The Young and The Feckless: What Comes from Questioning the Value of College?

J. Maureen Henderson
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Lately, there's been a lot of talk (recession-driven in large part) about the real value of a college education, both in the media and that I've been privy to in my own circles. The youth unemployment rate hovers at 17% and even as the economy recovers, the specter of long-term effects on those who launch their careers during the downturn looms. With college and university commencements currently taking place all over North America, it seems like a perfect time to ask whether or not we should be encouraging so many HS students to enroll in college vs. pursuing technical or vocational training and whether a college education is really the ticket to future economic stability that it is portrayed to be.

I can empathize with students who hold graduate degrees and, due to a lack of options in their field, are returning to community college for more practical programs as a last-ditch effort to break into the workforce in a meaningful way or those from the class of 2010 who have done what they believed to be everything right (good grades, internship experience, volunteering, networking, assumption of big-time student loans) and whose introductions to the working world (which ain't exactly embracing them with open arms) will serve as a cold wake-up call.
Photo by Lou FCD

But, but... there is something to the tenor of these discussions about whether college is really worth the time and money that doesn't sit right. There are unstated assumptions underlying our collective ideas about post-secondary education that need to be explored and dimensions of privilege that profoundly shape (and underpin) these discussion that need to be acknowledged. The following are three of the numerous questions that will have to be unpacked and addressed if we're serious about evaluating (and perhaps recasting?) the role of higher education in our society:

How do we define the purpose of post-secondary education?

Is the emphasis on training the labor force of tomorrow and providing students with the skills and knowledge to acquire and hold white-collar jobs? Is the emphasis on exposing students to a breadth and depth of knowledge on the ideas, theories and precepts that shape major fields of endeavor while also socializing them into a certain pattern of analytical inquiry and offering them opportunities to develop peer relationships and networks, without an explicit linkage to increasing employability? Is it something else entirely? What about its role as a signaling credential/proxy, wherein possessing a college degree stands in for a host of other traits that are implicitly attributed to the individual in question and serve as a minimum requirement that hiring managers can use to screen applicants (even if the job duties themselves don't require that level of education to be carried out)?

What qualities are most important in a citizenry? How are these qualities linked to educational attainment?

At a macro level, it's tempting to frame the question of whether we should emphasis vocational training or liberal arts education in terms of what's more important to a society–a skilled, employed citizenry whose members aren't bogged down with debt and fretting about career prospects, but who may lack a familiarity with classic literature and the tools to create and articulate a strong rhetorical argument; or a citizenry with an expansive, nuanced worldview and passing familiarity with the major theories and works that have shaped history, but with a murky job outlook and a lack of hard skills–but that ultimately proves to be a straw man argument and one with a distinct intellectual bias. Certainly not everyone who doesn't pursue traditional higher ed is anti-intellectual and among those who do, there are more than enough narrow-minded mouthbreathers to disprove the idea that education is automatically correlated to erudition or enlightenment. The idea of encouraging, from a young age, a society-wide culture of self-driven, life-long learning and curiosity (regardless of one's level of formal educational attainment) needs to get more play. We've gotten so used to the idea of expecting an external pay-off (grades, salary, degree, career advancement) for undertaking knowledge-building activities that inculcating the idea of curiosity for its own sake and as a means of simply opening our minds and introducing us to new and exciting information just for kicks will require one helluva a marketing sell job.

Will an emphasis on technical training further social stratification/fragmentation?

Not everyone who goes to college is suited for the nature of the experience (whether because of a genuine personality mismatch or simply not being conditioned to see themselves as "college material" from a young age) and benefits from it in a manner commensurate with the tuition they're paying to be there. Not everyone who would benefit from the collegiate experience has the opportunity to partake (for financial reasons, family obligations, lack of appropriate educational background, lack of encouragement, never having been socialized to view post-secondary education as a viable or relevant choice). And not everyone who enrolls in college completes their degree; in fact, only 58 percent of students graduate within six years with their bachelor's degree.

And yet, framing the idea of vocational training and apprenticeships as lower-cost option, a fast-track to the workforce and/or more suitable for those who are uninterested or not academically-suited for a traditional college experience is problematic, especially if the attainment of a college degree is still held up as a status symbol/proxy for a certain level of analytical/critical thinking skills and a widespread prerequisite for entry-level positions in Corporate America. It brings about the possibility of a very uncomfortable scenario in which we urge lower-income folks onto technical training paths with the promise of job security (the world will always need plumbers, carpenters, electricians, etc.), but still reserve participation/enfranchisement in the public discourse for those with a college (and beyond) education. Those without the same frame of reference (in terms of experience and knowledge base) get frozen out and the language and symbols of a collegiate background function as some sort of secret handshake for the economic-cum-intellectual elite (yes, this absolutely exists now, but I'm talking about an even greater level of exclusivity).

