Degree opens doors

John Bommarito used to think he didn’t need a college degree to move up in his field. A music industry entrepreneur, Bommarito, a 35-year-old Livonia, Mich., resident, has been a music buyer, a store manager and a disc jockey at clubs and small radio stations. But the music turned sour when he tried to find a higher management job without a bachelor’s degree.

“I figured, well, I’ve got 15 years of solid work history, I’ve been a head buyer, I’ve run my own company, I should be able to find a job,” he said.

But he searched frustratingly for six months, getting no offers except for jobs in record stores as a glorified stock clerk.

Instead of raging against the system, he realized that going back to school for a degree “was the only thing I could do.”

Nothing comes closer as a means to increase lifetime earnings than getting more education. Economists agree that the case for more education is overwhelming.

College graduates older than 25 earn more than twice as much each week as high school drop-outs _ $896 vs. $360, nearly twice as much as those who stopped with a high school diploma, $506 a week, and comfortably more than those with some college but no degree, $598 a week, all according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Moreover, college graduates have experienced growth in inflation-adjusted earnings since 1979. In contrast, high school dropouts have seen their real earnings decline.

Michael Connors, a building rehabilitation specialist with Macomb County, Mich., government, will finish his bachelor’s degree in business communication within the year. He might stay with the county or look elsewhere. But, either way, he expects his degree to pay off.

“Financially, it’ll open up an opportunity to obtain a better job with better pay,” said Connors, 27, of St. Clair Shores, Mich. “It’s a tool that enables you to open other doors.”

And pay isn’t all of it, either. Want greater job stability? High school dropouts are suffering nearly 9 percent unemployment right now; for college graduates, the figure is just slightly over 3 percent.

Alison Wolf, a British writer and author of a new book “Does Education Matter?” puts it neatly: “Pick a highly educated and a poorly educated person at random and you can almost guarantee that the first will be earning more than the second.”

She added, “The more educated you are, the more likely you are to enjoy stable, long-term employment.”

Bommarito attends classes at University of Michigan-Dearborn, studying toward a business degree.

He jokes about standing out as “the old guy with the little balding patch and the gray hair and the beard.” But he also realizes that his degree will be able to get him what he wants.

“Earnings is somewhat important, but more important to me is going to a company that I’m going to enjoy working for,” he said, “coming home from work and telling my wife, `I had a good day today.’ I’d like to be able to say that once.

“I haven’t been able to say that in so long.”

So bountiful are the lifetime benefits of more education that they’re worth going to some trouble to get.

But it’s not easy. Keep in mind that midcareer workers who go back to school often need to juggle children and classwork, as well as come up with tuition and fees that could run into tens of thousands of dollars.

Frank Floyd, a machine tool designer in Shelby Township, Mich., grew up in Alabama and got mainly technical training in the Navy and, later, on the job. Now 40, Floyd is going back to school at Oakland Community College for an associate’s degree while holding down a full-time job.

With hopes of getting a bachelor’s degree next, he figures he’s looking at 10 years of school and work.

“It’s quite challenging, to say the least,” Floyd said. “It isn’t always convenient. It’s just something to be committed to and do it.”

Few experts doubt that the trouble is worth it.

“In the long run, if you want to have higher income, you’ve got to get more education,” said Ed Lotterman, a St. Paul, Minn.-based economist and writer. “It’s hard to do in the short term, but the deck is just stacked against you if you don’t have more than a high school degree.”