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are college degrees worth less than they used to be?

About a year ago, a friend of mine told me he wondered why he had bothered to get an education. He felt that the job prospects and earning potential he had did not balance against the time and money he had invested in getting his Ph.D. He speculated more broadly that college degrees were becoming less and less valuable in our country and asked why we should continue to place such a high priority on college as a nation.

My friend’s thinking, plus the fact that I teach at a California community college, got me paying attention to some of the conversation that our society having about college degrees. In particular, over the last year I’ve been noticing more and more people questioning the value of a college degree. The script for these articles, videos, rants, complaints goes something like: 1) college costs a lot of money and finishing requires taking on significant debt, including some statistics on the amount of debt taken on by college students; and, 2) a college degree doesn’t guarantee a good job like it did in the “good old days,” followed by an anecdote about a college graduate’s job search and maybe some questionable statistics.

A recent (6/13/11) Time magazine article (“Now What? Mortarboards and diplomas don’t get you as far as they used to. These new graduates are in for a bumpy ride.”) is a good example. Along with anecdotal evidence, the author cites a Rutgers University study finding that 30% of college graduates from 2006 to 2010 didn’t find employment within six months of finishing school (there’s no comparison with unemployment for folks without a college degree during the same time). Further, a Twentysomething Inc. poll found that 85% of “graduates are taking shelter under Mom and Dad’s roof.” (The timeline for this statistic is not clear—is it within one year of graduation? Or two years? Certainly, it doesn’t mean that 85% of all college grads are still living at home for the rest of our lives.) These two stats exhaust the quantitative data supporting the article’s title and it concludes that, although science and engineering majors are more likely to find jobs than their colleagues in liberal arts (U.S. Labor Department data), the nationally high unemployment numbers are promoting choosy employers.

Belying the faux-profound conclusion, the tone of the article is decidedly alarmist, ignoring that fact that people with a college degree continue to enjoy higher employment percentages than people without degrees; more education still promotes greater employment, in general, and graduates know it—the same Rutgers study found that 62% of those with a Bachelor’s degree believe that more education is needed to be “successful.” In addition, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more education tends to increase your income.

More thoughtful approaches to what a college degree means today include Sherry Linkon, at the Center for Working-Class Studies, who discusses the value of getting an education for people headed toward professions such as accounting, education, communications, and social work, for whom getting a college degree is a crucial step on the way to being certified to do the work. At the same time, Linkon points out that colleges force these essentially vocational students into general education classes that don’t seem to have anything to do with their chosen field of work. Importantly, she also discusses the knowledge that working class folks bring to these (and all) professions, much of which is not taught in school.

Then there is a New Yorker article by a college professor who tries to answer his students’ question: “Why do we have to read this book?” He believes that college should exist to educate citizens for democracy, but he’s not sure that’s how our society still uses higher education.

One could legitimately ask if we ever did use it that way. Indeed, self-improvement blogger Brian Kim writes:

Back in the day, everything that was said about getting a degree was true. If you had a degree, you separated yourself from the pack. Not many people were able to get degrees because not many people were able to afford college. It was normally reserved for the rich or upper middle class. And that’s precisely why the degree was so valued . . . because it was scarce. Scarcity creates value.

Like Kim, I think our society has always used college to reinforce the status quo elite, but I also think that in at least the last 50 or so years we’ve also used it for more democratic purposes. The facts are that in the last 50 years, our country has made a college education more available to women and people of color and they have taken advantage of it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women outnumber men in college and in degrees earned. In addition, the number of people of color earning degrees is increasing for every group.

The blog posts and articles go on and on, including a paranoia-inducing video put out by the mysteriously obscure, apparent scam organization “National Inflation Association” telling us that our education system sucks and that we should buy gold and silver to survive the coming economic apocalypse.

At the same time, College Board blissfully continues to tell us that “one of the best things about getting a college education is that you have more careers to choose from” and produces lists of the “Hottest Careers for College Graduates — Experts Predict Where the Jobs Will Be in 2018”

Trying to make sense of this cacophony, I’ve begun to think that its purpose is two-fold: to complain about the loss of privilege for those who used to be “entitled” to good-paying jobs; and, to promote the impression that by continuing to democratize college degrees for more and more segments of our society we further devalue a college degree. It’s not a big leap to think college degrees are being devalued by white men precisely because more women and people of color have them.

But beyond the more or less explicit racist, classist, and sexist agenda, these arguments ignore the issue of what happens to degree earners when they enter the job market. It would be great if jobs were equally distributed across all demographics of the degree earners — that would imply that hiring practices had improved greatly and that race, class, gender, and other forms of oppression in our society have diminished — but I don’t believe that is the case. Instead, as we all know, in most jobs white men continue to be more likely to get hired and be promoted than other people.

