Is College Worth It?

It’s interesting to me how various story themes emerge and then make the rounds of blogs and other Internet sites and then find a home at the national mainstream media. Here’s one. Is a college degree worth the cost and effort? And does the answer to that question hinge on whether there is a job waiting at graduation?

Here are two interesting op-eds from the NYT.

First, by Frank Bruni, “The Imperiled Promise of College“:

FOR a long time and for a lot of us, “college” was more or less a synonym for success. We had only to go. We had only to graduate. And if we did, according to parents and high-school guidance counselors and everything we heard and everything we read, we could pretty much count on a career, just about depend on a decent income and more or less expect security. A diploma wasn’t a piece of paper. It was an amulet.

And it was broadly accessible, or at least it was spoken of that way. With the right mix of intelligence, moxie and various kinds of aid, a motivated person could supposedly get there. College was seen as a glittering centerpiece of the American dream, a reliable engine of social mobility.

I’m not sure things were ever that simple, but they’re definitely more complicated now. And that was an unacknowledged backdrop for the pitched debate last week about federal student loan rates and whether they would be kept at 3.4 percent or allowed to return to 6.8 percent. That was one reason, among many, that it stirred up so much anxiety and got so much attention.

Because of levitating costs, college these days is a luxury item. What’s more, it’s a luxury item with newly uncertain returns.

Yes, many of the sorts of service-industry jobs now available to people without higher education are less financially rewarding than manufacturing jobs of yore, and so college has in that sense become more imperative. And, yes, college graduates have an unemployment rate half that of people with only high school degrees.

But that figure factors in Americans who got their diplomas and first entered the job market decades ago, and it could reflect not just what was studied in college but the already established economic advantages, contacts and temperaments of the kind of people who pursue and stick with higher education.

It doesn’t capture the grim reality for recent college graduates, whose leg up on their less educated counterparts isn’t such a sturdy, comely leg at the moment. According to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary. Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

The thing is, today’s graduates aren’t just entering an especially brutal economy. They’re entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.

“That’s why there are all these kinds of initiatives to make math and science fun,” Stephen J. Rose, a senior economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, reminded me last week. He was referring to elementary and high school attempts to prime more American students for college majors in those areas and for sectors of the job market where positions are more plentiful and lucrative. The center issued a report last year that noted that “not all bachelor’s degrees are the same” and that “while going to college is undoubtedly a wise decision, what you take while you’re there matters a lot, too.”

And from Paul Krugman, “Wasting Our Minds“:

There is, however, a larger issue: even if students do manage, somehow, to “get the education,” which they do all too often by incurring a lot of debt, they’ll be graduating into an economy that doesn’t seem to want them.

You’ve probably heard lots about how workers with college degrees are faring better in this slump than those with only a high school education, which is true. But the story is far less encouraging if you focus not on middle-aged Americans with degrees but on recent graduates. Unemployment among recent graduates has soared; so has part-time work, presumably reflecting the inability of graduates to find full-time jobs. Perhaps most telling, earnings have plunged even among those graduates working full time — a sign that many have been forced to take jobs that make no use of their education.

College graduates, then, are taking it on the chin thanks to the weak economy. And research tells us that the price isn’t temporary: students who graduate into a bad economy never recover the lost ground. Instead, their earnings are depressed for life.

[Spoiler alert: Dr. K then launches his familiar rant about the economic and job-creation policies of Romney and fellow conservatives.]

I still believe that the lack of quality jobs and the continuing weak economy will be the dominant issues in this year’s elections.

Is college worth it?

You bet.

But without the prospect of a job and a career that involves asking more than whether the customer wants fries with the sandwich, more and more young people and their parents may begin to question it.

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5 responses to “Is College Worth It?

  1. Boy, Aren’t you a ray of sunshine as I beging the process of enrolling my first child for College in the fall.
    Did you run out of Jameson’s yesterday????

    • I think the gloomy outlook is more the result of reading anything by Paul Krugman before the sun wakes up. Also, influenced I guess, by the reality that many coming out of college these days can’t find a job or have to settle for one that doesn’t require a college degree. And I’m considering putting all my cash into Jameson. That way when the economy double-dips into another Great Recession while government leaders are navel-gazing or telling jokes to Washington-insider journalists, I’ll be liquid.

  2. I had my sociology class read “The Imperiled Promise of College” article today. The big takeaway here is that they need to be deliberate with choosing a major. Getting a degree in writing is ok if you couple it with education. Otherwise right now there aren’t a lot of career opportunities. This is a huge problem with preparing kids for college, particularly in low income areas. Nobody tells them this stuff until its too late.

    • It is important that students in high school understand the realities of the job market these days. And the fact is that the major they elect in college really does matter. What also matters is that they are prepared to succeed in college — and that’s where excellent K-12 teachers make a huge difference.

  3. Pingback: Make college work for you, or not | livingsimplyfree

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