We put a premium on college for a good reason - it's not just about jobs
Published 22/08/2016 | 06:00
Going to college is expensive - even if you're one of the 50pc of students on higher education grants - but it's still worthwhile getting a third-level qualification. And it's not just because of your greater earning power.
Of course, there are exceptions and too many drop out but those who stay the course generally do well in later and longer lives.
Just how well and for how long has been shown over the years in research from the Paris-based think thank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
A 30-year-old male with third level education can expect to live eight years longer than one who has not completed secondary education, according to data collected from 15 OECD countries.
In general, women outlive men, as we know, but they also benefit in terms of longevity from going to college by adding an extra four years to their lives.
Higher education also encourages graduates to become more active citizens and even cast their votes more frequently. A study across 25 countries shows that the gap in voting patterns between those with higher and lower levels of education is 15 percentage points, which is remarkable.
There are similar relationships between education and volunteering, political interest, interpersonal trust, as well as trust in institutions and engagement in social activities. Adults who have attained higher levels of education are generally more likely to report greater satisfaction in life than those with lower levels of education attainment.
It's not all positive, though. As the OECD puts it, "some studies have shown that the higher the level of education, the more likely an adult is to engage in potentially self-abusive behaviour, such as binge drinking".
You don't need research to know that whatever positive skills they develop while in college, too many Irish students often drink too much. And it's no consolation to know that this is not a particularly Irish phenomenon.
But it's in the jobs' stakes that qualifications really count, especially in Ireland.
In fact, the 'premium' attached to a third level award is higher in Ireland than in most other developed countries.
In other words, the earning gap between graduates and those who leave before finishing secondary education is wider in Ireland than in other member states of the OECD.
Graduates' lifetime earnings are much greater than those with lower levels of qualifications in this country.
Ireland's growing economy should mean that pattern will continue for the foreseeable future. This is unlike the situation in some other countries where graduates feel cheated that their time in college has not resulted in that elusive, well-paid job they were promised.
We all know of graduates who end up flipping burgers or working in bars when they leave college and we know people who are in other jobs that clearly do not need a third-level qualification.
Some of them may not stay in these jobs for long because they are just using them until they gain a foothold in the employment market; but others do get stuck in dead-end jobs. However, this issue of 'over qualification' is one that needs to be looked at closely.
It's one that colleges need to consider when they are offering new courses, especially in areas where there is already an over-supply of specialist graduates. Over-qualification is not peculiar to Ireland - in fact, research has shown that 22pc of graduates across OECD countries are overqualified for their jobs. In Ireland the figure is 28pc, according to the ESRI.
Employers are partly to blame, using third-level qualifications as a filtering mechanism to discard job applications from young people who finish their education at Leaving Cert level.
It makes it much more difficult for them to get on to the jobs' ladder. It's also difficult for those who drop out of college, and many do. It's a personal loss to them but also to the system. Our drop-out rates overall are not out of step with those in most developed countries but that's not of huge consolation to the individual who feels he or she has no option but to quit their course.
Dropping out can represent a personal and financial loss for the student and for the higher education system as a whole. There are some areas, such as computing, where there are particular problems with students staying the course. This relates to difficulties that many of our young people have with mathematics. Engineers Ireland last night expressed concern about the one in six who drop out of engineering-related courses.
Those who drop out and the 20pc of school leavers who don't apply to CAO need other options now that there are far too few job openings for those who finish school with the Leaving Certificate.
These other options are increasing, particularly in the apprenticeship and further education area - and not before time. Too often, we judge third-level education on the basis of the opportunities provided for students to develop skills such as resilience, communication skills, team working, projects etc, by way of preparation for the world of work.
But it has also the potential, as the OECD has pointed out, to bring significant benefits to individuals and society which go well beyond its contribution to individuals' employability.
John Walshe is an education consultant and former special adviser to former Education Minister Ruairi Quinn