That means that the crying over the uncertain job market for college grads is almost entirely a tactic to protect white male privilege and entitlement; that is, it’s the same old discrimination in play. And, the people questioning the value of their degrees — whether knowingly racist, classist, and sexist or not — at least all ignore the reality of the privilege that most of them have. As a white man from an middle-class background, my friend’s analysis of his degree may be accurate for him. But for everyone else, the statistics say that a college degree remains a viable path to a better job and economic improvement.

marketplace talks about college degrees, too

Tonight on Marketplace from American Public Media, they ran a story about a couple and their struggles to make it in the current depression/recession. Part of the dialog between the show’s host, Kai Ryssdal, and one of the guests, Caitlin Shetterley, illustrates people’s expectations about a college degree and the way that is changing:

Ryssdal: So there you are, first week of January 2009, you have a brand new baby, but your husband’s jobs have all been canceled; he’s getting no contracting, no freelancing. The whole country is literally thinking that this is it, because we’ve had the crash in the fall of the previous year. What was going through your mind?

Shetterley: What was going through my mind? I mean, I was angry. I think many of us, many people in my generation anyway — I can’t speak for say, my grandparents’ generation who went through the Depression — but we’ve grown up believing that if we work hard and strive for our dreams, they will come true. And I believed that.

Ryssdal: Past tense, you’re speaking in the past tense. “I believed that.”

Shetterly: Yeah, I did believe that. Now I don’t believe it anymore. I don’t know that just hard work makes it. I don’t know, I think a lot of luck makes it.

Shetterley is critiquing the myth of the United States as a meritocracy. Of course, her comments come in the context of an economic crisis, but I maintain that even in good times, luck, connections, skin privilege, and privilege of all kinds have almost always trumped merit in our society.

“A college degree ain’t what it used to be.”

This blog post gives a sense of what people are feeling like on the ground. I’ve heard similar sentiments from several people, mostly white middle class folks. What it looks like to me is that as those people are increasingly competing in the work place with people with whom they didn’t used to have to compete. Makes them mad, because they feel entitled to a job — after all, they’ve been told all their lives that a college degree is the key to a good job.  The result is a more or less deliberate devaluation of the college degree. That is, as some of us work to democratize a college education, others work to maintain the privilege they’ve enjoyed in the past.

new and unexpected college degress

This article is an example of the some of the ways that college degrees have been and continue to evolve. In the past, academia offered degrees in only traditional disciplines. More an more we have professional degrees designed for very specific fields and purposes, often by region (for example, you don’t usually have viticulture degrees outside of a wine-producing region). These trends point to an increased focus on the college degree as a job-producing tool for people from all socio-economic backgrounds. Historically, a college degree was much more a social class marker and a luxury of the leisure classes or the clergy.

separate and unequal

An article from the San Francisco Guardian confirming my assertions about who is going to public school and who is not.

more on paying to create an unequal society

A little more research reveals that the 20,000 school age children not in San Francisco public schools are not all white. However, what I’m now hearing at least anecdotally (but apparently backed up by data I have yet to see) is that the children of middle and upper class parents are going mostly to private schools. And since income breaks down by race, with Whites and Asians topping the statistics in San Francisco, middle and upper class parents are paying to create a racially unequal society.

Furthermore and contrary to what I initially thought, people (mostly parents) are talking about this problem. (I’ve been insulated from this situation because I don’t have kids.) The problem is that voting patterns and political influence are also correlated to class status, with working class and poor parents being least likely to be politically engaged. And so the parents who are most likely to impact the public school systems are paying to remove their children from that system.

At least that’s part of the educational and racial justice story in San Francisco. Is it like this elsewhere? Is the same dynamic playing out in cities across the country?

a different mirror

At this point in the development of our culture and its history, most college-educated folks, as well as many others, know that the white-washed, reductionist history we were taught in grade school is narrow and crafted to serve the ruling classes; white men dominate that history, despite the fact that people of color, the poor, women, and others had major impacts both on the stories we were told about our nation’s origins and, especially, on the stories we were not (usually) told. At the same time, our knowledge is frequently theoretical; that is, our concrete knowledge of the contributions made by non-white males is often limited.

Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (1993) is here to change that. Organized both chronologically and by ethnic group, the book is separated into chapters that tell a single group’s history and its effect in the U.S., including a wealth of quotes and information from original and secondary sources. Connected enough by unifying metaphors to read the work through from cover to cover, each chapter can also stand alone if your interest is more focused and less general.

Among many significant insights, Takaki’s analysis of the civil rights movement as emerging from the upheaval and opportunities during World War II surprised me, because I hadn’t heard it before, and rang true. Such analysis is helpful as we continue to see the results of these developments in our culture. The current backlash in our “post-feminist” and “post-racial” society, with its roots in the 1980s, is another attempt by those with privilege and power in our country to keep the rest of us from uniting for the good of the many, rather than the benefit of a few. Such moves started early in our history (e.g., when “race” was created to divide white indentured servants from black) and, as I’ve said, continue to this day.

Takaki’s book is a classic and deserves to be. When I saw him speak in 2007, his enthusiasm, erudition, and genius were obvious. His tragic death last year was a loss to us all.

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