go to college, get a degree, and then what?

A study of over 2,000 students found some very disturbing facts about the American college system.
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Photo by Alex Ivashenko

Back in January, two researchers who wanted to measure the benefits of college education tracked the gains and losses of some 2,300 college students across numerous majors in different universities, which ranged from small, private colleges, to large, public, state schools. After testing how much they learned and tracking how well these students did in the job market after graduation, the data turned out to be abysmal, not only in how well they improved in critical thinking and complex reasoning, but also in how difficult it was for them to find jobs after completing degrees that were supposed to give them an edge.

According to the study, the only thing the students have to show for their education is debt and poorly paying positions which leave nearly half of them still living with their parents, unable to start independent lives on annual salaries of $15,000 and with extremely toxic college loan debt, which can only be discharged by being paid off in full, an act of Congress, or an alien invasion. In the spirit of their cheerful findings, the researchers called their report Academically Adrift, and after casting college in such a dark light offered more college education as a solution. Wait, what?

I can certainly follow the thread of thought which doubts the value of the kind of education college students get today and went as far as asking whether we really need four year specialized degrees since there’s a large mismatch between majors and careers, offering shorter, more targeted, apprenticeship-type programs which let students work while they study and bring down their debts. Of course this is an idealistic setup since most companies are too used to hiring unpaid interns and teaching them as little as possible while using them for work that every other full time employee is either too busy to do or can afford to give to the interns.

Having any kind of paid internship, especially when the economy goes sour, is very rare, and reserved only for immense conglomerates working on major government contracts, or government agencies. But hey, when you’re done with that college education and proudly display your diploma, you can get a full time job, right? Again, going to the report we find that yes, you can get some sort of job, but about half the time, it’s not going to be a full time gig that will allow you to move out, live on your own, and start building your fiscal portfolio. The other half, you’ll make enough to just get by after you’re done making loan payments.

Hold on a moment though, what about the degrees themselves? Maybe what those degrees offer would be of no interest to an employer? If you graduated with a bachelors in English Literature, maybe you could apply for something like a copyeditor’s post which doesn’t pay all that much, but that’s about it. And yes, certainly some degrees are in much higher demand by employers than others and you are more preferred when you have a STEM degree than a humanities degree. However, looking at the employment numbers through the prism of what majors are in demand implies that most of the degrees being offered are useless for employment.

The students who have the most trouble finding work didn’t all peruse a degree in philosophy and have skills that apply outside the academic world. It’s just that employers don’t value their education and their age group has been hammered by the Great Recession, not only in the U.S. but worldwide as well. So why did they go to a college and spend four or five years working on degrees that yielded them little outside debt and a paper with very fancy writing? Couldn’t they have gotten a better result by not even going since they would be making just as much, if not more, and avoid the pain of student loans that will haunt them for decades?

On the part of the colleges themselves, there’s a major unresolved issue greatly contributing to the problems faced by new graduates; the institutions’ insistence that they aren’t in the business of providing jobs, with the downright dangerous advice by academics to avoid vocational majors, majors like engineering, computer science, and material sciences, urging students to “expand their minds” while they’re young and in college. If the students are trust fund babies going to college for the experience and the desire to learn, they could afford to take this advice to heart. But expanding minds and pondering existential questions in literature is not why a lot of parents scrimp and save to at least help send their kids to college.

They’re sending their kids because it has been instilled in our culture to equate a college education with job prospects. Whether or not professors, administrators, and researchers who work in academia agree with this attitude is irrelevant here because the decades of social reinforcement have turned the employability of college graduates into the yardstick by which colleges are measured in the public eye. Students go to colleges because they expect to get jobs after they’re done and it looks like what they’re actually getting is a lot of routine memorization, exams, grad students who fill in for professors teaching classes and grade by a bell curve, and debt. That’s obviously not good.

And that brings us back to the original contradiction on the researchers’ part. After presenting data which can’t even be spun by a professional political adviser as having anything good to say about the state of colleges or higher education today on a macro scale, their prescription falls right back to that cultural imperative to equate more education with jobs. Despite this obviously not being the case and despite their own findings showing it to be untrue, the best they seem to be able to offer is the “well, we should teach better” platitude which leaves all the institutional and social problems on which we’ve touched, unaddressed.

As long as we pretend that an expensive college degree is the answer to all of life’s fiscal woes and assume that colleges feel that their job is to prepare high school graduates for a career in the working world when they certainly don’t see it that way, we’re going to have problems and no amount of instruction in any topic, no matter how good, is going to really help where it counts. Today’s new college graduates are some of the best educated people around but when they try to even get on the first rung of the corporate ladder, they’re pushed away. That alone should give lie to the notion that more education equals better education and yields jobs. If you’re a parent of students ready to enter college, start worrying. Your children’s future is not safe, and very few people seem to care.

# education // college / college degrees / economy


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