Crisis of College

The question ‘Is College Worth It?’ has really and truly been put to bed. The Pew Research Center Study this year on higher education has found that on average a bachelor’s degree in the US will earn a graduate $500,000 on top of the average industrial wage over the course of a 40 year career, taking into account student debt. This difference is roughly double what it was two decades ago.

A college graduate earns 98% more per hour than someone who never went to college. 53% of college grads are satisfied with their jobs compared to 37% of non-grads. 22% of those who never go to college end up in poverty, compared to 5.8% of those with a bachelor’s degree. These numbers don’t include those who went on to study a masters or PhD.

The question of whether or not college is worth it also misses the main issue of economic mobility. In the past it was possible to get good working class jobs which paid wages able to pull large groups up into the middle class. With low skill jobs moving to developing countries and many career paths blocked to those without a college degree there is a consensus that having a degree is the equivalent to having a high school diploma three decades ago – it’s a basic requirement to break into the middle class.

According to the White House Report on Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students, in 1970, roughly 75% of the middle class had a high school diploma or less. By 2007, this share had declined to just 39%. Without a college degree, children born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have a 5% chance of making it to the top fifth, and a 55% of chance of making out of the bottom fifth. With a college degree, the chances of making it to the top increase to 19%, and chances of making it out of the bottom increase to 84%.

A degree has become more necessary than ever. The question we should be asking is not whether college is worth it. The question is whether or not college is really preparing graduates for the work environment.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa look at the Class of 2009 two years out of university in their book Aspiring Adults Adrift. Almost three quarters of the graduates were still receiving financial support from their parents and just over half of the graduates they studied were unemployed, employed part-time, or making less than $30,000 per year. The study is diverse, interviewing 1,000 college graduates who completed college four years degree. They’re from 24 colleges and universities from different ends of the rung, from a college ranked in the top ten in the world to newer, less prestigious universities.

Undoubtedly, a huge reason for these graduates’ failure to launch is the fact that they graduated just as the recession began and job dried up. However this class is part of a broader trend which shows that young people suffer disproportionately during bad economic times. The youth unemployment rate was 13.6% in 2014 compared to the average rate of 6.2%. We see similar numbers in other countries, with EU youth unemployment averaging 24%.

Graduates and other young people are finding themselves unable to land jobs as they lack the skills and the experience to make them competitive. McKinsey found that half of all graduates in the US felt unprepared for the workplace and 39% of employers feel the same way.

A special international report by the Chronicle of Higher Education in March of this year found “When it comes to the skills most needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving.”

For example, companies such as Accenture have argued that they are finding it impossible to fill jobs in Ireland, despite nearly 460,000 people on the live register, a high number of them graduates.

Our undergraduate system does not require much other than a lecturer who is able to talk to a class of hundreds for two hours a week and dedicate some amount of time to the marking of essays and exam papers. While this might be the easiest way to train students, it is certainly not the best as the student engages in passive learning.

What students learn in college is largely irrelevant to what they do when they join the workforce, even if related to their degree. For example, those that end up at law firms are required to do an enormous amount of learning on the job, the guts of two years training. This is true for many other professions with noted exceptions being medical students who get to train in hospitals during their students. The fact that that those courses with practical elements tend to have higher employment rates shows that experience in college does translate to success on the other side.

We do need to take into account that not all majors are born equal. Engineering students are almost guaranteed a high-paid job straight out of college while students who studied drama are twice as likely to be in a service job then in a position which requires a college degree when they graduate.

The numbers are staggering. Of the students between 22-27 this year who graduated in the US this year, 76% of law graduates were working in non-college jobs as were 53% of psychology grads, 53% of journalists and 71% of fine arts students. Universities are complicit in creating this situation where more than half of their students are underemployed by relentlessly promoting and advertising their courses without informing students what their likely chances of success are in the job market.

However, some universities have started to publish their employment rates after graduation, differentiating between employment related to the field of study and general employment. This has been linked to the fall in law school applications over the past couple of years. This is a step in the right direction.

Arum and Roksa argue that universities have become too focussed on selling a student-friendly product and have failed in their duty to prepare students for the world of employment. They take issue with the lack of civic engagement of students, citing the fact that 32% of students don’t read a newspaper more than once a month and 40% don’t talk about politics and public affairs.

The inability of college graduates to get skilled jobs presents two distinct issues. The first is that it takes graduates longer to join the professional ranks with many taking a job they are over-qualified for to get by and having to start at the bottom rung of their careers later. Where grads are forced to take jobs below their skills level this can be seen as a not only a huge gap in their CV but may even stand against them as it depreciates their skills in the minds of potential employers.

The second issue is that this inability to get jobs disproportionately affects those from low-income backgrounds. While it has become popular to see the year for graduation as a sort of ‘gap year’ where it is alright to get unpaid internships, go travelling or volunteer, this simply isn’t an option for those of limited means who are more likely to be forced into a job where they are underemployed.

There is no panacea for the fact that graduates don’t have the experience of their counterparts who have been working for years. However the transition could be and should be easier.

The first step is to ditch the lectures. They are the least effective way to learn and only prepare students to sit and listen. Discussion groups, hands-on assignments and practical elements of courses should all become best practice in universities. Any system which promotes active learning is more likely, not only to make students more attractive, but also to enable students to learn in a more effective way by having them apply the theory to real life.

The second step is to provide more opportunities for students to get workplace experience either by advertising summer jobs or by arranging internships as part of university courses. Experience can be tailored to each course. For example, one way to give law students hands on experience and to help alleviate problems of social inequality is to train them to work in free legal advice clinics.

Finally, students need more career guidance. Many students go into university uncertain of what they want to do next and universities can have more of a role, not only helping them figure out what career they want, but how to get there.

The debate about college has been mischaracterised by making it a black and white choice between getting a degree or not getting a degree. Most people have acknowledged that not going to college incurs a lifelong wage penalty. Instead we should be asking whether college is giving us the best return on our investment. Quite clearly the answer is no.

Author: Liz O'Malley

Freelance journalist, sometime law student, political junkie, pasta addict.

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