Is Your College Degree Past Its Expiration Date?

The Great Recession has taught many lessons, and as someone who has not escaped unscathed, here are two conclusions I’ve reached about college:

Not all college degrees are created equal. Yes, I know, this is obvious. I see Microsoft and Amazon workers at the mall blithely buying iPads (well, maybe not these unless it’s on the sly) and $200 Nikes, and I wonder whatever possessed me to get a journalism degree. I console myself that maybe I’m better off than those who tried humanities or women’s studies, but let’s face it, I should have stuck with math.

College degrees have an expiration date. When you’re handed your shiny, new degree, you don’t really think about this. I sort of figured the process worked like high school, where you use your diploma to get into college and then you stick it in a box somewhere. I thought a college degree would start you on the job path and then fade into the past. But what if your job doesn’t offer constant updates to your skills and credentials? Or your career changes course? Then your 20-year-old degree may end up not worth the expensive paper it’s printed on. How do you know if this has happened? Below are my top ten ways to tell if your degree has reached its expiration date:

Top Ten Ways to Tell if Your College Degree has Expired

  1. Your deferred student loan payments are now larger than your house payment. This isn’t as hard to achieve as you’d think, since the average student loan burden has ballooned to around $25,000. Overall, U.S. student-loan debt has surpassed credit-card and auto-loan debt, and now stands close to a whopping $1 trillion dollars. (Federal Reserve Bank of New York) If you want to scare yourself, you can track the overall numbers here: Student Loan Debt Clock
  2. You’re embarrassed to tell anyone your major.
  3. You now realize that a bachelor’s degree is only a stepping stone to grad school. In 2009, someone with a bachelor’s degree could count on mean earnings of $56,655, while someone with a high school certificate brought home $30,627. Those who went on to a master’s or a doctorate degree did much better with $73,738 and $103,054 respectively. More important, they’re now the ones with the jobs.
  4. The alumni association no longer hunts you down to ask for money.
  5. Putting your degree on a resume brings more questions than answers.
  6. You can remember the name of the campus pizza hangout, but you can’t remember any calculus.
  7. You tell your kids you walked 10 miles across campus in the snow to get to class.
  8. You visit the campus, and your major is either housed in a shiny, new building or the basement of the most distant building on campus.
  9. Job descriptions look like they’ve been written in another language that you need a teenager to translate.
  10. You tell your children what you majored in, and they laugh.

So here is my updated career advice. Stay current and don’t stop building credentials once you’re out of college. If you switch careers or are forced to sideline your job for a while, keep taking classes and the occasional contract job to keep your resume relevant. And when you think a career in the arts sounds like your calling, take a computer class instead and enjoy your hobby while you collect a paycheck.

How has your degree fared? Has it been worth the high cost and loans?

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