An eyewitness to the value of education in America

Nearly every piece of research I’ve seen seems to point in this direction: The more formal education you have, the more money you can make over time. Your labor is usually worth more based on your educational attainment.

An American worker with a bachelor’s degree averages about $1,000 a week in salary compared to $678 for a high school graduate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Of course, this isn’t universally true. Some degrees are worth less in salary than others. And the global workplace isn’t rewarding college-educated Americans the way it used to. Plenty of Ph.D.s are underemployed, and high-wage jobs aren’t being created in the abundance they were 40 years ago.

Yet if you want a fresh perspective on the value of education, I suggest you read ”Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance. I normally wouldn’t have picked up a best-seller like this, but it was a birthday present -- and once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

What rings true in “Elegy” is the transformative power of education to elevate us above myriad problems in society. Vance, originally from a poor family and community in Kentucky, went on to graduate from Ohio State and Yale Law School. He’s now a prosperous attorney in Silicon Valley.

Despite a highly dysfunctional family and a mother mired in substance abuse and multiple husbands, Vance got the support of his grandparents in pursuing his education and overcoming countless barriers. He recounts those challenges in breathtakingly honest prose.

I wanted to know more about Vance’s views on education in general, so I emailed him some questions. He was gracious enough to reply.

Much of the conflict between the value of an education and its economic reward is that nothing is guaranteed. You can get a technical degree that may not have much value in the future. Things are moving fast in this wired world, and you have to transcend where you are now to survive in the future.

It’s important to note that in Vance’s story, though, his family played a large role in pushing him to obtain a formal education.

When he was going to high school in the once-prosperous steelmaking community of Middletown, Ohio, Vance could see the town descend into Rust Belt poverty. Yet both of his Kentucky-born maternal grandparents doggedly made him keep his grades up and get into college.

Even in a world in which high grades and test scores don’t always open the door to a top-tier school, they still carry some weight in the admissions process. Vance advises today’s students:

“Unfortunately, no secret sauce here: they need good grades, good test scores, or some combination of the two. But these things are achievable. I’m not a genius, and I got good enough scores and grades to get a great education at two schools. When I was 15, I thought only a genius could score in the high 20s on the ACT.  But trust me: that’s not true.  Recognizing that you can do something can be incredibly empowering.”

What struck me about Vance’s experience isn’t that he eventually found mentors and got into and graduated from Yale Law School. It’s that family, teachers and others in his life told him that he could achieve more and move beyond the downscale despair hurting so much of America now. His advice is to find people who are going to support you academically and psychologically.

“First, I’d advise kids to find good mentors. Who you know is sometimes more important than grades and studying. Every person’s circumstances are different, but if you have someone you trust to guide you, things will come much easier -- academically, socially, and especially emotionally.’’

Another of Vance’s rules for success is to stick to the fundamentals: Study hard, do your own work and have some integrity. What may separate you from the millions of kids who come from wealthy backgrounds is your honesty and hard work.

“I always tell kids like me: whether you realize it, you’re in a competition against rich kids from the moment you start high school (and maybe earlier).  Life isn’t fair. It will always be more difficult for you, but take that recognition as motivation. 

But they need to be mindful that every decision they make can have an impact 10 years from now.  A single failed test can keep you from a great graduate school, a single plagiarized essay can prevent you from joining the military.”

What can anchor you to the idea that education is a tool that will help you achieve your goals? Perhaps the idea that if you do your best work, pursue your passions and make a difference, it will count for something in the larger world.

“Life is unfair, nothing you can do about it,” Vance told me. “But you still have a choice, and you still have a lot of control. In the meantime, people like me have the responsibility to make things a little more fair, and if you ‘make it,’ you’ll have that responsibility, too.”

  • John Wasik

    John Wasik is the author of The Debt-Free Degree and 15 other books. He writes and speaks regularly on personal finance issues throughout North America.