At the height of the Great Depression, my grandfather was once turned down for a job pumping gas at a service station. The reason? He was insufficiently qualified: They were only accepting applicants with a college degree. In a period when unemployment peaked at 25%, education was simply being used as an arbitrary way to reduce the applicant pool.
If you can manage to find a full service gas station (outside of the few states which require them by law), I don't think that pumping gas requires a college degree yet, but it's often been observed lately that a college degree is increasingly becoming an absolute requirement for a "good job".
I think this overlooks a fair number of jobs which require several years of journey-man style training, but not a college degree (plumber, car mechanic, etc.) but certainly, if you're looking for maximizing your starting earning potential at age 22-24 and guarantee the highest peak income around age 50, a college degree seems to way to go.
Last year, Charles Murray wrote a three part series on education in American, in the second of which he made the argument that too many people go to college. His argument was that most people are not cut out for high level academic achievement, and that what many people who go to college these days need is a couple years of professional training rather than a BA in some generic subject. College, he argues, should be for serious academic work, and flooding forty percent of the population into the college system only brings the level of college work down, and thus cheapens the actual value of a four year college degree.
Now, re-reading Murray's piece, one of the things that struck me was: Only 40% of Americans go to college?
It's often editorialized that practically everyone goes to college these days. Maybe among the set of people who editorialize, practically everyone does. But it seems that among Americans as a whole, only a minority actually go to college. According to the US Census Bureau stats on education, 86% of Americans age 25-35 have a high school degree or equivalent. 29% have a bachelor's degree or higher. And of Americans 18-24, 40% have taken at least some college classes.
So the overall picture seems to be, around 85% of Americans eventually graduate from high school or get a GED. 40% go on to take some college courses or get an AA, but only 29% actually get a bachelor's degree or higher by the time they're 34. (And in general, if you don't do it by 34, you're not going to.)
The percentage of Americans with a bachelors or better is the same for ages 35-44 and ages 45-64. So for all that wisdom about more Americans going to college than ever before, it appears that the same number are graduating as have for nearly forty years. (It may well be that the number that take some college but don't get a degree has increased.)
On the one hand, it's clear that higher levels of education bring huge economic advantages. The median income for Americans with a college degree is twice that of those with only a high school diploma or GED. (45k vs. 26k in 2006) And yet, watching people like my executive VP, who never went to college, it's clear that some people can do very well for themselves without spending four years at a university.
Personally, I would prefer to see college left to those with an interest in spending four years seriously studying math, science and the humanities. But in reality, a college degree is all too often simply a way to telling whether someone has the intelligence and discipline to stick it out through four more years of school and do well at it. And in all fairness, I'm not sure I can think of another way to provide the same filtering effect.
UPDATE: From where I sit, one of the trends I'm particularly unimpressed with is MBA madness. Increasingly, going off and blowing 20-40k on getting an MBA is seen as the way to show that you're one of the better people at the company. However, as the sort of person that MBA interns spend their summer following around: an MBA often seems like a way to simply inflate the ego just enough to make its owner not want to actually listen to others. About half out team is MBAed, and they're good folks at root, but mainly because they're put some time in and learned how to do things. "But in MBA school they always said..." is not a good way to start your argument.
There are some really good MBA programs out there, and there are people who really do benefit from them as they attain a certain level, but the tendency of people with almost no work experience to get one just to boost their earnings potential is simply degrading the value of the degree, in my opinion.