As I worked my way through college in the 1960s I pitied classmates whose parents paid for their "education" (they referred to the diploma as their "meal ticket") while they ignored every opportunity to interact with professors and expand their knowledge and understanding.
I long for a society that embodies the contention in the article below that "college contributes to the creation of reflective civic engagement, empathy, and healthy lifestyle choices." I look around at educated citizens unable to experience "empathy" as they walk past other humans with the blinders of hand-held devices isolating them. I attend Town Meetings where, rather than "reflective civic engagement," the few who attend indulge in name-calling and sloganeering.
That frustrating reality flies in the face of their optimistic "It is only through active engagement in democratic processes and public debate that we reach a true understanding of the social ills that plague our society and find solutions that can be politically institutionalized." Would that it were so.
For decades I have testified that public libraries (as the vehicle for SELF-education) are the other public institution with this lofty goal: "Education is the only way toward enlightened public debate, which remains our best hope for addressing the profound social ills that face our country."
Frank Zappa said, "Drop out of high school, go to the public library and educate yourself." Rather than dropping out, I recommend that in school, college, the workforce or the unemployment line, you take every opportunity to educate yourself through "active engagement" in this world that we share.
Telegram & Gazette
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
College is not just about jobs
By Hans G. Despain and Zachary Stein
What's college for anyway?
Students will be returning to campus in a few weeks and college towns will be bustling. The frenetic energy that marks the beginning of a new school year will mask the recent decline in college enrollments. Why are fewer young people choosing to go to college?
One reason for this is that all indications suggest that job prospects for the classes of 2015-8 will be weak. There are bright employment opportunities for nurses and physicians, post-secondary educators, and accountants and auditors. Likewise, engineer, economic, finance, management, and education majors should do fine in the next several years. Nevertheless, unemployment for those under 25 is nearly 14 percent, and 11 percent for those aged 20 to 24.
The biggest problems for future graduates are not business pessimism, an unwillingness to hire, or the recession levels of unemployment. The main problems are structural shifts in labor markets; there simply are not enough high-skilled, well-paying, college-degree jobs for the number of students graduating from college.
Forty-three percent of science majors graduating in years 2009-11 are employed in positions that do not require a college degree; most of these jobs pay less than $30,000 per year. Economists call this underemployment. For social science majors, 48 percent are underemployed. 52 percent of liberal arts majors and 50 percent of business majors are underemployed.
For decades it has been "normal" for 30 percent or more of college graduates to be underemployed. However, there was a time when the majority of these jobs (for example mechanics, electricians, dental hygienist, and other skilled trades) paid well and were career-oriented or "good" non-college jobs, filled by college graduates.
But things have changed, as demonstrated by a recent article in the Federal Reserve's "Current Issues in Economics and Finance."
In the 1990s, more than 40 percent of college graduates were underemployed. However, 50 percent of these underemployed recent-college-graduates had "good" non-college jobs, and only 16 percent were in low-paying non-career-oriented positions. Today, nearly 45 percent of college graduates are underemployed, with more than 20 percent of them in low-paying positions, and only a dismal 36 percent in "good" non-college jobs. Worse still nearly one out of five recent college graduates can only find part-time work.
These numbers are the result of structural labor market shifts that have nothing to do with curriculum or what individual professors or colleges are teaching. There are simply not enough good jobs, with or without a college degree. The arithmetic is simple: 23 percent of jobs pay above $50,000, while more than 30 percent of the American population graduates with a four-year college degree. 50 percent of jobs pay less $25,000 per year.
These dismal job prospects go a long way in explaining the recent decline in college enrollments. Compounding the problem is the trillion-dollar student loan industry. College is simply too expensive for individual households, often without any hope for a "good" job.
Many commentators conclude that these data suggest we need to decrease college enrollment. For example Ohio economist Richard Vedder and his colleagues conclude, "All of this calls into question the wisdom of 'college for all.'" Vedder continues, "the underemployed college graduate is an expensive luxury we can ill afford as a nation." The problem for Vedder is not merely underemployment, but "overinvestment" in higher education.
We draw nearly the opposite conclusion.
The very idea that one could "overinvest" in higher education shows a profound misunderstanding of what higher education is for. College is not, nor has it ever been, merely about getting a job.
Higher education in the United States has a heroic tradition of educating for social integration, civic engagement, and personal development. This tradition stretches from Thomas Jefferson through John Dewey to today, and values a well-educated enlightened citizenry, for its own sake, and for the health of our democracy — not merely for the functioning of our economy.
This is a tradition that we cannot afford to neglect. It is only through active engagement in democratic processes and public debate that we reach a true understanding of the social ills that plague our society and find solutions that can be politically institutionalized.
Psychologists have for years been insisting on the cognitive and emotional impacts of higher education, specifically how college contributes to the creation of reflective civic engagement, empathy, and healthy lifestyle choices.
These essential components of responsible citizenship are threatened by simplistic economic ideas about what higher education is for.
When the economy is underperforming, this leads to reactionary argumentation, like Vedder's: "due to the lack of jobs — not everyone deserves college education."
Universities and colleges, likewise, often mistakenly overemphasis the job training aspects of their mission at the expense of undermining the civic, cognitive, and socio-emotional responsibilities of higher education.
During the 2008 campaign, President Obama expressed a desire for providing a college education to everyone, so to achieve some level of economic success. This latter aim is clearly illusionary. The time has come to transcend the economic rhetoric about education and see education anew as a force for the health of our democracy and individual personal development.
We must move beyond the illusory calculations of the "return on investment" in a college degree driving the (unconscionably profitable and predatory) student loan industry. No other industrialized nation has burdened its young adults with such debt; they have instead invested in them and in the long-term future of their societies.
Education is the only way toward enlightened public debate, which remains our best hope for addressing the profound social ills that face our country: a lack of good jobs, household and business indebtedness to mega-sized corporate banks, trillion-dollar indebtedness of college graduates, and a far too cozy relationship between Wall Street and Washington.
Hans G. Despain, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Economics at Nichols College, Dudley; Zachary Stein is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Education, Harvard University.