Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Great Expectations (And Circular Logic)

Is going to college worthwhile if it leaves you broke and unemployed?

I had a dream last night, after talking to a couple of friends about their college experiences.   I was talking to a young fellow who had recently graduated from college and was pissed off that he could not find a job and had to pay back a lot of student loan debt.   The discussion went something like this:

SJW:  "It's not fair, man!  I went to college and now I can't find a job!  And I have $25,000 in student loan debt!"

ME:  "Well, maybe you shouldn't have gone to college, then."

SJW:  "But man, you have to go to college in order to get a good job!"

ME:  "Well, doesn't your experience negate that?  You went to college and have no job!"

SJW:  "But everyone knows that if you go to college you'll get a good job and make more money!"

ME:  "Well, maybe if you study something of merit.   And if that is indeed true, then it is worthwhile spending money on a degree, isn't it?"

SJW:  "But now I can't pay my student loans!"

ME:  "Well, maybe you shouldn't have gone to college, then."

And so forth and so on.   It kept going around in circles, because the young man could not get his head around the idea that college is not a guarantee of a good job anymore if indeed, it ever was.   As a result, the cost/benefit analysis of going to college has changed.   No longer can many young people waste four years of their lives majoring in "sensitivity studies" as the cost of doing so is crippling.

The problem is, of course, young people are often pressured into going to college by their parents, who are using an obsolete paradigm based on their college experience of decades gone by.   For them, going to college was indeed a "step up" in life as it was reserved for a special few who had the grades to get in and who could afford to go.   Even majoring in Liberal Arts, they ended up with good jobs after graduation - or at least a lot of them did.

Today, that has changed.   Or maybe not changed so much.

I was talking with two men in their late 50's and 60's about their abortive college careers.  In both cases, their parents "forced" them to go to college to study something they didn't want to study, and in both cases, they dropped out and ended up doing what they wanted to do all along.   Their experiences are illuminating.

David came from an upper-class WASP family that had moved to rural New Hampshire.   David went to the local high school and was more interested in vocational training.  He liked to tinker with things, fix old cars, and repair old houses with his Dad, who bought them at foreclosure and re-sold them.  

David went to see his guidance counselor at school and told him he wanted to get into the vocational tech program.   "I know your parents," the guidance counselor said, "they would never approve of this!  You are going to college and should take the college-prep curriculum!"

His parents subscribed to an antiquated notion - one that existed in the USA from about 1920 until 1970 - that going to college not only was a good career move, but made you a better person and is "what one did" when one was from a certain social class.   Junior not going to college was not an embarrassment to Junior, but to the parents, who would brag that Buffy was accepted at Swathmore or Junior got into Middlebury.  The needs of the child were secondary to the social needs of the parent.

So he spent his high school years studying literature and history with a little chemistry, physics, and math thrown in.   He struggled.   But he graduated and was accepted at a State forestry school.   He was to be a forest ranger, or so his parents supposed, never bothering to figure out what such a career entailed, or that for the number of young kids majoring in this field, barely 1 in 10 would find a job - as they were scarce.

The reality is, of course, David has no real interest in forestry.   It sounded like something close to what he really wanted to do, of the choices offered to him.  He went to school, drank and smoked pot, and was back home before the second semester was done.  His parents were furious and his Mom (who pushed the college bit, because in 1948 that is what she did) wouldn't talk to him for years.

He settled down, got a job, and started fixing up old houses and flipping them, and got his real estate agent license and also was a licensed appraiser and home inspector.   It turns out, he did very well without college, and in fact, his short stay at college was just a waste of time.

He was fortunate, in retrospect that he dropped out and lived his own life.   If he had stayed - feeling obligated to do what his parents wanted him to do in life - he would have been miserable, unemployed, and in debt, and probably working service-sector jobs and suffering from low-self-esteem.

Ivan wanted to be a pilot since he was a kid.   That is all he ever talked about and when he was in high school, he bugged his parents to send him to an aviation school.   They were horrified.  Their son was from a "good family" and would study the arts!  That is what the children of rich people did, back in 1952.  But it was no longer 1952, but 1982.   His parents felt that learning how to fly a plane was like a trade or something.

Ivan also played the trumpet in the school band and was pretty good at it, so his parents sent him to one of the most prestigious (and expensive) music schools in the country.   Ivan wanted to be a pilot, but being only 18 years old, went along with what his parents said to do, as they were older and knew best and besides, they controlled the purse strings.

Once at school he realized two things.   First, there were people there who were far better musicians than he was.   Competition in the music business is fierce - a dozen or more qualified people will apply for a position with an orchestra.   Most people with music degrees are lucky if they can play in a band for tip money at the local bar.   There simply are not a lot of jobs in this field, unless you are really, really good, and Ivan realized he was merely "good".

