Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The College Trap

College has been touted as a shortcut to success - by the media. 
 Are we being fed a pack of lies?

Many young folks today are graduating from college and wondering what the hell happened.   Saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in Student Loan debt, they find themselves unable to get a job, at least not in their field of study - if at all.

In a recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about job prospects in Georgia, a young woman laments that her "dual degree" in "Journalism and Communications" isn't landing her a job, and that she may have to move somewhere else to get a job.

There is so much in that one short sentence that you could spend weeks parsing it all out.

To start with, let's address the whole "college is the key to life" bullshit mentality that has been sold to generations of Americans.   It is wrong on so many levels.   It is akin to the idea that "The American Dream" is one of home ownership not the idea of becoming successful based on your own merits.

The dream of a "college education" has been similarly bastardized by the media and politicians.   And usually, we are sold the same old line of bullshit:  Getting a college education means you will make more money in life, and surveys and statistics back this up.  There are a number of problems with this argument.  Well, actually a whole slew of them, but here are the main points:

1. When few people went to college, going to college was special:  College back in the 1950's marked you as above the norm, hence college graduates historically have been the cream of the crop of society.

2.  When everyone goes to college, college really loses its meaning and exclusivity.   We all can't be Bank Presidents or CEOs.   Most of us have to be Indians, not Chiefs.  The idea that we can all be trained in college to run things is idiotic on its face.   Huey Long tried to sell this idea - that "every man could be a king!"  He was a crook.

3.  Not all college degrees are equivalent.   Most are bullshit.   Degrees in Philosophy, Religion, Physics (undergraduate), Psychology (undergraduate), Pre-Law, Pre-Med, Business, Communications, Journalism, Sociology, Anthropology - and a whole host of others - are really worthless in the real world, in terms of training you for a job or providing real job experience.   The reason is twofold:  Some of these degrees are mere stepping-stones to a Master's program (the new College, since the old BA degrees are now worthless), others just are academic studies that have no corollary in the real world in terms of employment.

4.  Not all educations are equivalentIn the UK, they have a grading system for college graduates.  Almost everyone gradates, of course, but only a few take a "first" in their course of study.  Most take a "second".  If you just showed up and didn't make too much trouble, you got a "third" or "ordinary" degree.   A friend of mine had one of these in Physics, and I didn't understand at the time why he didn't go into some technical career.   I learned later that the only Physics he actually learned was how to stack pint glasses into a pyramid at the local pub.   Degrees with low grade averages can be useless (although my GPA was a pathetic 2.5, due to the fact I flunked out of college).
5.  While it may be statistically true that college graduates make more money, you are not a statistic:   Statistics are backward-looking, so the data we see today is based on people who graduated from college in 1970.   Yea, back then, going to college was a big deal - and you were someone special who would make more money.   Today?  Everyone goes - or can go - and college grads are just not in demand.   Bear in mind that also college graduates are generally smarter than average, so it is no surprise that they would end up making more money - we should expect this.   This does not mean, however, that their success was due to college.  That would be confusing correlation with causation and no college grad worth their salt would ever do that, right?

Now, granted, if you graduate from Harvard with a 4.0 in advanced Bullshit, chances are you may find a job.   Why?  Because you really are the cream of the crop and the top of the heap.   On the other hand, a 3.0 in the same degree field from a State School may lead you to the unemployment line.

Historically, there were always companies that hired people like that.  Law firms in New York City trolled the top-name law schools for the top talent - those who graduated at the top of their class and were on law review.   In other words, the really smart people.

Well, what about the rest of us?   What, indeed?

Most, if not all, college graduates, end up in careers and fields far different from their fields of study.   And the main reason for this is that most college degrees don't really train you for a career at all.

Take our "Dual Degree Journalism and Communications" major.  Odds are, she will never find a job in the Journalism field or in Communications (whatever that is!).  Why is this?   Well, colleges graduate more people in this field every year than their are career positions, period.   Actually, one school, the Newhouse School of Communications at S.U., cranks out more "Communications" majors every year than there are total jobs in the field.   In other words, if every television newscaster, newspaper journalist, writer, producer, and director in the "News" business suddenly dropped dead one year, this one college could replace them all, with one graduating class - and still leave a number left over to work slacker jobs.

Of course, no one at the college bothered to tell anyone that when they signed up for tuition at $40,000 a year or more, right?

So, how did this all happen?

Well, as I noted before, the middle class has been struggling to hold on to what little it has.  And parents of middle-class kids are paranoid about their children "not going to college" and thus will pay for a college education - any kind of college education - on the thin promise that it will lead to their child getting a career and not living in their basement until they are 30.

And I see this all the time.  A friend tells me that little Junior has been accepted to State School, where he wants to study "Anthropology" as the coursework seemed easier than all that hard Math and Science stuff - and thus would interfere less with his partying.  Junior has had a charmed life, of course, being given whatever electronic toy he wanted his whole life, and a brand-new car once he achieved that impossible milestone of graduating from High School.  So after college, he is like deer-in-the-headlights when no one wants to hire him to be Indiana Jones and jet off to Borneo to study primitive tribal cultures.

Late adolescence is a very difficult time for people.   Making the transition from School to Life is hard - and hard to conceive for most people.   School is all about staying inside the lines and checking off the boxes - following pre-set rules and getting minimal rewards.  There is no cost-benefit analysis of your work value.

