Friday, April 28, 2017

The College Degree Glut (Did Our Ancestors Know Something We Don't?)

This graphic is extraordinary. The caption reads as follows: "A Prospect Of Higher Education. Sixty-Eight Million Dollars Were Given For Colleges Last Year; --if the Mania for College Education Continues We May Soon Expect the Above State of Affairs." I found it in a book entitled, Looking Forward: Life In The Twentieth Century As Predicted In The Pages Of American Magazines From 1895 To 1905. Published in 1970, Looking Forward does exactly what the title says: I picked up for a buck at the library book sale for Squawker, who loves to read about Victorian- and Gilded Age-era life.

Considering that it's a century old, this illustration definitely strikes a nerve with me. Back in 1990, when I returned from my six-month tenure as a clerk, at the University of London, I faced a post-college employment picture that should look familiar to any graduate today. I was still living at home, so I didn't have that pressure of paying rent -- plus food, and laundry, and all that other grown-up rubbish -- over my head. However, my family was struggling financially themselves, so I had to pound the pavement. I couldn't expect them to subsidize me, on top of everything else on their plate.

However, after almost six months of pounding, I couldn't find a job that paid above McJob level (as in, minimum or sub-minimum wage). So I did what anyone in my spot does. I told myself:: if you must work a McJob, make it one you can stand. I went to my hometown paper, where I'd done a 150-customer motor route in the summer of '86. It didn't pay princely sums, but enough to put gas in my car, get a few takeout meals a week, and keep me in records and rock mags (which I was now beginning to score for free, having discovered the magic world of reviewing for comp copies).

I asked the paper if they had any big routes opening up. As it turned out, they did, and I found myself dealing with 200-plus customers through the summer and early fall of 1990. Eventually, after asking around some more, I found an out-of-county newspaper job with one my former college editors, who was now the boss there, and wanted me badly. So, in a sense, I landed on my feet, though not without some tense in the den, when a news report came on about the Gen Xers' struggles to find suitable jobs. I was about to mutter something along the lines of, "Wow, I can relate," when my dad looked over his paper, and said: "Son, the trouble with this place here is that everybody graduates." 

Not having found my second motor route job yet, I quickly changed the subject; I didn't feel like giving a progress report. Looking at today's numbers, though, I think that my dad raised a valid point. As of 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 260,000 bachelor's degree holders were working for $7.25 an hour or less, along with an additional 200,000 associate's degree earners trapped on the same go-nowhere treadmill.

This issue has produced no lack of anguished rhetorical questions from the likes of Forbes ("If college degrees are becoming more valuable, why are so many graduates either unemployed or employed at low-paying jobs?"), and the National Association of Scholars ("Obama wants to substantially increase the number of Americans who get college degrees, but what does he think they'll be doing?").

However, solutions -- and the long-term thinking needed to produce them -- are in shorter supply than ever, as we see from "Education Secretary" Betsy DeVos's decision to scrap promises of student loan forgiveness to graduates who took low-paying public sector jobs. As my dad suggested so long ago, there are way too many people competing for way too few jobs. The problem is that we're well into a new era of outsourcing and automation that leaves less and less for anybody to do, even though their bills don't ever stay the same for long.

This notion, to coin Lester Bangs's classic phrase, "is slightly inconsistent." As for Obama, I doubt that he's giving the matter much thought anymore, or why else would he feel comfortable with collecting $400,000 to speak at a health care conference this fall? Shame on him for doing it, but that's another discussion for another day. What's needed among grads, though, is a more radical resistance. 

Begging the world at large to ease your path toward a high-paying job only taps into the prevailing narrative that the federal government constantly pushes: college pays off in the end, so if we treat you like a walking profit center, you must be good for it. Every penny. Every percentage point. End of discussion. Deferments, forgiveness, lowered interest -- all of those remedies are fine, but what's needed is a tougher-minded look at the big picture. And that starts with my dad's statement, plus one more that's worth repeating: What do we mean by the golden rule? He who has the gold makes the rules. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Act Now,
Before Your Loans Go Up)
Common Dreams: Borrowers "Chilled 

To The Bone" As DOE Reneges
On Student Loan Forgiveness

New York Post: Sanders Calls Obama's

Wall Street Speech Fee "Unfortunate":

Student Loan Report
Student Loan Debt Statistics 2017

Think Progress: Half A Million People
With College Degrees Are Working
For Minimum Wage:


  1. Finally a breath of fresh air.

    I worked horrible near minimum wage jobs to go to college, borrowed what was a lot of money at the time (and it still considerable now) all to eventually make less than the guys out in the warehouse.

    I'd say college only makes sense in a few scenarios:

    (1) You're so wealthy that college is a financial slam-dunk, which means you're also wealthy and connected enough that whether you went to college or not doesn't really matter.

    (2) You love a field so much that you really don't mind the likely prospect of living like a church mouse for the rest of your life, just so you get to do your "thing".

    (3) A college degree is utterly, absolutely, required for where you're heading in your field AND they'll pay for it. Examples of this are things like being in the military and they foot the bill, or situations that probably don't exist any more where you work for a company and they pay for your degree.

    Otherwise, stay away!

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  3. Hi, Alex,

    Thanks for writing. Sounds like you've been through the wringer, and then some.

    Lack of decent- or high-paying jobs, of course, is at the heart of the problem -- something that all these tepid and tentative reform efforts I describe don't really address. In today's America, the high-paying jobs that exist (or haven't been outsourced, or shipped abroad) are restricted, more and more, to a fortunate few. The rest are told to suck it up -- "Here's your paper hat and spatula, now get on with it."

    The other reality, also not widely acknowledged, is colleges don't really act as much of a filter -- a) in terms of who they accept, and b) how they're treated academically. If the majority of students leave with a B average or higher, and apparently don't have to sweat buckets towards getting that precious piece of sheepskin, its value is sorely diminished, as a result.

    A third issue is the great imbalances of power that exist at nearly all jobs. For myself, I guess, in becoming a writer, I probably fall under scenario #2. But my lasting memory of my jobs, when I worked them, is seeing how those at the top of the newspaper pyramid (such as it was) carried themselves -- they all seemed to wear expensive jewelry and watches, wore top name outfits, and drove battleship-sized cars and trucks (in reserved spaces that were specially set aside for them).

    Wherever the money in the budget was going, it sure as hell wasn't spent on the troops in the trenches! :-) And that's why I don't miss any of that.

    Anyway, it's not a new debate, as the picture in this post shows, and there's a lot more debate ahead, I'm sure. Thanks again for writing. --The Reckoner