Listen up, kids: More college DOES NOT equal more money

Pot of goldDiane Auer Jones, who in addition to being the president of the education-oriented policy institute Washington Campus is a former assistant secretary for postsecondary education in the U.S. Department of Education, recently wrote a blog post for The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Brainstorm blog (“Straddling 2 Centuries,” April 29) that should be required reading for everybody who’s currently in college, or who’s thinking of going to college, or who works at a college, or who has ever heard of the idea of college.

She starts by talking about a recently published study titled “What’s Going on with Young People Today? The Long and Twisted Path to Adulthood” (pdf), which finds that today’s college-aged population faces unique conditions that will reverse the “onward and upward” trend of living and working that characterized their parents’ experience. More specifically, the study finds

that young adults in 2005 — including those with a college education — were not doing as well as their baby-boomer parents who reached adulthood in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In fact, the study suggests that in their pathway toward establishing independence, today’s young people more closely resemble their grandparents and great-grandparents than their prosperous boomer parents who enjoyed high-paying and secure jobs during the period of strong economic growth following World War II.

(Tangentially, please note that the study’s target date of 2005 means its shows what things were like before the onset of our current and future economic apocalypse, right during the height of the fake prosperity bubble. Does anybody care to guess how the situation has shaped up over the past five years, now that the rug has been pulled out?)

The thing is, Auer only brings up this study in order to give herself the opportunity to launch into a sustained slamming of the federal government’s ongoing program to encourage and incentivize everybody, absolutely everybody, to attend college at all costs. She says the new findings clearly give the lie to the idea that more college automatically means more money and a “better life”:

College educated or not, it would appear that our children are falling behind in earned wages, not to mention the additional pinch they will soon feel as more of their earnings are diverted from their pocket to the Treasury. . . . The findings of this study also suggest that the widely cited Bureau of Labor Statistic’s 2002 study, The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings, is likely to be dead wrong in its conclusions. While that study projected the future earnings of young people based on the actual earnings of their elders, we now know that the experience of the boomers is in no way predictive of what lies ahead for the boomerangers.

Then she spends the rest of the post exploring the various angles by which this all means the government’s propaganda-style push (my words, not hers) for more college for everybody is hugely and demonstrably fallacious, since we can have no accurate idea about how to match job market needs with the number of college graduates.

Her final paragraph is pure gold:

Government officials on both sides of the aisle are telling students that they must go to college to be successful in life — that we are all college material (isn’t Lake Wobegon wonderful?). Government officials are making inflated promises about the financial rewards of a college education.  Government officials are coercing colleges and universities to essentially push students through in order to meet arbitrary standards for retention and graduation rates. Government officials are the ones who decided to cash in on student and parent borrowers by charging them obscene, above-market rates on their federal college loans.

Yep, there it is in a nutshell. You don’t have to agree with the snarky — or is she serious? — prescription she appends to the above list (“So it seems to me that  government officials should be held accountable for ensuring that all of those college graduates have access to the high-paying jobs they sought, have earned, were promised and will need to repay their federal student loans”) in order to love her calling-out of these idiocies and immoralities.

So let’s openly proclaim the new reality, which is really just a reinvocation of the old one: More college doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make more money or have a better life or job. If you’re thinking of going to college, or if you’re there now, and your motivation is the more-money-better-job shtick, you’ll do well to rethink things and recalibrate your plans and expectations accordingly.

Whew. I’m glad that’s settled. Now maybe college can go back to being about something more important and ennobling than just preparing people to serve as cogs in the vast, inhuman machinery of the consumer economy.

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on May 4, 2010, in Education and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Bill Barnett

    That is exactly the opposite conclusion of the one put forth by Hale “Bonddad” Stewart on FiveThirtyEight.com on the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report. His summary is:

    “The data’s results are very clear.

    1.) Lower levels of educational achievement mean a higher rate of unemployment even in good economic times, and low earning potential.

    2.) The higher the educational achievement, the less susceptible to economic events one becomes.

    3.) Higher educational achievement means higher earnings.”

    Full article is at http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/05/unemployment-and-educational.html . For my part I tend toward not discouraging people from learning, even if I disagree with their motivation.

  2. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Bill.

    Regarding your final comment, as I see it a large part of the question is about whether going to college, in the present or any other economic environment, in fact constitutes or provides learning for everybody in any meaningful sense.

    A couple of weeks ago at his blog, Seth Godin offered some thoughts under the title “The Coming Meltdown in Higher Education (as Seen by a Marketer).” The piece was then picked up and reprinted by The Chronicle of Higher Education: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Coming-Meltdown-in-Higher/65398/?sid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en.

    One of his observations in support of his contention that there’s a meltdown a-brewing is that “The correlation between a typical college degree and success if suspect,” since “College wasn’t originally designed to be merely a continuation of high school (but with more binge drinking). In many places, though, that’s what it has become. The data I’m seeing show that a degree (from one of those famous schools, with or without a football team) doesn’t translate into significantly better career opportunities, a better job, or more happiness than does a degree from a cheaper institution.”

    It’s obviously a conversation whose time has come. I side strongly with Godin, although I sympathize greatly (*greatly*) with your expressed desire of not discouraging people from learning. It’s just that, as already stated, I don’t think college correlates with meaningful learning for a huge number of people, and the relevant issue right now is that the modern marketing juggernaut and econo-centric way of conducting business in absolutely every sector of society has produced a situation in which everybody is targeted by college marketers, for purely economic reasons that are justified by the ideological obfuscation of labeling it as a noble undertaking whose purpose is to produce a better-educated society.

  3. Bill Barnett

    Yes, I did gloss over the question of whether college education equals learning. I think it does–you can’t be exposed to new facts and ideas for four years and not learn *anything*–but I agree that it’s debatable whether everyone’s learning is meaningful. Seth Godin’s piece wavers in focus between higher education in general and “famous schools” versus “cheaper institutions”, and in doing so dilutes the point he is trying to make. I am familiar with Godin through his blog, and as a marketer he gives more importance to “telling the story” than to objective measures of product quality. His is one approach among many, as are his societal prognostications.

    All that said, I am just beginning to think about the higher ed big picture. I have worked in graduate school support positions for several years, and I am now making a move from a famous school to a quasi-public school. Also my two oldest kids will be graduating from high school in two years so my interest is more than academic. 😉

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