One of my biggest regrets in life is that I went straight to college right out of high school.
Like many high school students, I did it for all of the wrong reasons. My parents expected me to go to college, and even helped pay my way. I wanted to go because I was 100% certain that I was going to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. I wanted to move away from my parents and siblings. I was in love with the school I’d chosen and thought it would be a great place to live. I hated my hometown and didn’t want to live around the people I’d gone to high school with. And so on down the line.
And, when I dropped out of school three and a half years later, I realized that none of those reasons were actually compelling enough to make me work hard and finish my degree. I’d made it a lot longer than most of the “smart-yet-slacker” students I’d known, but I still had nothing to show for it at the end but a lot of broken promises, wasted money, and personal guilt and shame.
What’s even sadder is that many of the friends I made in college — people who actually did finish their degrees back then — didn’t walk out of school and into jobs. Some of them are in completely different degree fields than they’d planned. Some are still having trouble finding steady employment. Some are still living with their parents at age 30.
Is a college degree an indicator of success? Not really. In fact, in today’s society, it’s pretty much a flip of the coin whether or not that degree will translate into a career.
The LA Times recently ran an article on this topic, and they offered the statistic that as of 2000, only 60% of workers with bachelor’s degrees were employed in professional and managerial occupations (down from 77% in 1970). Today, only one in four college seniors have a job waiting for them after graduation (up from last year’s one in five), and many will go on to work part-time jobs or jobs that don’t require college degrees simply because they can’t find anything else to do.
NPR recently ran a series of interviews on college graduates with humanities degrees who are struggling to find work. A common thread I noticed in most of these interviews was a lack of planning. Every one of them set the degree as their goal, rather than a step. The one student who did appear to be on the path to successfully finding work– a finance major whose dream had been to work at Lehman Brothers prior to their collapse — was described as someone who’d been thinking about his career from day one. The rest, such as an English major who wanted to be a writer, a percussionist who wanted to be a professional musician, and others like them, had not thought so far ahead.
The problem is that the educational industry is not accountable for helping students find work, despite making thinly veiled promises of success. Traditionally, educational institutions did not advertise, and they recruited students on the basis of academics and scholarly traditions. Over the last few decades, as Baby Boomers have insisted that their Gen X and Millenial children attend college to maximize their personal opportunities, many institutions have sprung up to meet the demand for education. One of the most troubling trends has been the rise of for-profit institutions that offer nontraditional — and, many in the working world might note, fairly valueless — degrees online or in satellite schools. These for-profit schools are often seen as predators who offer a fairly expensive product that offers marginal returns. I’m quite alarmed to discover that the for-profit educational industry is fighting to remove limits on student loans, which would effectively allow them to charge even more for degrees. Education has become a product, not a process; it has become a noun rather than a verb.
I am working on a book called “10-Year Degree: How NOT to Go To College” that chronicles my own journey (which eventually did end in a bachelor’s AND master’s degree) while providing statistics and information for the college-bound that might persuade them to take a little time off, get their lives together, and to look at college as a stepping stone to a lifelong career and not a final destination in itself. I know I took college a lot more seriously when I was drawing from my experience and thinking about where I wanted to go. My suspicion is that many other students would benefit from that perspective as well.
But I also think it’s time for us to start looking at the higher education industry as providing a product that’s something of an individual investment. Let’s consider the costs of a 4-year degree for a moment. According to the Department of Education, the median cost of a 4-year degree’s tuition ranges from $11,578 (public) to $29,915 (private). The cost of living could be estimated around $5,000 – 10,000 per year (depending upon a variety of factors). Therefore, a 4-year degree is likely to cost at least $30,000, and probably more. And, since 5-year degrees are becoming more typical, those costs are even more likely to be higher. The silver lining is that degree holders are supposed to earn 50% more (median incomes of around $60,000 instead of $40,000).
So, if students have a slightly better than 50/50 chance of getting a professional job with their degree and are expected to start paying back loans within 6 months, what they essentially have is a high-risk investment with a promise of only earning 150% of what the student would make if they didn’t go to college. Plus, they’ll be saddled with debt that will eat up the first several years of their extra pay (once interest is factored in). So, while the college degree may eventually turn into a positive investment for a little over half of the people who earn one, it may be a huge financial burden for those who get bachelor’s degrees in the humanities or in fields like psychology, where students must continue on to a doctorate program to find appropriate employment.
In the end, what I would recommend to high school students is to go out and work for a few years before heading into college. Then, if they’re serious about getting their careers started professionally, college is a great option, and they’ll be ready for it. They’ll also be better prepared to reach for the rewards that the risk of a degree investment requires… and they’ll get educated (verb) while they earn an education (noun).
What are your thoughts? Post them below!