Make no mistake, folks with the means to do so will still be pursuing post-secondary education whether they're invested in the process or not, because graduating from an Ivy League school has social/political/industry cachet and allows you entree into a rarefied network of alumni and influence-makers. While post-secondary education is absolutely a privilege in our society, the barriers to entry are still such that if you turn in a decent high school performance and are willing/able to assume ten of thousands of dollars of debt load, you too can open the door to an ivory tower somewhere.

Something about the idea of discouraging youth from choosing a college education on economic grounds or because of a lack of job prospects at the end of the process or because their life experience hasn't included the foundation that would support the pursuit of higher ed, while simultaneously, at a societal level, still fetishizing the attainment of advanced credentials and considering them to be the calling cards of the position of power and authority just rubs me the very wrongest of ways.

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14 Comments Have Been Posted

The Purposes of College: Real, Desired and Imagined

Long ago when my high school guidance counselor asked me why i wanted to go to college i answered: "To learn." He was taken aback but very pleased to hear that. He told me that most students answered that they wanted to go to college to get a better job or to make more money. The questions you posed are good ones, and the answers seem to vary a lot. In fact it seems that from one class another, from one professor to another, and from one school to another, the purpose of higher education seems to vary greatly. At times, in some cases, those purposes seem Machiavellian. How else can we explain why Paul W Wolfowitz (sp?) holds a professorship at Yale and teaches that we should take the world's resources by force? How can we explain how Jphn Yoo who advocates torture and helped draw up the Bush Administration's policy of torture can hold a Professorship at U.C. Berkeley? How do we explain how George W. Bush got a diploma? Looking at some of the most successful business people we find many who don't have much higher education. We also find people with diplomas and degrees in law from the best institutions in the world who seem oblivious to individual liberty and act like they had never hear of the Bill of Rights or the Magna Carte. Yes, college degrees are often used as a prerequisite for some jobs, but why? As the laws of governments around the world have been utilized to create an over supply of desperate starving people fighting each other for lower and lower paying jobs, and to justify the multiple lottery winning level salaries of a relative handful of people, the college requirements can seem to the cynical as a ruse in a game. i don't want to be that cynical. Some of the best achievements that further the welfare of womankind as a whole can be aided by acquiring knowledge. Learning can be more than just its own purpose. It can also be used to find and promote more hideous ways of man's inhumanity to womankind. The questios asked are all good ones. i doubt that they shall ever be adequately answered.

What this economic downturn

What this economic downturn - created by those at the very top of the societal food chain - is basically reactivate the concept that only upper middle class able bodied cis white folks are allowed to pursue "dreams". The rest of us have to be "practical". Never mind, this has always been the case, only now they have a brand new argument capitalizing on the current economic woes, which are disproportionately affected marginalized folks - as usual.

There has long been a stratification by class, which lumps many POCs - irrespective of actual class status - into a group strongly urged to seek out careers in vocational trades. Moreover, military recruiters don't do their recruiting in the affluent suburbs, but in the projects or trailer parks, where the children are viewed as disposal.

Middle class white folks might be hand wringing over the value of a college education, but for the most part, they aren't going to be the ones subjected to the penalties if they lack one. As long as marginalized folks are required to be 10x as good to be seen as average, it's just not a matter of whether or not to get an education, but just how much education and where in order to have a shot at being economically competitive.

Great post!!!