The second thing he realized was, he really wanted to be a pilot.

So, like David, he drank too much, smoked too much pot, didn't study or practice, and dropped out after a couple of semesters.   His parents were furious and called him a failure and foolishly he believed them.   He bummed around the college town taking odd jobs and whatnot until one day he took a tourist plane ride at a tourist town and realized he really wanted to be a pilot.

The rest is history.  He paid his own way through aviation school, did his time and now flies a cargo jet.  He loves the work and the best part is.... no passengers to deal with.  

I could go on and on with dozens of examples of people I know who went to college and dropped out or even graduated - and then bummed around for years trying to figure out what to do with their lives, only to latch onto something that had nothing to do with their college experience.   I am one of those dozens of people.

The difference is, of course, in days gone by, college was less expensive, so the cost could be paid for by your parents or modest student loans.   It still can be today, if you shop around carefully (going to a State school instead of a private one, for example).

David, for example, relates to me that his friend's son wanted to go to a tony private college and ran up $100,000 in debt, obtaining a useless Bachelor of Arts degree.   Now unemployed, he wants to double-down his bet by borrowing another hundred grand for law school - not realizing that the market for lawyers has dramatically changed in the last decade.  But at least this young man is doing something he wants to do (although arguably spending way too much money doing it).  Others are dragooned into college by well-meaning but ill-informed parents.

It is very difficult for parents and children alike.   Parents live in fear of the child who says, "I don't want to go to college" - thinking that the child's future is limited to working at a 7-11 or Wal-Mart.    But the reality is, if you learn a skill or trade you can make more money that probably half of all college graduates.   If you don't want to go to college, go to electrician's school, plumber's school, welding school, or even bartending school, for chrissake.

And it hardly means you will be a Philistine.  A local welder here makes wonderful art that is exhibited in several galleries in Georgia and Florida.  He also owns a business repairing boat propellers, which pays the bills when the art does not.  It is highly doubtful he will ever starve - or work at Wal-Mart.

Things have changed over the last few decades, and parents fail to grasp how much they have changed.  Colleges have become more and more irrelevant with their "safe spaces" and "queer studies" programs.   Very few kids are graduating with a degree that is anything other than academic in nature.   Colleges have dumbed down while the cost has gone up.   College is no longer a value proposition for the most part.

At the same time, the labor market has reacted to the decreased value of the college degree.   As I noted in another posting, there are arguably some college degrees which are Toxic in nature - guaranteed to not only not get you a job but essentially blacklist you from many potential employers.   As an employer, I would be hesitant to hire someone who graduated from touchy-feely protest U. with a degree in social justice.   Not only would they be worthless as workers, they would cause trouble for your organization.

Sadly, parents and guidance counselors fail to grasp this change.  And changes like this occur in our society and in technology all the time.  When I was in high school I divided my time between the school's computer terminal, writing programs, and hanging out behind the maintenance barn, smoking pot.   I wanted to write programs for a living, but at the time, few people made a good living writing programs.

My elders told me that there was "no money in software" and that it was a "dead-end career".   They told me that Engineering was where it was at - preferably mechanical, because electrical was "too hard".   Colleges and Universities back then had no degrees in "Computer Science" or if they did, it was a Bachelor of Arts degree, not a Bachelor of Science.   They might teach Fortran or Cobol, and perhaps this newfangled language "C".  The Patent Office wouldn't recognize Computer Science as a "technology" well in to the 1990's.  A background in programming was deemed insufficient to be hired as a Patent Examiner!

Of course, by then, who would want to work at the Patent Office?   Computer programmers were becoming millionaires - and even billionaires.  Everything my parents, my guidance counselors, my professors, my colleges, and even employers told me was flat-out wrong.

And not even learning from this fiasco, the same sort of folks went on to pooh-pooh HTML as any kind of career choice, even as websites became wildly popular.   Having missed that boat as well, they now pooh-pooh the idea of writing "apps" for a living.

Taking career advice from anyone over 30 is problematic.   And the problem is, in a rapidly evolving economy, what is considered "solid career advice" is usually not only obsolete but horrifically wrong.

But it is not hard to understand the angst of the parents of today.   One parents confides in me that they want to "launch" their problem child so that he can leave the home and establish himself in society (a laudable goal of course) as he has every indication of being the sort of bounce-back stoner who would be quite content to live in their basement until they die or move.  College - any sort of college - seems like the answer.   And any sort of major - even a ridiculous one - seems like "better than nothing" for their kid.

Maybe, however, college isn't the answer.  He worked in his Dad's trucking company a few summers and seemed to like that a lot.  Why not get two-year business degree and learn a little accounting - and perhaps some diesel mechanics?   One day he may take over that business.   And he may be better prepared for it with some skills and trades than with a C-average in "art" and the low-self-esteem from dropping out.

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