The Imperiled Promise of College
Another NYT op ed:
FOR a long time and for a lot of us, "college" was more or less a synonym for success. We had only to go. We had only to graduate. And if we did, according to parents and high-school guidance counselors and everything we heard and everything we read, we could pretty much count on a career, just about depend on a decent income and more or less expect security. A diploma wasn't a piece of paper. It was an amulet.
And it was broadly accessible, or at least it was spoken of that way. With the right mix of intelligence, moxie and various kinds of aid, a motivated person could supposedly get there. College was seen as a glittering centerpiece of the American dream, a reliable engine of social mobility.
I'm not sure things were ever that simple, but they're definitely more complicated now. And that was an unacknowledged backdrop for the pitched debate last week about federal student loan rates and whether they would be kept at 3.4 percent or allowed to return to 6.8 percent. That was one reason, among many, that it stirred up so much anxiety and got so much attention.
Because of levitating costs, college these days is a luxury item. What's more, it's a luxury item with newly uncertain returns.
…It doesn't capture the grim reality for recent college graduates, whose leg up on their less educated counterparts isn't such a sturdy, comely leg at the moment. According to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren't necessary. Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer's cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.
I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.
The thing is, today's graduates aren't just entering an especially brutal economy. They're entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.
…That situation isn't helped by the cost of higher education, which has escalated wildly over the last three decades and has left too many students with crippling Everests of debt. In light of the daunting financial calculus of college today, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, recently introduced a bill that would prod the federal government to disseminate statistics about the graduation rates, incomes, debt levels and such for people who pursue different courses of study at different schools.
"The focus has always been on access," Wyden told me. "Just get to college. Find a way in the door." But today, he said, students facing "an incredibly tough job market" need to know "how their particular program will stack up and what kind of debt they're going to rack up." I'd go even further than he does and call for government and university incentives to steer students into the fields of studies that will serve them and society best. We use taxes to influence behavior. Why not student aid?
That you can't gain a competitive edge with just any diploma from just any college is reflected in the ferociousness of the race to get into elite universities. It's madness out there. Tiger mothers and $125-an-hour tutors proliferate, and parents scrimp and struggle to pay up to $40,000 a year in tuition to private secondary schools that then put them on the spot for supplemental donations, lest the soccer field turn brown and the Latin club languish. The two Americas are evident in education as perhaps nowhere else.
Trying to keep higher learning as affordable as possible is a crucial effort to collapse that divide. No good can come from letting college — as a goal, as an option — slip away. But as a guarantor of a certain quality of life, it already has. And we need to look at a whole lot more than loan rates to fix the problem.
April 28, 2012