College Graduates and Jobs

According to the New York Times, more and more college graduates are unable to find jobs after graduation; those who do are being paid less than graduates who got their degrees before the recession.

The median starting salary for students graduating from four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who entered the work force in 2006 to 2008, according to a study released on Wednesday by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. That is a decline of 10 percent, even before taking inflation into account.

Of course, these are the lucky ones — the graduates who found a job. Among the members of the class of 2010, just 56 percent had held at least one job by this spring, when the survey was conducted. That compares with 90 percent of graduates from the classes of 2006 and 2007. (Some have gone for further education or opted out of the labor force, while many are still pounding the pavement.)

From the sad stories of unemployed or underemployed college graduates in the article, most of them seem shocked that college didn’t lead to the riches and careers they were told awaited them once they had a diploma in their hands.

The value of a college degree—or at least the perceived value—is part of the problem. When most kids graduate from high school they’ve had at least a decade about the importance of college being drilled into their heads. Most graduate believing that if they want to make anything of their lives, they need a college degree. Trade school, post secondary certifications, or other educational paths are often scoffed at by “educators” even when those may be a good solution for many high school students.

While it’s certainly true that college can lead to higher or better paying jobs than those who don’t pursue a college education, the number of college graduates waiting tables, working as telemarketers, or performing other jobs that don’t require any education or training except a high school diploma is rising. Part of this due to the recession and the fact there are fewer jobs awaiting graduates. However, a bigger problem is that the market is flooded with college graduates who have degrees that are absolutely useless when it comes to getting jobs in the real world. Rubbing salt in the wounds is that many of these students graduated with mountains of debt.

College isn’t for everyone; college degrees aren’t for everyone. Instead of telling students that college is the only path to success, we need to let students know that there are many ways to make it in the world and that college is just one of many choices. Since the real world is often a better teacher than any classroom, many students might even be better off not going to college and seeing what the real world is like before deciding whether or not to pursue a college degree or another path.

Unfortunately the education industrial complex gets a lot of money from the status quo and is unlikely to change anytime soon. It’s probably to take a generation of debt-laden, pissed off graduates before any meaningful education reform is even discussed.

Government Bureaucrats and For-Profit Schools

Driving home from work this week, I caught a story on NPR about government regulators and culinary schools. Apparently regulators are upset that students are graduating with loads of debt and entry-level jobs that can’t pay off their loans.

[Roger] Hollis says he has taken out thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for an associate degree in cooking. Despite his work experience and his expensive degree, he'll still be starting at the bottom, as a line cook. "Twelve, 15 [dollars] maybe an hour, yeah."

Many former students say that with that income, it's virtually impossible to keep up with their student loan payments. Newbies may spend years as a line cook; the average salary, according to the online industry magazine Star Chefs, is less than $29,000 a year.

Attorney Michael Louis Kelly represents California students suing the parent company of Cordon Blue, Career Education Corp. His clients say the school promised something it cannot deliver.

"The model doesn't work," Kelly says. "You can't go to school, accumulate $30- or $40- or $50,000 in debt, and then go into an industry where you're going to have to start out at $8 or $12 an hour anyway."

Why are government regulators worried only about students who attend for-profit schools? There are plenty of public and private schools who churn out graduates with loads of debt and little or no job prospects. Last year The New York Times ran a story about Cortney Munna, a former New York University student who racked up $97,000 in student loan debt majoring in religious and women’s studies. After college she found herself making $22 an hour working for a photographer. Back in January the same paper ran a similar story about law school graduates with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt who are unable to find work (or at least work as an attorney) and, as a result, can’t come close to paying back their loans. Shouldn’t government regulators be just as concerned about the cost and job prospects of private and state sponsored non-profit schools as they are about for profit schools?

The education industrial complex generally oversells the value of a degree. It’s something that public institutions do as much as for-profit universities. Kids go through the school system school hearing how a college degree will lead to great jobs and financial security. While this is statistically true in broad terms, rarely do you see these educators showing the market value of a science or engineering degree compared to, say, a liberal arts degree. I’m not saying that college degrees are worthless. It’s just that some have more market value than others.

Students looking to finance their education through student loans should be shown the cost of paying off the loan and realistic job prospects and pay upon graduation and be given some time to think about whether or not the cost is worth it. However, it’s hypocritical for Washington bureaucrats to zero in on just for-profit institutions when you have students graduating from state-sponsored institutions with loads of debt and job prospects that are no better than those who graduate from a for-profit culinary school.

Besides, a degree from any post-secondary education facility—public, private, trade, or for-profit—only goes so far toward financial or career success. In reality one’s work ethic, creativity, and ability to build relationships and adapt to a changing world are much better indicators whether or not you’re going to be successful—financially or otherwise. Instead of focusing on the value of a degree, students and post-secondary schools should teach the aforementioned concepts along with their degree-related material.  The schools and their graduates would be much better off as a result.

