To the Class of 2013

Last Friday, my alma mater had Jon Huntsman, Jr. send 4,327 graduates into the real world. Most commencement speeches (if you've sat through enough of them) are more or less the same. If you've heard one, you've heard them all. But occasionally a person actually delivers a speech worth listening to. (Full disclosure, even though I remember who my commencement speaker was, I can't remember what he or anyone else said that day.) So, as usual this time of year, I post the two great commencement speeches of the last 10 years. The first was the one Steve Jobs gave to Stanford graduates in 2005 while the other was delivered by David McCullough, Jr. to Wellesley High School. They're good speeches because they're unconventional in their message but also because they deliver a message most graduates sorely need to hear. They can both be watched below. Enjoy! Steve Jobs commencement address to Standford 2005

David McCullough, Jr. commencement address to to Wellesley High School

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.