I think Mike Rowe is quite on-target with this. As a friend of mine put it, when she posted this on Facebook earlier today,
“I don’t regret college, I believe it was the right choice for me, but I do regret not being more thoughtful about the degree I chose. I love history but if I had it to do over again, I would double major in something a little more employable.
“Let’s stop telling kids if they get a college degree they won’t have a problem getting a job. We have too many college graduates with the equivalent of a mortgage at the age of 22 who are under- and unemployed for that to be true. Seek all options and find what works for you.”
Indeed. I have said for years that we as a society make a mistake when we try to sell “college for all.” For any reason, but particularly as a ticket out of poverty!
First and foremost, not everyone has the intellectual gifts and temperament for college. Actually getting them through it – which we must, if we are claiming that anyone can go to college, and everyone should – means that a) academic standards are being “dumbed down,” and b) colleges themselves are refashioning themselves into glorified vocational institutes, which is unfair both to them, and to genuine vocational institutes, which have for a long time gotten a great deal less credit and support than they deserve.
On a related note, it fosters the greed and expansionism (both part of fallen human nature) to which colleges and universities – no less than any other large human institutions – are prey, leading them to seek to recruit more and more students (whether they are what was once called “college material” or not), thus exacerbating the problems.
Speaking of problems, when more and more students are (by hook or by crook) graduating, diploma in hand, we have a growing issue of degree inflation: in which an Associate’s, or even a Bachelor’s, degree is needed to perform jobs which once could be filled by a qualified high school graduate, a Masters to fill what were formerly Baccalaureate positions, and a Doctorate to fill what used to be Masters-level positions.
Which of course means that now more and more people are trying to go to college or “uni,” because what used to be a helpful bonus is now a necessity! And once again the problem grows…
From the standpoint of economic success, the reason a college or university degree used to be a pathway out of poverty is precisely because it was RARE. It was indicative of a person with an unusually high degree of intellect, drive / determination, or simple sticktoitiveness, either singly or in combination. That is obviously not the case when a degree is simply another ticket to be punched, on one’s way (hopefully, but less certainly all the time) up the ladder.
It was also viewed by those tasked with hiring as a major plus because a college or university graduate could reasonably be considered to be a person who had both a certain broadness of perspective, and who had received training in broadening and fostering his or her critical thinking skills.
With colleges and universities morphing into vocational training schools, the classic liberal arts breadth of perspective is increasingly becoming a thing of the past; while even a brief survey of the level of political – or if there even was such a thing any more, philosophical – discourse in this county by folks who theoretically are the beneficiaries of higher education leads to the inescapable conclusion that critical thinking can no longer be counted upon as one of the fruits of such education.
But the root problem is this: if everyone has a thing, it is no longer special. Would anybody care about having a Porsche, if everybody had a Porsche? Businesses aren’t going to pay someone more for a college degree if everyone has a college degree! So the more people who seek one as a means of getting hired, or paid more, the less likelihood there is that any particular degree-holder is going to be hired, or given a raise.
The most they will do is refuse to consider anyone who does not hold a degree, transforming what – as I mentioned above – used to be a selling point, into a necessity. It is difficult for me to see how this is an improvement in the situation!
On a personal level, I agree with you, Olivia: I am the holder of a B.A. in medieval studies, and a Masters in theology. While I do not (usually) regret either degree, I also have to be honest enough to admit that cool as they are, neither has proven particularly salable! They have not brought me the level of financial stability – forget about “success,” whatever that means – that the salesmen for universal college education would like people to believe.
If I could do it over again, I, too, would have chosen my major(s) with more care, taken a second and more salable major, or at the very least gotten my teaching certificate when I was in college the first time. Or perhaps better yet, learned a trade, to fall back on. Degree inflation was already a “thing” when I graduated in 1991, and the intervening almost 30 years have increased the problem exponentially!
That doesn’t mean that those degrees weren’t worthwhile in other respects: they were, and are. I am very glad, from a personal and philosophical standpoint, that I got the education I did. But as money-makers? Not so much. Thank God I didn’t go on for Ph.D. study, and come out with that level of debt, and not much more chance of finding employment!
If I had dictatorial powers, I would make colleges and universities smaller, not larger; shrink, rather than increase, their enrollment; and return them to what they used to be: places for those who wished to grapple with the larger and deeper existential questions of life – for the pursuit of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. At the same time, I would strengthen opportunities for vocational / technical learning, which is badly needed, and which can be done more efficiently and economically in other contexts than a college or university environment.
Higher education and vocational training are not the same thing, and it’s time we stopped pretending that they are.