According to what we’re often told, if we work hard, study, get good grades, and go to college, we’ll have good jobs that let us make a steady living and the typically poor college student days will be long behind us as the president of a university hands you your graduate degree. Sure, you may not have the life of plenty but you are definitely clearly of having to go on welfare to feed yourself, right? Actually, maybe not. As it turns out, there’s a disturbing number of PhDs on food stamps working odd jobs after all the schooling and hard work that would make them immune to the trials of the working poor, according to the prevailing societal truisms. Many times, the initial reaction is to say that it’s really not that huge of a problem, especially compared to the millions upon millions of non-PhDs currently out of work and that these situations are almost certainly temporary. Of course one could see why not a whole lot of administrators and pundits would be interested in talking about PhDs on welfare at any length. It really drives home the fact that a lot of long-held American beliefs about education and income can vary widely from reality and that you could do everything right only to end up having to file for aid.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the PhDs who have trouble turning their education into stable incomes. Quite a few undergraduate students are also ending up making a lot less than they may have expected, and while you can say that the compensation premium for a bachelor’s degree hasn’t changed very much even during much of the Great Recession, the worst salaries in decades have effectively made that premium worth far less than it once was. In fact it’s a neat accounting trick that helps for-profit trade schools and college lenders. They can lure in students by showing the relative premium of a college degree but forget to mention that in real dollars, this premium gives graduates far less purchasing power than they had five years ago. Oh and that’s if they do manage to get a job, which may or many not even be in their field. But come on, they did the right thing, they’re obviously on the way to something great, right? After all, they studied hard enough to get into college and after applying themselves earned degrees, exactly as mom, dad, and everyone else around them told them they’ll have to do to get a good job and start a career. How could it be that we send millions of students to college to spend all that time, money, and effort, and have them rewarded by crushing debt and unemployment?
But the sad fact is that this is exactly what we obliviously do while pretending that the system in which we’re working is fundamentally just and seldom fails to reward hard workers and good scholars. All right, why don’t we look at it another way? A lot of the welfare PhDs spend tens of thousands of dollars getting degrees in all sorts of humanities disciplines for which there’s little demand so surely they must be to blame for their bad situations. How many people will be interested in employing someone who wrote a dissertation on the social dynamics portrayed in silent films? Who but a handful of universities need a PhD in theology? This may be a good way to salvage the seeming fairness of the system but it’s fundamentally flawed. Yes, as I’ve said many times myself, you can’t rely on a degree in humanities to pay your bills, but at the same time, the problem isn’t that humanities PhDs are ending up with big loans and empty pockets, it’s that a degree does not guarantee sustainable, full time work. Even the most highly demanded STEM disciplines are subject to the whims of the market and predicting exactly what will be needed in what city and by what companies in four years before you even start your first class, would be an exercise in clairvoyance. Yet we expect college students to perform this feat every year and then fume when they fail to fare any better than a psychic. Of course they can’t do it.
On the part of the humanities scholars who find themselves out of work and academics who find themselves under attack, some write articles berating modern society for ignoring their passion for crass consumerism. I understand it may be disheartening to know that the world cared more about Twilight than Joyce and I agree, it’s really quite sad. At the time time, people need food, shelter, security, roads, and medicine. It’s not that PhD after PhD is discarded by society for daring not to care about the latest Angry Birds sequel or choose to study the most obscure language in the world to mine it for insights into human culture, but that its immediate and material needs have to take precedence over their academic ones. Society doesn’t tell you to crank out a little metal widget because it needs to print some navel-gazing self-help treatise or load another trite pop bleating on iTunes, but because it needs to fix a road, or develop a new antibiotic, or write some new software to keep important financial transactions secure. It doesn’t want the luxury to plan for its new generations and the best you can do is try to be at the right place, at the right time to find a career close to what you like to do, and when you get there, there may not be a reward for college or good grades and a C- student may be your boss. This is how our world works today and let’s not pretend that there’s some magical combination of degrees, GPAs, and professional credentials that will save you when you find yourself in a really bad economy…