Oops And More

Oops! Sorry about my failure to adequately proofread my last comment prior to posting it. i also left out more of the positive things about college: There are so many opportunities to read, learn, discuss, argue, and be exposed to new ideas. Some of the things i was exposed to may have seemed trite ot pedantic at the time, but the thoughts were there to build on. Many did come from other students. Once when i was attempting pretentiousness by reciting Aristotle's "Absolute Truth", another student pointed out the weakness in it. In posing the attempted proof by asking whether the statement "There is no truth" was true or false and claiming there was truth either way, Aristotle presumed the existence of truth in posing the question. He attempted to prove the existence of something by presuming the concept existed to start with. This may be pedantic and trite, but it may well be the case within many theorems. Maybe i would not ask this if i had studied more, but didn't Einstein's "proof" that the multidimensional mattergy system was non-Euclidian result in part from his presumption that gravity could not exceed the speed of light? i do wish i'd studied more. i don't even know how many dimensions Einstein thought there might be. The current super-string unification theories (quantum physics and Relativity) are interesting. Sorry. I strayed from the topic. It does seem like the education requirements diplomas issued as a requirement for entrance into the realm controlled by the Council On Foreign Relations and the top corporate jobs is a very expensive initiation fee. It would be nice if education were not such a closed system and were more affordable. It would be nice if knuckledraggers understood why having our world societies turn out like they are part of George Orwell's novel "1984" is not a good thing. Oh well. It would be nice.... i wish.... that wasn't so old and that i could be attending college with the people who write Bitch Magazine and the Bitch Blogs.

A degree is useless

What it takes is whatever it takes to survive in this world while figuring out what it is you really want to make of yourself in this world. I don't quite regret wasting four-plus years in college. But I can't say I actively used anything I supposedly learned, just because employers in white-collar jobs in general require that four-year degree. My degree, journalism, requires on-the-job experience over classroom learning. I used more of the skills on-the-job as a UH reporter (and previously, as a high school editor/reporter) on my jobs than anything else I had to learn in college just to get the degree. On one job, as an editor for a visitor publication in Waikiki, I replaced an over-educated grad school, who just couldn't handle the deadlines, much less figure out how to turn her computer on and work with Quark. They told me she grew so easily frustrated and flustered that she'd take to slamming the computer terminal with her fists, receiving a reprimand, and eventually, a firing. She just couldn't handle real life. Me, I could, because that's what I did in school and in my volunteer work. That's another hint that may still apply even in this recession. Volunteer in the field you want a job in, while holding down a bill-paying job. When my son grows up and graduates high school, I'll be hard-pressed to automatically fold him into the collegiate process if he had any leaning toward vocational work. We'll see.

I'd be real careful with

I'd be real careful with generalizations such as, "A degree is useless" without some serious unpacking of privilege to accompany it. Also, your lived experiences, while valuable in terms of what they contribute to the overall conversation are not a stand in for factual analysis of the systemic issues regarding the ways in which formal education is privileged or what an actual education is expected to provide.

Much of your response scans as supportive of meritocracy, which does not exist. Moreover, maybe you were not asked to prove your educational credentials via various hoops, but for the most part, that does not reflect the way in which many marginalized folks navigate the workforce, so some acknowledgement of that perspective is useful.

"I replaced an over-educated grad school"

Statements such of these smack of a sense of entitlement and unchecked privilege, which is really rather problematic. Also, the judgment implied is really unnecessary. Again, who are you to decide who is or isn't overeducated. Again. much of your comment needs some serious unpacking.

Thank you for writing this,

Thank you for writing this, Snarky's Machine.

I also wanted to add that if education degrees were so useless, then why the hell are newcomers to the United States and Canada always told they need "Canadian/American educational credentials" whereas their perfectly, well-earned, "foreign" degrees are rejected? I understand there are Canadian/American job regulations to comply with, but, honestly, the fact is, most of these "foreign" degrees are not all that different from "our" (Canada/US) own. The fact is, a lack of an education degree has always been used to further marginalize people and oppress them - e.g.: "Oh, you don't have a [certain] degree? Sorry, you're useless" or "Hey, we can justify paying you lower wages with no benefits."

Also, let's not dismiss the fact that university degrees can potentially be a way of social mobility for people of colour. In a system where untrue and unfair stereotypes are held against people of colour, sometimes education can be liberating since it gives you that "credential" (even though a degree does not prove you are necessarily more intelligent, but because, as Snarky's Machine has pointed out, formal education is more privileged, it portrays the person as more valuable), which can potentially lead to higher-paying jobs and, thus, having an opportunity to break into the oppressive system.

However, I do understand CBW's comment that hands-on training/learning/volunteering has been immensely useful in navigating in the real-life workforce. I do not deny that hands-on experience is what matters the most after you graduate (because, honestly, your grades from university won't matter to employers once you've left school for x-number of years), but without my higher education, I would not have found the career path I wanted to go into, without my higher education, I would not have learned how the system we live in works to oppress people, without my higher education, I would not have become more open-minded, and, without it, I would not be have been exposed to all sorts of wonderful things that shape who I am today, like Bitch Magazine.

