Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Too Much College?

When colleges advertise on billboards, something isn't right.

College isn't for everyone, but to say that in America today is to be considered some heartless conservative bastard.  It was not so long ago that college was considered a privilege for the very few - a minority of the country, either those who were from wealthy families, or those who were smart enough to get academic scholarships (or athletic scholarships) or those determined enough to work their way through school.

Colleges and Universities didn't advertise to attract students.  They didn't have slick brochures touting how much "fun" it was to go to college. They didn't build enormous student centers with climbing walls, or luxury apartments for students.  They didn't advertise on billboards and television to attract more students.

They didn't have to, any more than an exclusive country club has to advertise for members.   Everybody wanted to get in, and it was a privilege to get accepted.

All that has changed over the last few decades.  In order to allow "everyone" the opportunity to go to college (because, as a matter of course, the number of jobs requiring a college education would expand to accommodate the supply of college grads - right?) we started this crazy student loan policy which allowed people to borrow horrendous sums of money to go to college - often without any realistic plan on paying it back.

And rather than increasing opportunities for minorities and other marginalized populations that often missed out on college, it instead often made college a toxic mistake for these very groups.   Odious "for profit" colleges sucked the bank accounts of minority students dry, left them with worthless and unmarketable degrees, and utterly wrecked their finances for the rest of their lives, as they signed "private" student loans that they could never escape.

College went from dream to nightmare overnight, for many folks.

But even "legitimate" colleges were affected by the free-flow of all this student loan money.   Tuition rates as well as other fees skyrocketed in the last 20 years, rising at 2-3 times the rate of inflation for years on end.   Young students, blissfully unaware of the actual cost of the student loan documents they were signing - and not understanding how the labor market works, or that some college degrees which seem like "fun" are basically worthless - signed themselves into perpetual debt.

At the same time, demographic shifts kicked in, as I noted before.   While the "Millennials" are a large generation (made larger by some media outlets, who lump a group with a span of nearly 40 years as "Millennials") it is a smaller graduating class, every year, that the largest graduating classes of all - from 1976 to 1978 (birth years 1957-1960).  These class sizes will be topped in the coming years, as in recent years, the birth rate has finally exceeded that of the post-war era.

So many colleges are chasing this money, but chasing a smaller incoming class size.   Foreign students are filling in a lot of seats (and paying full fare) but of course, Trump will screw that up for colleges and universities by making it harder to come here on a Visa.   Many smaller colleges are struggling with higher tuition rates, lower incoming class sizes, and of course, outdated Liberal Arts degrees which were once considered the standard "college degree" to get, but in this era of high tuition and student loans, are no longer deemed cost-effective.

And cost-effectiveness is part of the picture, particularly when costs are so high.   College degrees, now so plentiful, are worth less and less in the marketplace.  Not worthless but worth less.   Degrees in general studies, communications, psychology, philosophy, Physics (general), liberal arts, and so forth, are not enhancing the resume of young college grads, as there few, if any, jobs which require these skills and education.  And there plenty of grads out there with "general" degrees to compete against in the marketplace.

These kids are pissed.  They assumed they would be entitled to a high-paying job as the result of having this credential.   But not all credentials are created equal, and skills trump credentials every time.   In my own life, this was particularly true.

When I got my job at Carrier, they told me I had to have an Associates degree - but they still gave me the job.  A few night courses and the work I had from GMI qualified me for an AAS degree from SUNY.  Get the job first, get the degree second.

When I was at the Patent Office, they paid me to go to night school - and later a law firm did the same.   I was doing the work of an Associate (at a Law Clerk's pay) and going to school at night to get the degree to qualify me for the job I already had.

Find the job first, then get the degree.  Just getting any old degree and hoping a job comes along that requires that credential is sort of foolish.   First of all, there may be no such job in the world.  Second, there may be a lot of competition for that job (ask anyone who majored in a classical instrument).  Third, the pay for that job might not justify the expense of the degree (again, ask any classical musician).   Fourth, you may have to wait a long time for that particular job to materialize - maybe your whole life.

My brother's experience is typical of this pattern. He went to Columbia University, A very expensive college, and got a master's and then a PhD in Theater history with a minor in puppetry. This is a very specialized agree with a very narrow area of focus. He's a very smart guy, granted, but they are not a lot of jobs in that particular field. He was very fortunate that nearly two decades after he graduated a position open up as director of a puppetry Museum. His credentials exactly matched this particular job opening and he was very fortunate.

While I am happy for him, I don't think this is necessarily a good model for a college education. Very narrow fields of endeavor have very few job openings.

But of course, what happens to most people is that they get a college degree, scrounge around looking for a job in their "field" and settle for a job that pays the bills.   And then they acquire skills in this new field, or go back for a graduate degree to get the credential to advance in the job they have.   Very few people have this "story arc" in life where they graduate with a degree and find a job in that field right away, and then slowly advance up the ladder until they retire.   For most of us, it is a messy affair, where we change directions several times.

Sadly, college doesn't sell that narrative.   In fact, guidance counselors and job placement centers often give the worst career advice.   Think about it - these are folks who likely looked for a job once in their life and found it.  They give advice to departing students and then never see them again.  It is like shooting an arrow in the air, where it lands, I know not where...

But to say any of this is to be shouted down today.  "You're against college!" they cry - no doubt a comment from a college troll.   "Not everyone should go to trade school!" they say, as if that was what you were advocating or that learning a trade was the only alternative or that it was a bad thing.

"College grads make more than those who didn't go to college!" they cry - not realizing that backwards-looking statistics are not really useful.  What worked for their parents' generation might not work for this one.   Not only that, statistics are misleading.  Yea, a doctor or lawyer or investment banker might make millions.   But this skews the average.  The guy who ends up working in the donut shop brings down the average a bit, but still the average is above norm.

"College should be free!" some claim, or that student loan debts "forgiven".   They do this overseas - have the government pay for college (and healthcare as well).  The problem is, since everyone goes to college, not everyone gets a worthwhile degree.   College ends up being a place to "park" people for four years and keep them out of the workforce.   And maybe that is the idea, right there.   Since we need fewer workers in this age of automation, why not send everyone to college for a decade or more?

Hell, it was the best 14 years of my life.

But in those fourteen years, I managed to learn some skills as well as getting an education.  I learned how to weld. I learned how to knock sheet metal. I learn how to fix cars. I learned how to plumb a house and wire up enormous high power machinery. All of this served me very well in life.  Later on I ended up owning a number of properties which required Electrical Plumbing and other mechanical work.

And as you may have noticed, I also learned how to type. That was probably the hardest thing of all, learning to write a simple business letter or form, and understand that the period goes at the end of the sentence. It is amazing to me, but many people cannot even generate a simple business letter. One of the most valuable courses I ever took in my entire life was beginner typing in high school. I highly recommend it.

If you're going to spend tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on College, think carefully about where you're going, and at least try to learn some useful skills or knowledge in the process.