Friday, February 22, 2013

Problems with Emphasizing College Degrees

"Too many people are going to college," noted Charles Murray in his book Real Education.  Yet, the persistence continues with teachers, counselors, principals, parents, politicians, and billionaire philanthropists promoting a college degree as the path to riches and happiness, as well as the cure to all that ills society.  I wrote about this in an article for the Post a couple years ago after Bill Gates set as a goal "by 2025, 80% of students would earn a four-year bachelor's degree."  What a "brilliant" [sic] idea.  But only if Microsoft is going to hire all these overeducated, over-credentialed people.

Considering only 29% of Americans currently have a bachelor degree, and many are seeking work, and the nation has four million unfilled jobs in skilled labor, the proposal for 80% earning a degree - amassing the spending and debt associated with that - is patently absurd.  For a successful businessman to make such a claim, I truly question his knowledge of society, economics, and the future.  And, herein  is the problem for students and families as they consider options and the logic of pursuing a degree.  With this in mind Jeff Selingo asks in an article for The Chronicle "Are Career-Oriented Majors a Waste of Time?"

Most of the evidence from the workplace seems to imply that the current focus on degrees for all is an incredible waste of time and money.  While Selingo claims not to be in the "don't-go-to-college" crowd of people like Charles Murray, perhaps more of us in education should be.  Certainly, there is nothing wrong with higher education, and in a perfect world the well-paid mechanic could wax philosophic about Socrates and Shakespeare while helping his son with his calculus homework at the same that a neurosurgeon could fix a nice meal as well as teach his daughter how to change the O-ring on the toilet.  However, certain practical questions lead us to avoid shooting for these utopian visions and instead focus on what real progress we can make in the education and employment world.

Too many students are pursuing higher (and expensive) education on the belief that they will "get a better job."  Yet, there is not only no guarantee of that, but far too many will end up working in jobs (saddled with student loan debt) that never required a degree - or at least didn't in the past.  The number of jobs that didn't - or shouldn't - require a degree is shrinking, and that's not good for anyone.  For, there is no reason that the upper levels of high school or career training can't provide adequate skill and knowledge for many jobs - especially clerking and service-oriented work.

Granted, "Saying no to college" is not an admirable solution if the system itself won't change.  Sadly, if employers continue to use the college degree as a screening device - even for jobs such as a bank teller - then America is going to face a serious crisis in its ability to fund all this education.  Meanwhile, electricians can continue to make $50K a year, and millions of jobs in skilled labor go unfilled.


Mike Thiac said...

Ironic Gates is four year degrees. He is a classic example of success without college. After dropping out of Harvard Gates's is not formally educated, but he in unquestionable a very intelligent man and extremely successful.

mmazenko said...

It's also worth reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers for a better understanding of just how fortunate Gates was in the opportunities and advantages he was provided. In no way was his a standard education and college experience.