the absurd post-college guessing game

March 11, 2012

Ever since my foray into grad school, college education has been a recurring topic here as I struggled how to balance the advice given to me about what to study and how far to keep going, and the practical concerns that would have to be addressed after the degree was finished. Now, having gone through the equivalent of about six years of higher education and balancing my degrees through the workforce while many of my friends went through the same predicaments, I’ve had some time to reflect on the very bizarre landscape of the transition a good deal of Generation Y seems to have to make between education and employment. Of course all this will not be based entirely on my anecdotal data, in fact we’ve already reviewed a massive study on the subject, and if anything, the anecdotes corroborate its findings. But there’s more to it than just whether a student goes to college and gets a job afterwards and while academics and politicians debate what’s broken with colleges and education in general, they miss that the entire system to train teenagers to peruse a career is fraught with dysfunction so focusing on just colleges or just companies or just schools woefully misses the big picture.

That might sound hyperbolic at first blush but unfortunately it’s not. It’s unpleasant to hear that there are huge problems that can’t just be fixed by one or two decisive actions and created by decades of problems that were swept under the rug but in this case, we can’t simply point our finger at a weak link in a chain because there’s no one weak link responsible for all our problems. Colleges certainly have their problems and there’s enough to be said for their shortcomings in guiding students on how to navigate the world outside a campus to fill the nearby library with books on the subject related to every discipline and type of student. But it’s not as if there’s no conflict with companies and parents who make hiring decisions alternatively rejecting college students for having too little or too much education at these companies while pushing their kids to get college degrees as soon as they get back home. And it’s not as if politicians aren’t treating colleges as diploma factories while on the same breath advocating for cutting funds to said colleges and then demanding to know why having more people with degrees doesn’t turn the economy around. On top of that, they also go after scientists who don’t cater to their dogmas and lament that education past the basics for a job is just a waste of time.

Meanwhile, the college loan industry insured against any loss by the government, keeps upping the stakes in this game. Sure, you can take on $50,000 in loans and repay them after you’re done. Choose the right degree and find the right company which thinks you have just enough education to get a job and you can slowly pay it all over the next decade or so. Choose wrong and not only do you have a degree you can’t use and no job, but you now have a crushing debt hanging over your head and the government will be knocking on your door for a payment since the companies who issued the original loan just got paid and took no loss on your default, so can do the same thing again to another student. So overall, what we end up doing is sending 17 and 18 year olds constantly told that they can be anything they put their minds into a position in which they have to gamble that a certain degree from a certain college will hopefully get them an internship somewhere so they could go on to claim some experience in the field when they get a chance to complete with 600 other people for jobs in companies where their parents want industry experience and only a certain amount of education so they don’t have to pay more for a more advanced degree. Meanwhile, these same parents advocate more education for better job prospects and turn their children into each others’ overqualified candidates for entry level jobs.

Rather than set up an orderly system where there are clear paths to peruse different goals and career tracks, we’ve set up something that looks like it, but is in reality a game of Catch-22s and gotchas that no one knows exactly how to navigate. I was lucky to have worked in IT since high school and live in a city where there’s a lot of demand for programmers thanks to its prosperous hub of regional banks, hospitals, and both national and regional insurance companies. Had I not started studying how to design websites my junior year and had no experience with anything IT related, what degree would I have picked to build a career? And what if I went for a field where a graduate degree doesn’t confer more opportunities because there’s enough demand to allow a premium for extra education? I would be yet another late-20-something with two degrees getting rejections as someone would silently decide that I wouldn’t settle for an entry level job with the pay he had in mind even as my salary requirements had dropped to "a cent more than food stamps" long before that point. Just mull this absurdity in your head for a moment. Colleges are cranking out young adults with degrees they’re unlikely to use in their jobs, parents urge them to go to grad school to get a better chance to find jobs, and when they’re indebted and unemployed, and everyone knows it, they’re rejected because the company doesn’t want to pay premiums it wouldn’t have to pay anyway since the applicant just wants a job that pays actual money…

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  • Jypson

    As someone in a mid-level career without a college degree, it’s very frustrating being rejected for jobs you are very qualified for just because you don’t have a formal degree. A degree is no longer proof of competence; it’s merely a check in the box. I know this doesn’t hold true in all cases as many professional jobs genuinely do require specialized training. I know I can’t be the only one stuck in this boat, right?