The job world is a different place.  A company - even a government - has to see bang-for-the-buck.  People cannot be just hired willy-nilly on the basis that they are really smart college kids and deserve a job.   They have to generate more income for the company than their salary (and benefits and overhead) cost.

Sadly, most of the kids today fail to get this.   And lacking any real-world experience, they are not readily employable.   So the conundrum sets in - how do you get experience when no one hires you?   If no one hires you, you cannot get experience to get hired.   And so forth.   It is a vicious circle.

And many in this group today decry their fate - as if it never happened to anyone else.   But that is, of course, not true.   Legions of college graduates have sallied forth from our Nation's leading educational institutions in years gone by, only to find they were suited only for restaurant work.  It ain't just you.

I dropped out of school in 1980, when unemployment was over 10%, inflation was over 10%, home mortgages were 14% and they were only selling gasoline on alternate days.   Sorry if I don't think your situation is unique or worse than I had it.

So what did I do?   Based on what education I had (in industrial engineering) I landed a $4-an-hour minimum-wage job assembling hydraulic hose fittings for a local Aeroquip distributor.   With my princely salary of $8,000 a year, I was able to rent an apartment and feed myself - and still manage to squander most of my dough on beer and pot.   But I kept looking, and eventually landed a nice job with Carrier, for the staggering sum of $8 an hour - plus generous benefits that at the time I really didn't appreciate.   And one of those was tuition reimbursement to go back to college.

In-between, I worked as a teamster for United Parcel, a pizza delivery man for Domino's, and even as an assistant sex educator for Planned Parenthood (talk about the blind leading the blind!).  The common denominator was that I wasn't afraid to work - to take crap jobs, even if they were just to pay the bills.  And also I was able to leverage my skill set to get better paying jobs.   Being able to program an Apple II computer might not seem like much, but back in 1982, people thought it was genius.

Sadly, many college grads today are "struggling" as they believe that (a) if they don't take a job in their career field, they have somehow failed, and (b) if they take a job outside their career field, it will hurt their job prospects later on.  But the reality is, as a recent college grad, without experience, your chances of getting a job in your field of study (if indeed, such jobs even exist) are very, very slim.   Waiting around for your dream job to materialize is just not a viable option.

A better approach is to take stock of your inventory of skills - as well as your life.   If you are still boozing it up and smoking pot like a college student, chances are, that is a good first place to start.   It was for me, at age 25 when I realized my life was going nowhere fast - and that my po-thead friends were all driving their cars off a cliff.

A second place to start is to catalog your existing skills and interests.  While I did not have an Engineering degree, my background in Plant Engineering and Hydraulics landed me a job with the Aeroquip distributor, which was a springboard to other jobs later on.   I learned to write (and to type) and those skills helped me later get a job with the Patent Office, and later get into Law School.   It was not that I was without talent, but that I had not applied my talents properly.

And for some folks, this may take them in a very tangential directions.   I recounted before about the foreign car repair shop in Arlington, Virginia.  The founders were all philosophy majors at a local University, who, being poor college kids, bought used Alfa Romeos and Fiats when they were in college (rusty Italian cars could be had cheaply back in the 1970's).  Out of necessity, they learned how to repair these notoriously difficult cars.   By the time they graduated, they discovered there was little demand for philosophy majors, but that local sports car enthusiasts were demanding their services.   They set up shop and discuss philosophy while adjusting valves on old Alfas.

Another friend of mine couldn't find work after college and got a job working for a local carpenter, who was a cabinet-maker.  He got paid bubkis, and mostly hauled heavy wood around and helped sweep the floor.  Today, he is a master furniture maker and an artist in his own right.   Was it the career he set out to do?  No.  But few of us have a story arc like that in life.

Everybody eventually finds something.  No one remains permanently unemployed for 30 years.

(Of course, this does not mean you are guaranteed a corner office and a huge salary.  No one is - college degree or not.   And yea, the admissions department at Party U. failed to mention that to you.   But smart college kids should be able to figure that out ahead of time.)

For some, this may mean going back for a graduate degree.  For others, it may mean taking a job - any job - that leads to another field.   It also may mean moving to an area of the country where there are jobs.  But it involves doing something rather than nothing.  You can't wait for the world to come to you - you have to go seek it out.

Of course, there is one difference between today's youth and those of years gone by.  Today, many kids today graduate with a lot of student debt.   And this is a shame - but it gets right back to the issues raised above - where kids, at age 18, are herded into college without any real idea as to how it is supposed to prepare them for life, and whether in fact it is worthwhile.

For some, this burden of debt is overstated.  Some OWS protesters are complaining about $25,000 in student loan debt - a pitiful amount of money that barely buys a nice car these days.  For them, the real beef is that student loan payments are cutting into their lifestyle.   Others, with $100,000 of debt or more, are often studying in fields that at least nominally, should lead them to employment down the road (being a Doctor, for example).  Of course, there is a third group - who took on tons of debt with no prospect of a job at the end of the pipeline.  I am not sure what to say to that group, but if you are considering entering college, think carefully of the costs and benefits involved.

After all, your future employer is going to evaluate you on a cost/benefit analysis.  Why shouldn't you do the same with college?