percent--their 2001 level, according to the Census Bureau.

But an even bigger piece, as pointed out by Greg Ip, the WSJ columnist, are the ways that globalization and technology innovation have changed the economy. Now more so than ever before, the highest-paying jobs are being landed with an elite group with a particular set of skills--skills that have little to do with a college degree. Those on the other side of the wage gap are finding themselves competing for jobs with employees outsourcing firms have brought in or temporary workers on H-1Bs.

Jay Vegso, manager of membership and information services for CRA (Computing Research Associaiton), a trade group for the computing industry, doesn't wholly agree. Though wages have been flat for the last few years, arguments that place the blame on offshoring and importing foreign labor are largely anecdotal, he notes, and will continue to be until more thorough research is out there.

"While offshoring and foreign workers play roles in what is going on with the IT workforce, I have not seen evidence that they have had a significant impact. It is even harder to prove that they are responsible for impacting the overall workforce and underemployment, which is very difficult to track," Vegso explained.

Research released in March by the NSF (National Science Foundation) noted that most people with undergraduate degrees in computer science were doing quite well. Recent graduates (2003, 2004 and 2005) with degrees in computer and information science, when compared to several other majors, were tied with health majors for the highest median salary at the undegraduate level--$45,000.