The Happy Academic returns and answers the question “Should I get an undergraduate degree?”

The idea that college is a waste of time and money is not exactly new.  I’m not sure if it was this 1975 essay by Caroline Bird or not, but I recall teaching something like it in a first year composition class when I first started teaching in college in 1988.  But it sure seems like there have been a rash of articles lately once again raising questions about college, about how college grads can’t get jobs (as reported here in the New York Times) or that majoring in something in the liberal arts is foolish because it doesn’t prepare people for jobs, as Kim Brooks writes in her Salon.com piece “Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree?”

As the short (7.5 week) spring semester come crashing to an end here (I finished the grading for one class yesterday and my other class today), these things are on my mind.  Way back when, in previous blog incarnations, I attempted to answer the questions “Should I get a PhD?” (probably not), “Should I get a Masters degree?” (there are good reasons for this), and “Should I get a graduate degree in creative writing?” (sure, just as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into).  So I might as well round things out and talk about the undergrad experience as well.

Let me start with some things that I think are obviously true, though I am not sure these truths are as obvious to everyone:

  • The bigger issue is that every able adult in this country ought to have the equivalent of a high school diploma and ought to be functionally literate. We’re not there yet.  It turns out that those 47% of Detroit adults are illiterate stuff that was reported back in April/May is probably wrong, but still, the high school graduation rates in Detroit and similar metropolitan/poor people areas are not good.  So to me, before we go around talking about the pros and cons of a college degree, let’s be clear that we have a ways to go to cover the high school problem first.  Further, a lot of the problem with too many students going to college instead of seeking some other trade stem from policies in secondary schools.
  • A college degree has replaced a high school degree as an entry into the middle-class/white collar world. A generation or two ago, you could take a high school degree and get a job as a bank clerk, insurance sales apprentice, office manager, etc., etc.  Now that entry point is a college degree.  Does that mean these sort of general and entry-level white collar office jobs require that level of education?  No, but that’s the way that it is, and this is one of the problems I have with the whole “college isn’t worth it” crowd.  It is all fine and good to say that a college degree shouldn’t be necessary for these kinds of jobs, but in the real world where real people are actually trying to apply for jobs, it is.  Which leads me to my next point:
  • Seeking work in a “trade” or in “manufacturing” isn’t much of an option nowadays. We don’t really make things in this country anymore– or rather, we don’t make enough things to provide decent paying manufacturing or trade jobs, certainly not enough money to motivate people to think about that kind of work as a first rather than a third or fourth option.  Should it be this way?  Of course not, but it is what it is.  And let’s be clear that manufacturing work isn’t necessarily “livin’ the dream.” I’ve had several students over the years in classes who worked in factories of one sort or another (mostly involving automobiles), and the consensus from all of those students was that the work sucked, which is why they were going to college in the first place.  And speaking of this, there’s another issue that Brooks and others who point to places like Europe and their strong support of technical and trade training:
  • In the U.S., we believe in a “everyone should have the chance to be whatever they want to be no matter what” system of higher education. Instead of a system where students are more or less “tracked” into future career possibilities in their early teens through testing and the like (thus pointing some students toward some kind of trade school and others toward college prep), we have a secondary school system that more or less pushes everyone towards college, and also a system of institutions that can extend that opportunity to just about anyone who is able to graduate from high school.  Have lots of money and/or fantastic grades and test scores?  We’ve got an elite university for you!  Somewhere between pretty good and kinda mediocre with some money to work with?  There’s a “public,” state-sanctioned university near you!  Barely graduated from high school, don’t have any money, and/or just not so sure about this “school thing?”  Community college and you’re set!  And if none of those things seem appealing, there just might be a proprietary school where you can spend lots and lots of  money on a potentially worthless degree.  Given the American myth ideal of “opportunity” for one and all, I can’t imagine this changing.  And while I like promoting opportunity as much as any other American, there are some problems with this I’ll get to later.
  • People with college degrees are better off than people without college degrees in all kinds of different ways. This gets lost in the whole “college is a waste of time and money” argument, but that just doesn’t match up with the on the ground and current economic realities.  This MSNBC Money article does a good job of summing this up:  for example, college grads make 60% more than high school grads, and the current unemployment rate for people with undergrad degrees is 5%.  And along these lines:
  • Every article I have seen arguing that college is somehow a waste of time and money has been written by someone who went to college. Which to me means that a lot of these writers are some combination of bitter, forgetful, snarky, and/or ironic.

Anyway, given all that, the answer to the question to me is pretty obvious:  yes, you should try to get a college degree.  There are, of course, many caveats to this.

