There are tons to worry about in this present economy, but as an educator I worry about (duh) education. My bias had always been that higher education is a necessity, ostensibly to prepare for the work force, yes, but really I think higher education allows young brains time and opportunity to continue to develop. An eighteen-year old needs more time to learn as much as she can, to develop social and interpersonal skills, to figure out how to time-manage and problem-solve and other hyphenated skills. College affords that extra time to grow up. (Whether American high schools are currently structured to even prepare students for college success is a whole different topic—and one I am not in a position to write about at this point in my own growing-up-and-learning process. And this, by the way, is a really chicken way of saying I don’t want to cause unnecessary trouble for myself as a teacher. Not right now, at least.)
Realistically, however, I haven’t had a student who thought of college that way. College, to my real-world-minded students, is a path toward a career. It’s as straightforward as that to my kiddos.
But it’s not straightforward, and to compound the twisting path to employability are a number of problems.
One, as I know all too well, is the rising cost of higher education. There is, apparently, over “$1 trillion in student loans outstanding in this country,” and I suspect that many people
who owe money began that debt as a college student. Contemporary students borrow a lot of money to pay for college, and college has become more expensive. If college graduates can’t pay all that money back to the government because, let’s say, unemployment rates continue to plague our country, will the default on those loans lead us to another devastating economic crisis like the mortgage crash?
That wasn’t a rhetorical question; I really am asking y’all, because it’s worrying me. The LA Times reported late last year that tuition to California colleges went up 21%. Eeks! That’s the highest tuition increase in the whole country, and no, that tuition increase is not at all in keeping with inflation. Students are almost guaranteed to incur debt (an average of $22,000) in order to get a degree and land that dream job.
Which leads me to the second problem: are colleges truly preparing students for employability? Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity cites a study which reveals that half of college graduates are unemployed or underemployed (which means grads are not attaining full-time or long-term positions). Northeastern University found that 38% of recent college grads are holding jobs that don’t even require a college degree! I can attest to that problem, as the first full-time job I could land after college was as a bookseller at Borders. But it’s not simply colleges’ fault; the crappy economy is licking at our marrow, having eaten away our sense of financial security.
Success, which I’m simply defining as “landing a damn job” for the intent of this article, depends in part on one’s major in college. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce recently put out a study (182 PDF pages, people!) about the economic value of college majors. I’d already known that business was a top major, but I found that geological and geophysical engineering had a 100% employment rate. Along with geological and geophysical engineering, genetics and mining had a high rate of full-time employment. Graduates in agriculture and natural resources are also faring well, with 90% full-time employment and a median income of $50,000. Mathematics and computer science majors earn a median income of $98,000, which isn’t surprising given our tech-heavy world. And here’s another non-shocker: pharmaceutical sciences majors can earn $105,000. In contrast, median earnings for those with an art degree (film, commercial or graphic design, studio, etc.) is $44,000; secondary ed teachers are at a median of $46,000; this is weird to me, but a U.S. History major can expect a median of $57,000; and social workers can expect a median of $39,000.
It seems that if we want college grads to land a damn job, we should tell them to forget about their passion and go for where the money is: business, engineering, pharmacology.
I was being snarky, just in case you couldn’t tell.
Third (man, I’m only on my third point?), those students who can’t afford traditional colleges, don’t have the grades and scores for traditional colleges, want to but can’t get into compacted community colleges, and/or need to attend night school because of work or family responsibilities turn to for-profit colleges, the biggest of which is University of Phoenix. I’d always been suspicious about the quality of education at for-profit schools, but I had no evidence to support my suspicion (how, for example, can one gauge “quality” in education?). I still have no evidence, but I’m also still wary about such schools. PBS’s Frontline produced a program entitled “College Inc.” which elucidated to viewers the hard-line sales tactics employed by enrollment counselors to reel in potential applicants. Some for-profit schools are not accredited, and some that are do not even provide students with actual training to prepare them for employability. It was shocking to me. Now, I’ve seen all the University of Phoenix commercials on TV with seemingly earnest testimonials from alumni. If I trusted advertisements, I’d have to admit that it seems like there are a bajillion people out there with awesome success stories after graduating from University of Phoenix. But the ads just serve to remind me that education is now a business, and that in order to market to consumers such schools surely need to be able to pay for the marketing somehow. Enter stage right tuition and fees, baby; tuition and fees. I didn’t know until I viewed the program that tuition at for-profit schools end up being more than at traditional schools. It makes sense, though, because shareholders in for-profit schools have an obvious interest in drawing in students who are not attending traditional colleges for any of the above reasons, and they draw in those students even if the students clearly are not prepared to pay for or grapple with the material in higher ed classes.
Those who are willing to incur debt for an education at flexible for-profit schools and who are able to keep with up higher ed are sometimes misled with promises of real-world training. I was alarmed to find that some for-profit vocational schools don’t even have research institutes or connections to hospitals, which is a major problem for LVN hopefuls who find, upon graduation, that hospitals won’t hire them because they’d never even stepped foot in a hospital during their “higher education” training. It’s atrocious. It’s not, by any means, a universal story among the for-profit schools, and I’m sure the same criticism can made about some skeezy traditional colleges as well. But just like it rattles my ethical radar to see pharmaceutical drugs advertised on TV, it also doesn’t sit well with me to see billboards and commercials advertising colleges. It makes me wonder how much money is spent on marketing as opposed to curriculum and faculty.
I haven’t reached a bottom line in my research yet, but I have a vested interest in higher education not only because I love learning (nerd power!) but also because I am a secondary education teacher who is passionate about leading my students to the best possible lives they can claim for themselves. College isn’t going to be the right choice for all my kiddos, but it seems that vocational schools are doing them a disservice as well. I want to be able to prepare and advise my students well, so of course I’ll continue researching studies and articles and then I’ll add another blog post in future.