Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Harsh Look At Higher "Education"

The New York times seems like an odd place to get a hard hitting editorial on the state and necessity of higher education in America but I read something quite interesting on the pages of the Grey Lady this morning, The Imperiled Promise of Higher Education. The author, Frank Bruni, talks about the mystical promise of college and the corresponding declaration of woe on those who don't go.

Because of levitating costs, college these days is a luxury item. What’s more, it’s a luxury item with newly uncertain returns. 

Yes, many of the sorts of service-industry jobs now available to people without higher education are less financially rewarding than manufacturing jobs of yore, and so college has in that sense become more imperative. And, yes, college graduates have an unemployment rate half that of people with only high school degrees. 
But that figure factors in Americans who got their diplomas and first entered the job market decades ago, and it could reflect not just what was studied in college but the already established economic advantages, contacts and temperaments of the kind of people who pursue and stick with higher education. 

It doesn’t capture the grim reality for recent college graduates, whose leg up on their less educated counterparts isn’t such a sturdy, comely leg at the moment. According to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary.

This is pretty interesting and echoes a lot of what I have been thinking. As he points out the canards about the wage differences between people with a college degree and those without is skewed by all of the graduates 10, 20 or more years ago. Compare that to the very difficult time recent grads have in finding a job.That is the result, I believe, of far too many kids getting college degrees that don't need them and frankly that they have no business getting. A four year liberal arts degree is virtually worthless. It doesn't give you any sort of real skills. It is hardly a guarantee or accurate predictor of ability if the younger people I run into on a regular basis are reflective of the typical grad. It is a very expensive delaying of adulthood, a time of politically correct indoctrination, gross immorality and ego inflation that does nothing to prepare someone for a job in the real world. In fact many community colleges do a far better job preparing kids for jobs and careers at a fraction of the cost and half of the time. We don't need more anthropology grads, we need more people, especially more young men, who have the ability and the desire to get something done.

The big issue, IMHO, is that he university system, like the public school system, long ago stopped being about education and became a huge guaranteed employment racket. Education majors need secure unionized public school jobs to move into upon graduation. Liberal arts undergrads who are afraid to leave the ivory tower need more and more university positions to prolong adolescence "teaching" at a college or university.Meanwhile the American people are coerced into funding this whole adventure because we are threatened with economic calamity if little Susie can't pay for a degree in Women's Studies.

To partially quote the philosopher Will Hunting, "You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you could have gotten for a dollar fifty in late fee at the public library". With a trillion dollars in student loan debt, a number that climbs every year like clockwork to keep pace with the ever rising cost of tuition, we are all dropping tens of thousands of dollars to keep kids out of adulthood before plopping them into the world, full of debt and functionally incapable of doing most meaningful work. We imprison people like Bernie Madoff for scamming people out of millions while the education establishment has been bamboozling us to the tune of trillions of dollars. Maybe the wrong people are in prison.


Anonymous said...

Just because humanities fields have a marginal place in our society does not make them "useless" or "less valuable." The New York Times in particular would be a better paper if its journalists and editorialists were more critical, skeptical, and capable of writing more interesting stuff than the exhausted material that their liberal and conservative voices churn out day after day. Of course, Frank Bruni majored in English himself, but then, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

One can only wonder what the political discourse in this country would look like if our collective understanding of history, for instance, were not so breathtakingly dim. Perhaps our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan would have met with more public resistance? In any case, we'd hopefully have a populace less inclined to take the cynical and myopic logic of the corporate bottom line as the be all and end all of value. Of course, if you and Bruni wish to live in a world where everyone unquestioningly integrates themselves into the reigning circumstances, then you can be my guest. For my part, that's not the kind of world I'd like to see.

There is also an economic argument to be made here, and that is that not everybody is cut out for STEM fields. If we coerced students into majoring in those at the expense of arts and humanities, employers would be able to force down the starting salaries of people with those degrees. Corporations are already saving a bundle by subcontracting the training of employees out to the university system.

Anonymous said...


Commenters on that article brought up many good points:

1. We don't need more engineers to cram more stuff into a cell phone. The major problems of our world today are cultural, societal, ethical, and so on. If anything, one could argue that we need MORE anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and ethicists, not fewer.

2. The media perpetually lies about the value of STEM degrees. I ran in that crowd. There is no job security, too many hours, no overtime, and a lot of starvation wages for people in those fields. Plus, you get too old or too expensive, and you are replaced with some Pakistani kid fresh off the boat waving his H-1B visa. The whole thing is a scam.

3. The major reason for the increase in non-STEM degrees is that high school kids who might have followed their STEM-world parents into STEM degrees saw those parents laid off in huge numbers when the Internet bubble hit and, later, the economic crash. The WSJ covered this phenomenon in depth. This is not to excuse those kids' choices, but the truth isn't coming out about their majoring in English rather than mechanical engineering.

4. I lived in Silicon Valley. I saw entire departments in large, well-known companies that were one ethnic group or non-American nationality. Why? Because one guy with an H-1B visa got into a hiring position and then brought his entire family (down to fourth and fifth cousins) over on H-1Bs to do the job. I once had to interview against two Indian guys with less experience than I had, but they were family of the guy doing the hiring. I know because I asked them. The two of them got hired, and I did not. That kind of garbage never gets discussed.

5. They had a buzzword phrase when I was in Silicon Valley: "Go international," as in "we decided to go international on this position." I heard it over and over. Translation: "We could get an H-1B visaholder for far less money." And because the company holds final say over their visa, they can't go anywhere or negotiate for higher pay. In other words, companies preferred these indentured servants over their American counterparts. Job fairs in Silicon Valley were packed with solid American engineers over the age of 40 who were displaced by these H-1B visaholders let into this country by a Congress beholden to business leaders who only want cheaper labor—even if it comes at the expense of their American neighbor.

Arlan said...

Well, for my part, I have a humanities degree and I am not using it for making money (other than the paperwork factor of having any four year degree). I am only speaking for my own experience and lack any kind of general survey of the landscape, but I wouldn't encourage anyone to spend money on a liberal arts degree. For anyone who had a strong sense of what they wanted I wouldn't oppose it if it involved a degree of any kind, but for people mostly worried about turning up useless a decade down the road (like I was), I'd suggest taking vocational training or community college. It's a less expensive investment in guessing what you want to do.

And no, money / paycheck value isn't everything to be considered. But again, speaking from my own experience, college is the last place I would send someone to learn ethics. The moral, social, ethical and philosophical questions raised in my classrooms were very interesting, but the answers were superficial and self-gratifying. Just as good at making people feel more righteous than Others as a Baptist church... and just as bad at teaching them to wrestle with deep contradictions.

Arthur Sido said...

Arlan, I have a liberal arts degree as well (major in Political Science, minor in history) but I have learned far more about politics and history after college than I ever learned in college. I am encouraging my sons to consider a two year vocational school so they can get an actual job and let their employer pay for the rest of their schooling.