  • Debt nowadays is probably unavoidable to all but the most privileged, but it can certainly be minimized. I am a firm believer in trying to get into the best school you can get into, there is a cost-benefit analysis that’s a part of this formula too.  The “sticker price” (which isn’t necessarily what someone pays, but that’s a slightly different story) at place like the University of Michigan is somewhere around $15,000-20,000 a year for an in-state student, which is notably more than one of the regional universities in Michigan (including EMU).  Still, given U of M’s reputation, that price is probably worth it.  But Ivy League and other fancy-pants schools can be $50,000 a year, which is just a little less than you’d likely pay at a place like EMU for the entire degree.  I mean, I suppose that the University of Chicago is a much better school than EMU, but four times better?  Really?  I just don’t see the sense in that.  In any event, I would suggest going to the best school you can get into and that you can reasonably afford, but borrow as little as possible, even if that means attending part-time to pay the bills.  That might mean completing a degree in more than the ideal time of four years, but better to be in college for a six or so years than to be in serious debt for 20 or 30 years. I borrowed not a lot of money for my PhD program 16 or 17 years ago, I’m still paying off some of it, and it’s a pain in the ass.
  • Majors sort of (and sort of don’t) matter. Far be it from me to talk anyone out of majoring in English or any other liberal art that will actually help you become a better writer and thinker, but be aware that employers are kind of schizophrenic about all that.  On the one hand, corporate executives are always saying that they value good writing, good thinking, and good communicating– you know, liberal art skills.  On the other hand, they tend to hire business majors.  In any event, everyone has to find in their own lives some sort of balance between finding something they like and finding something that will pay some bills.  Majoring in business just to get a job and majoring in Ancient Greek just for the love of it are probably both bad ideas.  I don’t want to be too mystical and vague about all this, but you have to major in something that is in that “sweet spot” between something that is potentially useful and something you find interesting to study– which, by the way, is why I like the major I teach in.  Also, in my experience as a college professor advising students in one fashion or another for a long time, majoring in something that you don’t like just to get a job never works out.
  • Closely related:  a college major ≠ a “job.” There are some obvious exceptions to this:  if you major in accounting, you’ll probably be an accountant; if you major in nursing, a nurse; etc.– assuming the jobs are there to be had.  There are also some qualifiers to this:  while many students who graduate from EMU as a certified elementary or secondary school teacher, that doesn’t mean they will become a teacher; but on the other hand, if you want to get a job as a teacher in a public school, you need to be certified.  But generally speaking, the relationship between a major and a job is often indirect at best.  I know history, philosophy, and English majors who are now working in IT years after they graduated, and while the fairly generic degrees of “business” and “communication” might seem more applicable for a real job, I’m not sure that is actually the case.  Oh, it is also important to point out something else I think is probably obvious but that I think is being missed in these articles about college being a waste of time:
  • Just because you graduated from college doesn’t mean you’re going to get a job; you gotta be proactive, people. Times are indeed tough for new college graduates now, but guess what?  They were bad when I graduated from college 23 years ago, too.  I don’t say that to say “suck it up, kids!” but to point out that no one is going to hand you a job when they had you a diploma, and they never were going to do that.  I have this conversation with students in our Written Communication program all the time:  our curriculum can give you all kinds of ideas and experiences, but you have to work outside of the class to build a resume that will get you a job after college.  For people who want to be some kind of “professional writer,” that means working for the student newspaper, trying to get things published on web sites or in local weeklies, working on writing materials for a club or a group or something, internships, etc. Coursework is not and never has been enough.
  • Finally, realize that a college degree is not for everyone, and if things aren’t going well, you should find and follow “plan B.” The great thing about the American system of higher education is that everyone has a chance, but that certainly does not mean everyone will succeed.  There are lots of reasons why over half of students who start college don’t finish in six years or so, but I think it boils down to aptitude, interests, and maturity.  By aptitude, I mean simply that some people aren’t smart enough (whatever that means) to complete a college curriculum.  By interests, I mean that there are plenty of people who are clearly smart enough to do the work, but they’re just not interested in it, and after a semester or two of college, they realize they really would rather be a mechanic or a a butcher or an X-ray technician or a baker or whatever,  And by maturity, I mean that a lot of 18 or so year-olds are not ready for what it takes to be in college yet.  I see this group at EMU all the time, students who started college six or seven years ago and had a year of Cs, Ds, Es, and Is, were gone (and presumably working someplace) for four or five years, and then are back at EMU with all As and Bs.

More advice than you will likely ever need, but still….

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