How Machines Are Changing the Value of Education: What Automation Means for the Future

Since the Industrial Revolution, innovation and new technology have increased the efficiency of many different fields, promoting society’s overall growth. However, the introduction of these technologies has also induced much controversy, manifested in the outcry over diminishing job numbers and big-screen science fiction catastrophes.

It is no secret that robots are ever encroaching on our jobs. A recent study from the Oxford Martin School’s Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology showed that 45% of jobs today will be computerized in the next few decades. The most vulnerable fields, according to the report, are “transportation/logistics, production labor, and administrative support… services, sale, and construction.” Further, the report suggests that advances in artificial intelligence could put traditionally secure jobs in management, science and engineering, and the arts at risk of automation.

These advances in technology, in turn, will require specialized skill sets, bringing higher education into the equation. Advanced schooling will be required in order to understand the concepts needed to keep up with changing standards. Employers will gravitate toward potential employees who have the education required to operate, and even create, new innovations. In short, as the basis for technology changes, the base requirements will change as well.

With total student debt reaching more than 1 trillion dollars, it’s not hard to see why there is much debate today about the value of a college education. Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett recently published a book, Is College Worth It, advocating for families to reconsider their reasoning for sending their kids off to get a BA and to consider alternatives such as community college.

On the other hand, in MIT Economics professor Dr. Autour’s study on the wage gap between college graduates and everyone else, “not going to college will cost you about a half a million dollars.” Other than wages, there are more difficult to measure benefits of going to school as well, including networking, prestige, and experience. David Leonhardt of the New York Times contends, “a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable.”

However, Leonhardt’s article does concede one important point: “Tellingly, though, the wage premium for people who have attended college without earning a bachelor’s degree — a group that includes community-college graduates — has not been rising.” This creates a distinction that has important implications in the struggle to adjust to automation.

Low-skill workers and skilled workers are affected differently

Tim Worstall, a contributor to Forbes and a Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, explains that automation will only slightly increase the currently high job turnover rate, implying that displaced workers will be able to find new and/or newly created jobs. However, the assumption is that these workers have the capability to adapt to these new jobs. According to the Oxford Martin School report, low-skill workers, on the other hand, “will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerization—i.e., tasks that required creative and social intelligence.”

The necessity (and ambiguity) of creative and social intelligence further complicates the price tag of a college education. Families are now left to decide whether or not a four-year college is the only means to acquire such skills, and if thousands of dollars is the right price tag.

Most of the aforementioned statistics support the assertion that a college degree is worth the cost. However, Ben Casselman of FiveThirtyEight contends: “just because people who graduate from college are better off doesn’t necessarily mean that going to college is a good decision.”

The rationale for students and their families must include not only economic costs and benefits, but also consideration of the likelihood of obtaining a degree. As Casselman rightly points out, data from the National Center for Economic Statistics shows that less than 60% of “first-time full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students at 4-year institutions” graduate within six years. That number drops to 38.6% for those that graduate within four years. More time at school also incurs more costs.

Leonhardt writes, “As the economy becomes more technologically complex, the amount of education that people need will rise.” What seems to follow is that the income gap between four-year college graduates and all others will only continue to rise.

For jobs, automation will only continue to do what it has been: induce an uptick in turnover rate. However, the means of getting to those jobs, education, is complicated. The volatility, uncertainty and cost of a college education understandably make many prospective students balk. Attending college remains a decision unique to each individual depending on his or her circumstances. What technology will continue to do is make students think hard about alternatives. College no longer seems as sure-fire as recent trends have shown.