With debt levels soaring, tuition costs on the rise, and record unemployment rates for recent college graduates (4.4% — the highest in since 1970), are college degrees becoming less relevant? Here's a surprising look at the state of higher learning:
You Need a Degree For That?
Good Education writes that 17 million college graduates are “underemployed,” meaning they work in jobs that don't effectively utilize the skillsets they learned in college. The Bureau of Labor cites some incredible statistics: 11.5% of shampooers, 15.2% of taxi drivers and chauffeurs, and 11.5% of manicurists and pedicurists have college degrees. Amazingly enough, some 5,057 janitors in the US have PhDs, other doctorates, or professional degrees. Still, it's not uncommon to see job postings for administrative assistants, for example, that require applicants to have a B.A. or higher — even when most such positions require minimal on-the-job training.
Saddled in Debt
There's no doubt about it: College is big business. The average student debt is $23,000, and the cost of tuition just rose 6.5% this past fall. US News reports that “in the first semester of the 2009-2010 academic year, college students took out $35 billion in Stafford student loans” — an increase from the fall 2008 semester. And, on top of already record-smashing debt levels, the recession has also produced an increase in “reverse transfers” — students at expensive four-year universities transferring to low-cost community colleges to get their basic core classes completed.
And still no jobs. Surprised? A relatively recent Wall Street Journal article informs us that less and less Americans believe that college is a good investment.
Are Students Even Learning?
This Fast Company infographic informs us that the average college freshman spends ten hours a week partying, and only eight studying. More than 2 million students enroll in college every year — and 1/3 drop out in the first one. 57% of students require 6 or more years to finish their degrees. The Spellings commission (named after the then- Secretary of Education) noted that literacy levels among college graduates fell sharply over twelve years, ending in 2003. And we won't even get started on the oft-cited tales of grade inflation at state and private universities nationwide.
A late 2009 Slate article entitled “Help, My Degree is Underwater,” relates some particularly depressing tales of graduate-level underemployment (not to mention regular old unemployment) including a “guy with a master's in international relations” who “is working at a supermarket and just went on Medicaid” and a 29-year old with three degrees (in computer science and business, no less) who lost his job and is still $60,000 in debt. So what's the problem?
We might just be producing too many college grads, for one.
Too Many Graduates?
A compelling MSN Money editorial basically argues that college degrees are barely proof of learning, anyway, that not everyone needs a degree, and that “kids are being pushed into four-year liberal arts schools because there's a steep societal penalty for not getting a degree.” Ouch. That's a hard pill to swallow for a nation that prides itself on egalitarianism. This Dec. 2009 Time article reports that there's an “oversupply of college graduates” saturating the job market: In 1973, for example, degrees were more rare because only 47% of Americans attended. By October 2008, that number had risen to 70%. More supply, less demand.
Maybe we're being too idealistic, here. After all, there are certain college choices that seem to lead to success in the future (even if the present economic situation looks bleak) and there are others, that, well, pretty much only bode well for the Shakespeares, Jameses, and Spielbergs of the world, and that's on a good day.
Which Degrees Are Most Employable?
To take another look at our handy infographic, 40% of the most popular college majors are the Social Sciences, Psychology, Communications, and English — and quite un-facetiously notes that “popular” careers that correspond with these majors include Retail Store Managers, Customer Service Representatives, and Administrative Assistants. It's no secret that STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) majors tend to be more employable, and that employability only increases with more advanced degrees (let's hope that 29-year-old with the two computer science degrees is only a disturbing anomaly.) An ABC News ranking of the “Best and Worst Master's Degrees” (in terms of return on financial investment, job growth, and stability) listed advanced degrees in social work and education as the “worst,” and computer science and medical degrees and certifications as “best.”
Of course, we're not saying that education isn't valuable in and of itself — it's the specific degree that takes calculated consideration, especially if contemplating seriously undertaking greek history or silk screening as a field of study. In this economy, being a bit conscientious about one's academic career isn't soulless, it's smart.
And if you happen to be a janitor with a PhD, then you know what we're talking about.