Degrees and deadweight debt

By DailyCollegian.com Staff

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Paige Teeny/Collegian

College has been part of the American way of life for decades. Whether it is the celebration of drunken frat-festivities found in ever-popular films like “Old School” and “Animal House”, the rituals of college sports seen on the television, or the expectation that every adult get at least a bachelor‘s degree that proliferates in high school and the job-market, the institution of college is ubiquitous in American culture. It is difficult not to see it, and it is even more difficult to escape it.

From the Center of Advanced Studies at Princeton University, to the football stadium of Ole Miss, it’s clear that college is everywhere and it has become a major feature of our popular culture.  Beneath the popular veneer of parties, sports, and intellect, lies a stark reality of student-debt and an institution that is doing little to prepare its students for professional lives and the market. We must reassess the role of college in American society with facts that are clearly represented in college graduates. There is a clear pattern of college students paying thousands upon thousands of dollars for degrees that will provide them little advantage in their future professional lives.

The average amount of debt a graduate has after completing his bachelor‘s degree is around $24,000.00. This number only continues to grow with many students deciding to take on more debt in graduate school. This amount of debt is nothing to laugh at, indeed the mean is skewed by the fact that many students either take much more debt or get through college without any, especially when the rate of interest loans are at eight percent.Undaunted, the line of potential debtors never ends and there seems to be no limit to the levels of fees and tuition colleges seem capable of demanding. Naïve high-school seniors, motivated by desires for academics success and later wealth as well as the glory of attending a top-tier school, who think that scholarships and thrift will be their safeguard, annually agree to pay ridiculous sums for their degrees.

This already gloomy outlook is made worse by the fact that the unemployment rate among college graduates is around 20 percent and an equal number are working jobs that do not require a degree. Too many have a future that consists of hanging up their graduation cap and taking their old room back at their parents’ house. Without a doubt, the Occupy Wall Street movement has tapped into some of the anger that recent graduates feel after finishing school.

Nevertheless, the movement has only put into question who ought to pay the costs of education? And should the government interfere with its prices?

Much breath and ink has been expelled about how the massive amount of money students and parents of college students spend is an investment in America’s future. A romantic view of higher education dominates our culture: college is a place where students are quickly instructed in the knowledge necessary to fill jobs in a modern and futuristic economy that will ensure American economic prowess in years to come. In this light, more college graduates are a good thing; the more people who go to college the better, and if someone does not go to college, then their future and whatever good they could have done in the economy is forfeit.

However, this greatly overestimates the amount of education that students are getting in college that is actually applicable to serving their fellow human beings’ needs in the market place. Without a doubt, there are students out there who are learning skills that they will use every day in their future careers and there is certainly a market demand for college-educated minds. No one would dispute that. What is to be disputed is whether there is a market-demand for much of the results that have come out of the higher education system.

There is a strong point to be made against whether college is the period of skill-acquisition that the romantic view ascribes to it, but an even more pressing concern is whether the skills that are acquired have a practical use in the economy. A student may be able to write a long, well-researched paper about the nature of gender inequalities within society, but how does that skill translate into being able to produce a desirable commodity in the economy? This is the same for the vast majority of skills learned in the course of earning one of the many degrees in the arts and humanities. Yet students still decide to get into thousands of dollars of debt in order to earn a degree that actually says very little about what good they are able to do in the marketplace.

Add in the fact that the deteriorating standards of undergraduate education and the fact that many undergraduates’ lives consist of the holy trinity of booze, partying and sleeping until noon and one has a degree that is barely worth the expensive piece of paper it was printed on. There cannot be a grand conspiracy against undergraduates since the source of debt and idle graduates is just as much a result of the voluntary decisions of each person as it is with stagnant economic conditions. To make matters even worse, many college graduates come out of college with the notion that they will be able to get a position utilizing their degree straight out of the gates and that they will be able see immediate results.

All of the evidence suggests that for a sizable portion of the students filling today’s lecture halls, going to college was a questionable decision. The fact is that the price tag of a degree today is far too high for most students to be gentleman scholars and become educated in a field that they will never be able to profit from. Yet that is what is going on every day and it is continued every fall with the arrival of new freshmen. The worst part is that most are unaware of the hole that they are digging for themselves until it comes time to actually apply their skills in the job market.

Furthermore, with the emergence of innovations like the Internet, the reputable blogosphere (if you think only cranks write blogs check out marginalrevolution.com and econlib.com) and podcasts, there is reason to doubt whether the age-old ritual of the lecture halls even makes sense anymore. Despite this, commitment to higher education is a given in American society and to question whether someone ought to go to college is as great an insult to someone‘s dignity as one can muster. To bring up that question is to relegate someone to the lowest class of society and to deny them what are thought to be the many fruits of a college education. However, with many students unemployed and with the burden of debt ever weightier upon their backs, it is inhumane to doom each young adult to economic insolvency and a set of skills no one can to pay for.

It does not seem likely, but it would be greatly advantageous to everyone if the revaluation of college happened before stark economic reality forces it upon us. However, much like how the housing bubble persisted before a forced revaluation that the Federal government still attempts to fight, so too will the college bubble persist. The longer it lasts, the more brutal the necessary revaluation will become. It is time to simply ask the question: What is the role of college in America and does everyone really need an undergraduate degree?

Harrison Searles is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]