If you ask most people this question, you're likely to get answers that go down party lines. Those without advanced education will likely say that they've done just fine without spending a lot of time in the classroom, while people with a lot of formal academic knowledge would say that success is largely the result of education.
This is more than a trivial debate. Recent statistics from the Federal Reverse show that the American middle class has seen its net income drop 40% from 2007-2010. What was an average net worth of $126,400 shrunk to $77,300 in 2010. Even worse, the Pew Charitable Trusts' Economic Mobility Project found that 42% of people whose father was in the bottom fifth of the earning curve remained in the same earning bracket for life. Only 30% of Britons and 25% of Danes and Swedes were destined to the same fate. This has led some people to believe that America isn't the land of opportunity it once was. Americans in the now-popular 99% are not only upset that the divide between rich and poor continues to widen, they want to know how they can assure a better life for themselves and their families. Is a better paying job impossible without a formal education, or is there hope for the non-college educated?
Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, is widely regarded as one of the best business men of his day. He didn't have a college degree and neither did Steve Wozniak, the other founder of Apple. Other successful businessmen without college degrees include Dell Computer founder Michael Dell, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Virgin Brands founder Richard Branson. People all over the world have found success without a college degree, but is that the rule or the exception? Unemployment data shows that more than 8% of the population looking for a job can't find one. However, for those with a bachelor's degree, the unemployment rate is only 3.9%. The unemployment rate is 13% for people without a high school diploma. A college degree doesn't guarantee success, but BLS unemployment statistics show book smarts more than double your chances of finding a job.
Who Works Harder?
One side believes that book smarts allows you to get a higher-earning job and work less, while poorer Americans remain poor because they are forced to work more hours for less money. A paper by Orazio Attanasio, Erik Hurst and Luigi Pistaferri found that higher-educated people work more hours than poorer income groups. Although income inequality is growing, leisure inequality is growing, too. While higher earners are earning more, they're losing more leisure time in order to do it. Lower-educated men had 35.2 hours of weekly leisure time (socializing, gaming, watching TV, etc.) compared to 35 hours when the study was last conducted. Higher-earning men had 33.2 hours compared to 34.4 hours previously. Less-educated women saw their leisure time grow to 35.2 hours from 35 hours. Higher-educated women went down to 30.3 hours compared to the previously reported 32.2 hours. The study mentions that some of the increase in hours at the lower income levels comes from increased unemployment, but only half of the increase could be attributed to that.
The Bottom Line
Some consumer finance experts believe that becoming more financially prosperous is as much a function of cost control as it is advanced degrees and higher-paying jobs. Statistics seem to indicate that more education dramatically increases a person's chances of achieving financial prosperity, but one basic rule remains largely uncontested: a college degree may help to open doors to a better paying job, but hard work and responsible choices is the best path to career and financial success.