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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.

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the curriculum trap

I believe we are, as a society, in the process of reconceptualizing  and redefining what it means to be educated, what it means to get a college degree, and what a college degree means when you have it. Part of that shift is rethinking our curriculum, particularly in traditional academic disciplines such as math and English.

This Sean McFarland video does a nice job of putting this all in context, especially for those of us living, teaching, and learning in California.

The discussion raises all kinds of questions and ideas and I will be posting more on it and related topics in the near future.

rethinking education

Sir Ken Robinson continues to make a name for himself as a critic and commentator on our educational systems. This RSA Animate video narrated by Robinson has been view by almost 2 million people on YouTube alone. His main message: the way we’re educating our children isn’t working (and probably never worked for most people) and that we need to seriously rethink it.

Robinson’s critique is, in my view, accurate and it leads me to think we need to provide community based, multi-generational education for our children. As I see it, this requires a change in our lifestyles so that we don’t “go off to work” everyday, but rather work near our homes at tasks that can include our children (and our neighbor’s children), mentoring them to do the same work we are doing. This seems too big a change for the near future. I don’t have the vision for what creative, divergent education that would engage all our children looks like. There’s certainly a middle ground between what we have now and a complete cultural and economic shift — I can’t see it, but I’m trying to see it.

the wealth our students bring

I find TED talks slightly annoying, bastions of self-satisfied, white (how many people of color do you notice in the audience?), upper-middle class intellectualism (I’m using the term intellectualism as a form of oppression practiced on those deemed uneducated, unthinking, and uninterested in “Ideas”).

Still, there are some good talks in the series. If you haven’t seen the one entitled “Do schools kill creativity?“, by Sir Ken Robinson, then you should, especially if you’re a teacher. One of my favorite bits in the talk is his story about a now-famous dancer, who as a fidgety, irresponsible girl was taken to the doctor to see what was wrong. The doctor reputedly said to the mother, “Your daughter’s not sick; she’s a dancer.” That doctor recognized the talent and ability in that child and helped bring it out, if only by referring her to the right place. The more we, as teachers, can do that, instead of forcing all our students into the same boxes, the more we will be happy as teachers, the more our students will succeed, and the more our society will benefit from the wealth of contributions we all have to bring.

But there’s another piece to this issue. The answer is not just to say that all poor students are studying the wrong thing. I’ve seen too many math students, who appear destined to fail, turn their difficulties into success to think that all struggling students should be referred to another field of study. Rather, I see it as my job to help my students use the skills and abilities and experiences they bring to the classroom to become successful math students. When we do that, we are achieving the highest goals of democratic education by fostering  people that bring their whole selves to the collective issues we face. Considering the complexity of the problems in the global society, we need all the help we can get.

this too shall pass

I can’t say it better than my friend, Godfried:

“One song, two videos; both clever, entertaining, entirely different, and shot in one continuous take with no digital jiggery.  Well worth 8 minutes out of your life.” Pure fun.

Video 1

Video 2

small links round up

South Africa Isn’t Post-Racial Either
In a thoughtful essay, Robert Jensen writes about his visit to South Africa, the racism he saw there, and what he learned about confronting it.

The White Supremacist in Us
Rinku Sen, Executive Director of Applied Research Center and Publisher of ColorLines, writes about the connection between recent killings and our white supremacist culture.

Inspired Bicycles – Danny MacAskill 2009
In this video, Danny MacAskill does almost unbelievable things with his bike. There’s some question why he’s still alive.

torturing democracy

Torture is wrong. Our nation and our president should say that and act like we believe it.

Sherry Jones and Carey Murphy have created a documentary called Torturing Democracy reporting on the use of torture by the US government since 9/11. truthout.org has a good entry on the film and on what we should do to move on from the strange and very seriously messed up place the US is now in with regard to torture.

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