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The Dilapidation of Higher Education

GraduationThe effects of the 2008 recession are still being felt all across America. Despite the new 8.3% unemployment figure being touted by the Administration (which is, at best, a miscalculation and at worst, a deliberate political maneuver designed to inject a kind of saccharine confidence into the American public), 55% of Americans still feel that the economy is getting worse. A subset of these Americans is recent college graduates who are jobless or underemployed. They are the children of the mid to late 80s, who drank the promise that a college education would result in economic mobility and ultimately, a better life. But upon graduation, they were met with the stark reality that jobs were nowhere to be found and their diploma was effectively a piece of paper costing 4 years of schooling at roughly $1069 per square inch, eclipsed only by the $100,000 bill.  A recent Atlantic article highlights that “1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year (2011) were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years”. So what happened to the post-college promise of financial security and career advancement?

Over the past several decades, institutions of higher education have increased the number of disciplines and majors that they offer to their students. Either new majors were developed (e.g. various ethnic studies) or majors became more specific (e.g. Military history, Asian history, Canadian history). However, the expansion and diversification of degrees, while theoretically beneficial to exploring and expanding academia, were disconnected from the realities of the post-graduation job market. Teenage students who decided to feed their intellectual curiosity by majoring in Sociology or Anthropology learned that a bachelor’s degree in an irrelevant field would not land them the decent paying office job. Of course, this critique on higher education is based on the assumption that the purpose of college is to prepare students to become meaningful contributors to our society. That’s not to say that sociologists and anthropologists are not “meaningful contributors”. They most certainly are. But the job market is going to dictate its own needs. Students need to have a realistic sense of what kinds of opportunities await after strolling down the aisle to “Pomp and Circumstance”, and universities have a responsibility to clearly and truthfully articulate the economic prospects of each major they offer and have an honest discussion about the implications of pursuing any of their degrees.

fsa_logoHowever, universities themselves aren’t the only culprits. We also have to examine the Federal Student Loan program. In the real world, financial institutions give interest rates based on the likelihood that the loan will be repaid. Thanks to the loan policies of the Department of Education, a 3.9 average student at Stanford studying Mechanical Engineering gets the same interest rate as a 2.5 average student majoring in Sociology at San Diego State. To be sure, colleges are also silent accomplices in this fanciful production. They allow these loans to be processed, but bear no consequence if the loan defaults. That burden is put onto the backs of taxpayers. This is undoubtedly going to be the next big bubble. The United States is nearing 1 trillion dollars of outstanding student loan debt, and the colleges are also playing their part by increasing tuition rates, which are certainly being fueled by these government-backed loans.

Still, the undeniable reality is that a college education (from any institution, however meaningless the degree) is a prerequisite to meaningfully participate in our modern economy. It is, however, a far cry from the promises that we heard while we were growing up. So what can the different actors involved in higher education do to reverse its own dilapidation?

Double majoring. Economically, it makes sense. Schools may have a cap on the number of credits students can take per semester, but most have a static tuition rate. Students need to take advantage of this and take on a more rigorous course schedule in order to satisfy both their short-term academic and long-term economic interests. Institutions should play their part by creating policies that make it easier to double major. They can start by identifying majors that have bleak economic prospects and alleviate the requirements of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in that major.

Practical Post-graduation Prep. Colleges need to prepare their students to face life outside of student life. This may include things like balancing a budget, the importance of building credit, and developing responsible spending habits.

Career discussion requirement. How about a college requirement that forces students to have a career discussion with a counselor? This may require the university to ramp up on career counselors, but perhaps reducing faculty (and requirements) in some departments so that students can prepare for their careers is a worthy investment. On a more macroscopic level, simple skills such as preparing a resume or basic interview skills should also be a component of some breadth requirement class.

Financial encouragement of STEM. The Federal government should create policies designed to encourage students to pursue degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Lowering interest rates for these majors is a logical first step, and it should be noted that’s probably what the private sector would do if they controlled student loans.

Changing the mantra. Colleges will tell their students that this is a time to explore their curiosities and satisfy their intellectual interests. That’s fine. But not all knowledge is created equal. Being able to quote Shakespeare may be helpful in impressing a girl, or in a game of Trivial Pursuit, but it has little or no real world application, particularly in the job market. Colleges just need to add an element of responsibility. Satisfy your scholarly appetite, but become acutely aware of the reality of the post-graduation world. The bleeding-hearts will ignore this new mantra anyways because they will relentlessly pursue a career in marine biology or archaeology. And that’s great! But for the scores of jobless liberal arts majors participating in Occupy rallies, wake up. Do you see many STEM majors among your ranks? No. They are busy at work.

Without any substantive changes at the Federal and university level, America needs to reexamine its narrative about what a college education will actually do. It’s about time we start acknowledging that college isn’t what it used to be.

Paul G. Lee
Paul is a displaced Southern California native who currently resides in Washington D.C.. His post-collegiate experience was highlighted by his move to the East Coast where he worked briefly for Congress. After his stint as a public servant, he jumped into the private sector and currently works as a consultant with a D.C.-based technology firm.

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