Right Work and College Education

by Paula Apynys for Education, Working

Many of my friends have children graduating from high school this year. Both parents and children are looking at the future and wondering what the kids should do with respect to education and training. There is a kind of anxiety attached to these decisions that didn’t used to exist in the way it does now.

For many years we shared the idea that a college degree guaranteed a good and secure living. I think, as a society, we shared this idea far longer than we should have. It hasn’t been true for a number of years but such things always take a long time to be generally understood. Now, the combination of high college costs and low entry-level professional employment has become so stark as to be hard to overlook.

The reaction to this reality has been mixed. On many fronts the response is to blame individuals for picking the “wrong” degrees (primarily liberal arts), or to blame corporations for their collective failures to appreciate such degrees. Then, too, there’s the emphasis on STEM degrees (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)—the notion being that if more people would major in STEM subjects all would be well. Exactly how isn’t really clear, although there’s a sense that STEM jobs are better-paying and more secure and we don’t have enough appropriately educated graduates to fill those jobs. Others would argue that we have plenty of people with the appropriate skill sets and education, we (i.e. employers) just don’t want to have to pay them well—cheaper to bring in educated immigrants. I think there is also, underlying the emphasis on STEM degrees, a not-fully-acknowledged hope that scientific-techy types will invent some new technology that will revolutionize everything and solve all our problems. What we need, the thinking goes, is another “revolution” like the dot.com revolution in the nineties. I think there’s a number of problems attached to that hope but that’s a different topic. The question is: what to do in the meantime if you’re a young person trying to decide about a future direction?

That’s a big, big question and I wish I had a great answer, but I don’t. But I do have a few suggestions and observations.

First, people need to understand that Ivy League graduates will be presented with choices not made readily available to un-Ivy League graduates, and therefore, if you are not attending an Ivy League school, adjust your expectations. That doesn’t mean your future is hopeless or bad or has no potential for success. It means your path to success will be different. It’s very important to grasp that. So much of the mythology that surrounds the value and use of college educations in this country is based on the experiences of people attending prestigious schools. (And even those graduates are running into difficulties not previously experienced, and depending on the nature of their degrees.) If you are attending a school in Ohio you need to research what has happened to graduates from that school, in the degree program you are considering. It doesn’t matter what Harvard grads are doing.

Second, the problem isn’t with Liberal Arts degrees per se. The problem is that liberal arts degrees don’t necessarily or automatically translate into obvious avenues to paid work. People often defend Liberal Arts programs as teaching people “critical thinking” skills. I am all for critical thinking skills—I am also a BA in English so I’m not throwing stones from the sidelines—but the biggest failure of critical thinking these programs present is in clarifying how liberal arts graduates can use their knowledge to make a living. Because in our current economy no one else is providing that knowledge. General business degrees are not much better in that area, I might add. Lots of students graduate with a BS in business and end up in the same places as the forlorn History, Political Science or English major: working in a service job in retail, restaurant, fast food, telemarketing, etc. That is because these are the nature of the readily available entry-level jobs that don’t require specialized/credentialed education.

I’m not suggesting no one should get a liberal arts degree, but I am saying that anyone who does must recognize they will be responsible for figuring out how to use it. It’s a simple but profoundly unappetizing fact that people have avoided facing for a long time.

Ah, but what about graduate degrees? Herein lies potential traps. Anyone paying attention to education in this country should be aware of the sorry state of affairs pertaining to professorships at American universities. Simply stated, most new Ph.D.’s now work as adjunct faculty: they are poorly paid, over-worked, sans benefits, and saddled with student loans. There is also a mini-revolution taking place re: the fate of law school graduates. For years the stats have been essentially cooked, making law school appear like a “sure thing” when, in fact, most law school graduates end up working in other fields that don’t require a law degree. They also carry significant student loan burdens. This information is now being revealed as a result of several efforts by different groups. And, as is the case with all programs, the fate of a graduate of Harvard Law is likely to be very different than the fate of a graduate of Cleveland State University School of Law. 

The point is, once again, not that the knowledge gained doesn’t have merit—it’s the ease (or lack thereof) between obtaining the degree and launching a related career that is the problem. Because we don’t want to have to figure any of this out. We want to take our classes, pass them, graduate, write a resume, submit it to a few places, get a couple of interviews and land a great job. And if it doesn’t happen like that all sorts of frustration and disappointment results. 

Life is, and always has been, easier for people who have a clear career objective, especially if the objective has a specific education associated with it. Like being a Doctor, Nurse, Accountant, Physical Therapist, Teacher (although teaching as a career is being attacked as a political issue), Engineer (with some exceptions), etc. If you are one of those people who has the interest and aptitudes to pursue these sorts of careers you should have a relatively straightforward job search process at the other end of your education.

There are disciplines that fall somewhere between the fairly-sure-bets and the gonna-struggle poles: Information Technology, various Science Degrees, Sociology, etc. Many factors will impact ease or lack-thereof, of employment after graduation and you need to find out what those factors are.

Personally I’d like to see a lot more emphasis on environmental-related degrees of all kinds. My prediction (you saw it here first!) is that the story of this century will turn out to be the cleaning up and remediation of the environmental damage created during the last 150 years. But this is a newish area and how employment opportunities will shake out is not yet clear.

The bottom line is that the burden of taking your degree to market has shifted largely onto the shoulders of graduates. There is only so much understaffed Placement Departments can do, especially in a lack-lustre economy. And chances are the students they are most able to help will be the students least in need of help: those with excellent grades and impressive campus achievements. Everyone else will be moving home with their parents and looking at Monster.com and discovering how few entry-level jobs there are.

So my advice is to be very clear about all of this when you (or your child) starts considering where to go to school and what to study. You must not, I repeat, must not rely “on the school” to figure things out for you/your child. Recognize most schools will be big on misty promises on the front end and skimpy on follow-through at the finish. You need to do due-diligence. You need to sift through the marketing/recruiting barrage and get facts. 

I will be writing more on this topic!


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