Peter Orszag provides some clear and sobering commentary on the value of a college degree in a column for Bloomberg yesterday. The key message is here:
The effects of globalization are already moving up the wage scale, though, and that trend will likely continue. As Alan Blinder of Princeton University trenchantly noted in 2006, “Many people blithely assume that the critical labor-market distinction is, and will remain, between highly educated (or highly skilled) people and less-educated (or less-skilled) people -- doctors versus call-center operators, for example.” Instead, the crucial distinction is between those tasks that are easily digitized (and thus subject to substantial competition from workers abroad) and those that are not.
The college degree does not necessarily provide protection against having your occupation digitized in this way. The more important element of economic security is to be among the best adopters of the products and opportunities that are digitized. I suspect that it will remain the case well into the future that those who have college degrees will be on average better adopters than of digitized products and opportunities than those who do not have college degrees. The challenge for institutions of higher education is then to find ways to enable their students and graduates to be better adopters of these new digitized products and opportunities.