By Patricia H. Kushlis
Why should anyone in this country even consider questioning the conventional wisdom about the value of higher education? No I don’t mean education for the sake of knowledge – as high minded as that is – but the value of a college degree – or higher – in dollars and cents terms - simply for the sake of staying off the dole and, oh my gosh, making a wage that leads to a pleasant style of life.
Yet the suggestion – that a university degree is worthless for young people wishing to pursue any one of a variety of professions beyond apparently bricklayer - seems to be making the rounds of the so-called “advice” givers over the past several months. I’ve seen it recommended for young people aspiring to enter the high tech community to – the latest - wanna-be musicians.
Wrong, educational credentials are worth a lot - read the stats and think again
Please. Let’s get it straight. Extremely few people are likely to become the next Bill Gates – with or without a university degree for a myriad of reasons. They are also equally unlikely to become the next Amy Winehouse - dead this week at the age of 27 in London.
Like it or not, educational credentials mean a lot in this country and abroad and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise should have his or her head examined. Furthermore, anyone who claims that there is only one way (the most expensive) to a higher degree and therefore unattainable without going into hock for the rest of one’s life is likewise off-the-wall and out-to-lunch.
The higher the degree, the larger the salary and smaller chance of being unemployed
In a July 24, 2011 article in the Sunday New York Times by Cecilia Capuzzi Simon, there’s a very simple graphic which demonstrates in colored ink the relative worth of various educational levels and degrees in terms of an individual’s annual median salary and employment potential using official 2010 data for Americans between the ages of 25 to 64. The unmistakable bottom line: the higher the degree, the larger the salary and the smaller chance of those who hold it being among the ranks of the unemployed.
Only 2% of holders of doctorates, for instance, are unemployed. Only 1.8% of holders of professional degrees are unemployed and even the unemployment rate for those with only B.A.s is only 4.9%. In comparison, the overall US unemployment rate in 2010 was 9.2%. So where are the unemployed in terms of educational attainment? At the bottom of the educational heap. Americans with only high school diplomas have an unemployment rate of 9.6% and high school dropouts have a whopping 14.2% unemployment rate. These numbers alone speak volumes.
Like it or not, higher education pays off, and generally speaking the higher the educational degree the more the financial pay off although a few professions – engineers being a prime example – are in such demand, yes, even in the middle of the continuing recession, that “those fresh out of undergraduate programs land well-paying positions, and it’s a field that values skills learned on the job,” wrote Simon.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the arts.
I might well have become a musician if I hadn’t realized at any early age (I come from a family of professional and nonprofessional musicians so I know firsthand the struggles most musicians go through) that the chances of supporting myself in this highly competitive field would have more than likely also meant becoming a music teacher – a profession to which I did not aspire. So I chose another direction. I ultimately got a PhD (in political science) – and as it turned out my profession as a career diplomat with a specialty in public diplomacy brought me into contact with fabulous musicians, artists, actors, dancers, writers and poets in the US and abroad as well as paid the bills. Now I realize that a diplomatic career is not for everyone.
The Foreign Service is tough to get into and besides life as a nomad is not all that easy or carefree. But still, there are other professions – such as arts management, for instance, that also provide access to the arts – or even performing after working hours providing one has the requisite alternative skills for employment in a different field can help fulfill the calling.
Private vs. Public
Sadly, charlatan advice givers too often don’t bother to suggest to students and families rightly horrified by the exorbitant prices of most private colleges that there are good alternatives – and I certainly am not referring to that relatively new and questionable category of for-profit institutions that have justifiably been receiving failing grades in the news reports I’ve read. I’m referring to the public community colleges and state universities where in-state tuition is far lower than at the privates and to which a student can often commute from home.
True, it may take longer than four years to attain a BA because many students also work or are delayed because a required class is hard to get, but I found the community college graduates in the upper division Islam and Politics class I taught at the University of New Mexico a few years ago quite as well prepared to handle challenging assignments as everyone else. And state universities may well have honors programs that challenge the best of the best at a fraction of the price of a private education.
Meanwhile, even the most competitive American colleges and universities help subsidize educational costs for the neediest and some from the middle class who also meet their high admissions standards. Furthermore many students should consider working part time as well as becoming more savvy about where, whether and how much they borrow for education – but above all not drop out without a degree from a reputable institution.
Learning critical thinking holds the key.
The Latent Drag from America's Dumbed Down K-12 System
But there’s another issue here that cannot be forgotten when considering the expense of advanced degrees and that is the drag the dumbing down of American K-12 education plays on the quality of our higher education especially the first and second years of college. For the few who have excelled in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses in high school, entry-level college classes are often waived or requirements fulfilled before the student even steps foot inside the hallowed halls of academe. These students, in essence, can graduate from a US university in less time and at less expense – as much as lopping off a year or two - than those who do not.
Unfortunately, far too many American high school students go through the 12 years without such valuable experience - floating through classes without learning even how to read well, do basic math, write intelligible sentences or even study. To deal with their educational deficiencies, lower division university classes have also been “dumbed down” to the detriment of the other students who, in fact, are prepared to meet the academic challenge of the university campus.
Far better for a student to attend a community college for the first two years and graduate with an AA degree than fail in a more competitive four or more year institution because that is what is all too likely to happen to the unprepared or the poorly motivated. After all, even community college graduates have a 6.3% unemployment rate and higher median salaries than those with some college and no degree (7.7% unemployment rate). And both stack up better than those with only high school diplomas or high school drop-outs at the bottom of the employment heap. And, as I indicated earlier, community college is a great place to overcome academic deficiencies – before moving on to the more challenging university environment. University open admissions policies for freshmen do no one a favor.
Why so many foreign graduate students?
Finally, there’s the problem – and it is an problem of a different dimension – of the high percentages of foreign students coming to the US for graduate study in certain fields. As Simon points out – and again shows graphically - there are substantial numbers of foreign students in American graduate schools especially in the fields of engineering, computer and information sciences, law and mathematics and statistics. For instance, 58% of all engineering doctoral students are foreign and 43% of MA engineering students are. 54% of doctoral students and 47% of MA students in computer and information sciences are non-Americans. These are critical fields – not only for rebuilding this country’s infrastructure but also for its national security.
What Simon does not explain is why this is happening – and this is a question concerned Americans should be asking. Is it because our universities make more money from admitting foreign students than Americans? Is it because our K-16 educational system is simply under-performing in science and math in particular in comparison with those in many other countries? Or is it because there is a dearth of interest among American students in these “tough” fields – and if so, why?
Americans do need higher degrees to succeed - and don't let anyone try to tell you otherwise
In the meantime, however, the first myth that needs to be dispelled immediately is that Americans don’t need higher education to succeed in life. The statistics show that’s simply not true.
Sorry, kiddies, it’s time to get up off the couch, get your heads screwed on right and hit those books.