An English Degree does not a Writer Make

English Degrees and Becoming a Writer

I’m starting to wonder if former writers for The Onion are working at NPR. On the drive to work this week I’ve been listening to a series of sob stories about soon-to-be college graduates who are having a difficult time finding their first “real” job. The headlines on NPRs website read like something straight from America’s Finest News Source.

Aspiring Writer Questions Value Of English DegreeAccounting Grad Didn't Figure On Job Rejections Dream Of TV Job Remains Elusive For Montana Grad

All joking aside, the story about the aspiring writer, Heather Lefebvre who racked up $85,000 in student loans, caught my attention because there’s a big misconception out there that you need an English and/or creative writing degree to become a successful writer.

Having written a memoir, a novel, and a third book coming out later this year (surprise!) and worked in the corporate environment as a writer for over a decade, I can safely say becoming a writer has more to do with taking the time to learn the craft of writing then going to college or even having a degree.

Writing isn’t like riding a bike where you learn it once and do it over and over again without thinking. Struggling to create believable characters or a unique plot is something most writers improve upon with each novel and spend their lives trying to perfect. You’ll learn more by sitting down and writing your first book then you will in a lifetime of taking writing classes.

As a member of a local writing group I get a chance meet a lot of other authors. Of those I know personally, I’d say half have a college degree. Of the college grads, there are only a handful of English and/or writing degrees among them.

The writers who don’t have college degrees, half of them have attended college and the rest have no college at all. Some of the most prolific and successful writers in the group have little or no college. Instead they were stay-at-home moms who liked to read and write stories and ended up turning it into a full time career.

Just like painters, photographers, and musicians hone their skills through practice, you become a writer by writing and then doing lots of rewriting. A BA in English or a MFA in creative writing doesn’t translate to becoming a published author—even though many people with those degrees think it should.

How to Be Rich by Mark Cuban

In my Worth Reading II post on Saturday, I linked to a great post by Mark Cuban titled “How to Be Rich.” It’s a great read and it’s something that anyone who wants to be rich should read. However, there’s one specific part of Cuban’s post I want to comment on. Cuban writes:

The 2nd rule for getting rich is getting smart. Investing your time in yourself and becoming knowledgeable about the business of something you really love to do

It doesn’t matter what it is. Whatever your hobbies, interests, passions are. Find the one you love the best and GET A JOB in the business that supports it.

It could be as a clerk, a salesperson, whatever you can find. You have to start learning the business somewhere. Instead of paying to go to school somewhere, you are getting paid to learn. It may not be the perfect job, but there is no perfect path to getting rich.

This is invaluable advice – and one that most people won’t tell you. Most people will tell you that the path to success lies in the form of a college degree. While it’s true that those with college degrees earn more money than those that don’t, it doesn’t mean that a college degree will make you rich.

A college degree (or any degree for that matter) is valuable but it only goes so far. What’s far more valuable – as Cuban states – is knowledge. A bachelor’s degree simply means you had four years worth of endurance to write enough papers and jumped through enough hoops. It doesn’t mean you know squat about the subject your degree is in or will become a success.

Think about it. How many people with bachelor’s degrees actually work in the field that they graduated in? How many more are underemployed despite having a college degree?

Let’s face it. A bachelor’s degree is quickly becoming equivalent of what a high school diploma was two generations ago – a security blanket that will open doors to a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. It also makes it more likely you’ll be stuck in a boring 8-5 job for the rest of your life (or until you either save enough money or your 401k grows to the point where you don’t have to live off it).

The devaluation of college degrees is result of our public school system pushing to get more and more people into college – whether or not college is the right career path for them. As a result bachelor’s degrees have less valuable. And it shows. From 2000-2007 the median income for those with bachelor’s degree fell 3%. (So did the median income for people with Master’s degrees and Ph.Ds. Only those with professional degrees – doctors and lawyers – saw an increase.)

It may not be a bad life, but a college degree in and of itself isn’t going to make you rich.

Cuban continues:

The nature of our country’s business infrastructure is that it is destined to be boom and bust. Booms are when the smart people sell. Busts are when rich people started on their path to wealth.

The current economic climate is creating opportunities for those that are ready. Instead of looking for those opportunities, a lot of people are going back to school. While this choice might make sense for some people, it doesn’t make sense for everyone. Instead a couple of online or certification courses might make more sense and using that as leverage to get hired in an industry that will help you learn what you really need to know to be successful.

Depending on what you want to do with your life, college may or may not be a good first step. But college isn’t going to make you or anyone else rich. Instead working hard and dealing honestly with others is the first step. Then learn everything you can about the industry and field you want to succeed at and figure out how to get your foot in the door is the second. The third, as Cuban writes, is having the patience to wait for the right opportunity.

Then you’ll be rich.