CBW, I completely understand where you're coming from and I truly believe that real-life experience is extremely important, but like Snarky's Machine, I am a bit put off that you shun the education that you were so privileged to gain. I come from a modest family background where education cannot be taken for granted because of hard my family has had to struggle to put me through it.

Just to clarify...CBW didn't

Just to clarify...CBW didn't say, "education is useless" but rather that "degrees are useless". The degree itself didn't teach you anything. You essentially purchased the degree--you could have learned to be open-minded for free.

I second Snarky's.

A privilege check is in order here, although you're right that, as Maureen pointed out, it is kind of bogus that most white-collar jobs require a college degree because we're still at a point where LOTS of people don't have access to one. Also, one "over-educated" coworker (who may have been stressed out by any number of non-work related things–like maybe her grad school loans?) who slams a computer terminal does not a "useless degree" make.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

Your Comment Is Full of Contradictions

Your assumption here is absolutely riddled with holes. You say your degree was worthless? You say you learned nothing except for your work editing the school newspaper? Excuse me, but if you hadn't attended school, how the heck would you have gained that hands-on experience? The degree is the absolute bare minimum, in any field and for any degree. It's what you do while you're in school that matters. Don't ignore the fact that school gave you access to the very opportunities you admit have been so useful to you just because life didn't turn out how you expected. I'm not trying to sound harsh, but as a fellow journalism graduate, one who is actually employed in the field, I hate the idea that somebody might read your comment and give up on their dreams.

I don't think this comment

I don't think this comment was advising people to "give up on their dream". Quite the contrary. What I read was, "Don't think you need to drop $100,000 in order to acheive your dream."

There have been many attacks on this comment that have me puzzled. Of course privillage needs to be unpacked...but degrees make it easier for the status quo to be maintained and for privillage to be doled out to only the select few who can afford it. So why is this poster being attacked?

To barr one from even being allowed to interview for a job unless one has a degree is to further stratify a society which is already divided.

There are ways other than college to join in discussions and debates. There are other mediums through which to collaborate with individuals of similar interests, and there are innumberable routes through which one can self-educate...and you don't need to prove you're worthy to be involved, nor do you have to borrow massive amounts of money from the government in order to gain inclusion.

I don't think degrees are worthless. But I do think college is a scam. And I think the poster who stated that degrees are worthless has a valid opinion, more worth considering than attacking.

About privilege and dreams...

@A Cat - To possess a degree, but to flippantly suggest it is worthless is pretty privileged thing to be able to do. Such a person is revealing that they had the economic freedom to pursue a college degree, and now has the economic freedom to not be really really mad that the incredibly large expenditure of money turned out to be more of an entrance fee. It does us no good to acknowledge that the system is flawed, but then to point out all the ways we as individuals can get around the system. Or to point out how the system doesn't really bother us. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that this is the definition of privilege - unfair and unearned advantages that allow an unfair system to perpetuate while allowing individuals to believe their ability to beat the system is earned. It also does us no good to suggest that degrees shouldn't matter - because they do. I think we're all in agreement that degrees matter for a variety of dubious reasons, that they sometimes function a little more like secret hand shakes than proper training, but that really doesn't change the fact that they do matter.
Can a person have a full and meaningful life without dropping $100k on a degree? For sure. Can a person become a doctor, lawyer or CEO without dropping $100k? No. They really can't. I think we need to acknowledge that a whole system of unearned privileges kinda predicts who has access to those $100k degree jobs. And, to imagine yourself a person with value outside of those prestigious jobs is also often the result of afforded privilege.

great questions!

excellent post. this is something I think about a lot, as I was a student at UC Berkeley last year but had to drop out after two semesters because I went broke paying out-of-state tuition. (it's nice to know that there are people out there who know formal education doesn't unequivocally denote intelligence, and vice versa!) I struggle in my decision whether or not to try to go back to college, because one part of me wants to try to subvert the system and succeed without a college degree--to prove that it can by done to those who say it can't. but the other part of me loves learning and dearly misses the college experience, and recognizes that while paying for school will be difficult for me, I do have comparable privilege and shouldn't be so glib about it. I see both the benefits and detriments of each option!

Familiarity with classic

Familiarity with classic literature ? You mean like Elie Wiesel and Philip Roth?

hypocritical white people shut up

This comment has been deleted by the administration. The subject might let you know why that is, since we don't take kindly to anyone telling anyone else to "shut up."

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