Hoping to land a higher-paying job, Simon McKay enrolled in college in his late 30s. But earning bachelor's and master's degrees have done little to jump-start his career.
McKay has been unemployed most of the time since he completed his MBA in 2009. Like thousands of Floridians who have flocked to classrooms in recent years, the Boynton Beach man figured a university degree would translate to better work.
"Go to college, get a degree, get a good job, live your dream," McKay said, reciting the conventional wisdom about career success.
Now 45, he's making ends meet with a temporary job as a home health aide - the same job he had before he went to school. The labor market is ignoring his years of schooling.
That sort of disappointing result has a growing chorus of college skeptics wondering why Americans are so eager to go to school. But McKay isn't bitter about a detour that left him with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt .
"I graduated in the worst possible employment market," McKay said. "I have no regrets. I enjoyed going back to school later on in life. Looking back, I still consider it a good choice."
Earning a bachelor's degree has proven a valuable investment for millions of Americans. The national unemployment rate for workers with bachelor's degrees or higher was only 4.3 percent in August, well below the national average of 9.1 percent.
And workers with bachelor's and advanced degrees earn significantly more, said Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis at PayScale, a Seattle company that tracks compensation.
"The premium for having a bachelor's degree or higher is pretty substantial," Lee said. "It's measured in $20,000-a-year or more numbers."
Does degree matter?
That sort of payoff has created a bull market in education. The share of Palm Beach County residents with bachelor's or graduate degrees spiked from 27.2 percent in 2002 to 31.8 percent in 2010, according to the census.
The Great Recession has accelerated the back-to-school trend as workers seek to make themselves more marketable. After losing his job as a crane operator at the Port of Palm Beach in 2008, Terrance Jones enrolled at the University of Phoenix, a for-profit college.
Jones, who lives in Boynton Beach, is working on a bachelor's degree in business administration.
"You get an edge with a degree," Jones said.
Some wonder if that edge has dulled. The contrarian idea that college is overrated has gained momentum. In one high-profile example, billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel offered $100,000 grants to teens who agree to stay out of school to develop their business ideas.
Another skeptic, New York venture capitalist James Altucher, calls college "a scam." Spending $100,000 on a four-year degree is foolish, he argues. Ever-spiraling tuition costs only feed the skepticism.
True, a college degree is required for careers in law, medicine, engineering, accounting and teaching. But in other fields, does the degree really matter?
'Learning how to learn'
West Palm Beach real estate broker Myles Minns is hiring real estate agents for his company, Continental Properties, and he doesn't care whether agents hold college degrees.
"Having a degree truly is not going to help somebody sell real estate as a residential Realtor," Minns said.
Minns, who has a bachelor's degree from Texas A&M, wonders whether Americans have grown too optimistic about the value of college degrees - and too willing to take on debt to pay for them.
"I wish people would slow down on the education," Minns said. "They're not going to teach you how to get a job at a university. They're not going to teach you how to make a living at a university. They're going to teach you to read books and pass exams."
Such criticism misses the point of college, supporters of university education say.
College classes might not prepare students to do precisely those tasks they'll perform on the job, but they do prepare students to adapt and learn, said Stephen Rose, a research professor at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
"You're learning how to learn," Rose said.
Unemployment has soared since 2008, making it difficult even for experienced and educated workers to find jobs. In a weak labor market, questions about the value of college degrees always emerge, Rose said.
"Every time there has been a recession, it's kind of like man bites dog - 'College people are having trouble!' 'Managers are getting laid off!' " Rose said.
Certain degrees are more valuable than others. While business majors struggle and English students languish, workers with degrees in engineering are in demand.
"You can be a C student in petroleum engineering, and you can make $100,000 a year," said PayScale's Lee. "But you might find yourself on an oil rig in Djibouti."
The Great Recession has shaken the notion that a college degree equates to a guarantee of employment.
The struggle continues
Despite a résumé that includes an MBA and a long stint at Wachovia Bank, Elizabeth
Arevalo was unemployed for nearly 10 months this year. She started a new job last week as vice president of marketing at the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.
"It's challenging, and it's depressing, but I'd encourage people not to give up," Arevalo said.
Mitch Screen, who recently earned a graphic design degree from Florida Atlantic University, said he has applied for at least 50 jobs but remains unemployed.
"I assumed I probably would have had a job a week or two after graduation," Screen said.
With Palm Beach County's unemployment rate at 11 percent, that proved an ambitious timetable. But Georgetown's Rose said the value of a college diploma will return as hiring picks up.
"This is a temporary bump in the road," Rose said. "Getting a (bachelor's degree) is still a very successful strategy for a lot of people to follow."