Was a College Degree Worth More a Hundred Years Ago than it is Now?

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, October 13, 1913:

10/13 – 10/17: Nothing worth writing about for these days. Don’t go any place or do anything of much importance.


Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Some days are just like that—they barely seem worthwhile. Today I hear so many recent college graduates worrying about whether it was worthwhile getting a college degree since the job market is so tight.

Was a college degree worth more a hundred years ago than it is now?


According to a 1913 book called Rural Arithmetic by John E. Calfee:

A business  man who has studied the productive power of intelligent labor in New York reports that the man with a common-school education is able to produce one and one-half times as much wealth as the illiterate man, the high-school man two times as much, and the college man four times as much.


According to Frontline on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), today:

The average dropout can expect to earn an annual income of $20,241, according to the US Census Bureau. That’s a full $10,386 less than the typical high school graduate, and $36,424 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree.


There’s more of an income benefit of earning a high school diploma today than back then—and the value of getting a college has also increased slightly.

In other words, today someone with a high school diploma earns on average 1.5 times as much as a high school graduate and someone with a college degree earns 2.8 times as much.

This can be compared to 1913 when (after the base was converted to 1 for a high school dropout), a high school graduate on average earned 1.3 times as much as the dropout,  and the college graduate earned 2.7 times as much as the dropout.

For those who care about the details–

I assumed that the benefit of a college degree didn’t change much between 2012 and 2013. The data I used was from a 2012 article.

Rural Arithmetic is a math textbook. A subheading in one of the chapters was “Educated Labor”.  The quote above was pulled from the introduction to that subsection. It was followed by a series of word problems about the value of education.

The 1913 book used the term “common school graduate” to refer to someone who had completed 8 years of education.  For the purposes of this analysis I considered a common school graduate to be a high school dropout.

And, here is a chart that contains a crosswalk between the base (salary of illiterate person=1) used in the 1913 book, and the base (salary of a high school dropout = 1) that I used in the chart at the top of this post.


An aside–We must be doing something right with education today since we no longer even think about what the salary would be for an illiterate person.


21 thoughts on “Was a College Degree Worth More a Hundred Years Ago than it is Now?

  1. There was a time in this country when people could “make it” by sheer hard work, determination and some specialty service training or apprenticeship. College was affordable only for the boys in a family first, so my Mom never got to go.

    I believe American streets are still paved with gold and you can still make it without degree.

  2. One thing not being considered is that a college degree in 1913 did not come with decades long debt repayment. Even when I went to college in the 1960s it was possible for me to go to a state university and pay my way by living at home and working 16 hours a week on campus and in the summer. In 4 years. With not a dollar of debt. Makes a real difference.

    1. I agree–College has become much less affordable in recent years, and the amount of debt that some young people (and their families) come out of college with is overwhelming. Sometimes I’m glad that I’m not a young person now.

  3. I think the biggest challenge is getting a degree that helps you find a job. Many degrees are not in demand so young people come out of college with a lot of debt with little job opportunities. I would like to see more information to high school children on the type of careers available.

    1. It’s so difficult for young people today to successfully navigate all the decisions that need to be made regarding college choices and majors. Somehow it seemed easier when I was young.

  4. Good info. College has changed a lot in the last 100 years, I think. But once everything is evened out for statistical purposes, the changes might be meaningless. If that makes any sense. I was thinking of teacher training colleges versus universities which offer higher degrees. It was that way then and still today–we just tend to use different names for the type of schools. One thing that has changed in this country for sure though is that you used to be able to go from high school to med school, without college.

      1. Yes, the requirements have changed, but when you look closely at what those requirements consist of, not so much. For instance, when I was teaching college, the curriculum was drastically slashed within fifteen years.

  5. I really think it depends on whether one attends university to get a degree or to get a career. A ‘career’ meaning doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer, journalist etc as opposed to a ‘degree’ meaning science, arts, business etc. I think those that end up with a career end up OK. It is those that end up solely with a degree that get through and then say ‘so, now what?’. Forty years ago (not necessarily 100 years ago) they are the ones who would possibly have done an apprenticeship and be fully trained in some field by the same age and who are now struggling through these tough economic times, whereas their friends (with a career) are set with a direction. I feel there is too much emphasis placed on getting a degree and not enough emphasis placed on the job at the end.

    1. It seems like a college degree is now often seen by potential employers as a “signal” for whether someone has the skills needed to do a job.

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