Ditch the Diploma: Why College Graduates Are Questioning Their Education
Across the nation, graduates are tossing their caps into the air and investing their hopes of success in their sheepskins. Not since the Magna Carta has so much faith been put into a piece of paper; indeed, belief in the college diploma seems these days to outpace belief in the document that binds a man and a woman.
For the past couple of generations, conventional wisdom has said that a college degree is the golden ticket to a great job. For a time, because of the simple laws of supply and demand, this was true. In 1947, when just 5 percent of Americans age 25 and over held at least a bachelor's degree, the supply was low, making demand for degreed employees higher. However, with easier access to college through taxpayer-funded student loans, today's bachelor's degree has become yesterday's high-school diploma. Now that over 30 percent of Americans 25 and over have a college degree—and the President has called for that figure to grow to 60 percent—the supply is up, which might help explain why 53 percent of recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed.
What's more, the burgeoning cost of college means that even for those who do land good jobs after graduation, payoff on their investment will be diminished and take more time. The graduation rates tripled between 1980 and 2010, rising 37 percent between 1999 and 2010. Two-thirds of bachelor's degree recipients graduated with debt in 2008, compared with less than half in 1993. The average debt for last year's college was $24,000, while the total outstanding national student debt has passed $1 trillion, more than the nation's credit card debt. Not surprisingly then, the national student loan default rate is on the rise, too, hitting 8.8 percent for the 2009 budget year. Even the number of Ph.D. holders on public assistance has made recent headlines.
If it sounds like I wish to discourage the pursuit of education, this is far from the case. As a college professor and a lifelong lover of learning, I believe in education, especially in education for education's sake, as my colleague Marybeth Davis recently advocated. But with more students today attending college not to be educated, but to get a job, the costs need to be counted more than ever.
Nor do I aim to perpetuate the strain of anti-intellectualism that is part of the history of American evangelicalism. For while we all are called to love the Lord with our minds, attainment of a liberal arts degree is not the only way to do so. Indeed, hoisting Dostoevsky on some people is as unavailing as arming me with a nail gun.
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