Why College May Not Be the Right Choice
This is a three-part series running over the next three weeks that will probably make my parents shake their heads--at least at first. Hopefully by the time I'm done they'll renew their faith in me. For the most part.
When I was in elementary school, thinking about my future, it was a given that I would go to college. Both of my parents had college degrees and we six kids were taught early on that college was not only the route to success but a necessary part of becoming an adult.
Before my parents the family tree was full of blue-collar, made-it-through-the Depression, work-by-the-sweat-of-your-brow folks who had little formal education but recognized the value of a well-trained mind and through their efforts the tree has grown to support engineers, dentists, doctors, lawyers, nutritionists, businessmen, statisticians, and educators. Andrew's family is no different with computer programmers, social workers, psychologists, and mathematicians in abundance.
Perhaps it's the recession, perhaps it's the whining of the media, perhaps it's all just sound and fury but I'm hearing more and more about how a college degree just isn't worth what it used to be. Of course we know what it's worth--on average, $80,000 for a private school, $20,000 for public (and that's conservative)--but we've all heard that those with college degrees have a greater earning potential.
However, more and more graduates are finding themselves without the jobs that a degree used to promise. It's the old law of supply and demand hitting us hard. A century ago a college degree was rare and precious and therefore worth more in salary. Nowadays, bachelor's degrees are a dime a dozen and employers set it as the bare minimum for many entry level jobs, often even looking for master's degrees in their future employees, and we're hearing more and more about how a college degree doesn't present the investment that it once did.
Our own family's experience has born this out--my parents were the first in their families to attend college but all 6 of their children received degrees, along with 5 spouses who also earned degrees. Among those 11 people there are a total of 17 degrees, yet of the 7 adults actively employed, 4 have dealt with unemployment and have had trouble finding jobs in the past year.
Again, you can blame it on the recession but I think what we've got here is a lot bigger than a mere economic trend. What many people are predicting--and I think there may be some validity--is that we have saturated the market with university degrees and the market is now swinging back the other way to the point that if you want your children to be assured of finding a job, trade school and skilled labor is the way to go.
Welders, masons, heavy equipment operators, electricians, plumbers, people who spend their days working with their hands are in increasing demand as more and more of the middle class believe that the nobler jobs are those that require thinking rather than lifting. This prejudice against the blue-collar jobs has flooded the market with expensive degrees and left a demand for labor that has driven the prices up and up.
I'm not sure I buy into the idea completely and there is more to college than just a slip of paper with some initials on it but it does make a certain amount of sense. Then, if you think about it in terms of hard dollars it starts to make even more sense. If the average middle class kid goes to college, statistics say he'll (or, more accurately, she--more women are entering college now than men, but that's another post) spend $20,000 getting his four years in. But then the average isn't four years nowadays, but six. So add another $10,000 for two more wasted years in tuition for a total of $30,000 for an ultra-cheap, state school. Not including living expenses, books, fees or frat parties. Now calculate the lost income that those five extra years of university training have cost while her blue-collar counterpart spent significantly less money and time getting a tech-school degree to become a welder.
What are we up to now? Well, welders can make $80,000 a year in some parts of the country in good conditions, so five years would equal $400,000 of earnings while the other kid shuffled around campus trying to decide whether to major in humanities or women's studies. One student is $30,000 in the hole, the other is nearly $400,000 ahead and you tell me who the smarter kid is.
Now don't get me wrong, I happen to think that there are three critical things one gets from college--how to earn money (a degree), how to think (an education) and how to be an adult (experience) and I want my children to attend in no uncertain terms. However, I am saying that perhaps we ought to rethink how we approach the college and educational experience. Gone are the days where you can pack your kid off to college, wipe your hands on your apron and say, "Whew! I'm done!" because a college degree just ain't what it used to be and there is a whole lot more out there to do if we really want to prepare our kids for the real world.
To be continued next week.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Why College May Not Be the Right Choice