Inflation of the University Degree

Catch 22s

Well it seems now that college graduates are up in arms about the student loan payments that they will have to make after graduation, and while Congress and the President have taken the necessary measures to keep student loan rates from increasing, college graduates still must confront a job market that is reluctant to hire them. I’d like to say that I’m doubly cursed in this market since I have more than one college degree: job seekers with graduate degrees are often seen as “overqualified” and rejected without hesitation. So much for a system that rewards merit.

But that has never been an across the board attribute of market economics: what cuts corners and delivers the product or service cheapest is declared the best and if a prospective employee can be trained to do a job without having a college education, then why hire the college educated job applicant? We have long faced a situation in which educated workers are considered disposable, and this will likely play out in a “lost generation” years after the current economic climate has past. While I tend to think the job market will eventually improve, this “lost generation” will have drowned its future in student loan defaults that will shackle it to the grave. Considering that many employers now review the credit records of prospective applicants, this lost generation will discover a catch 22 situation: in order to get out of debt, they will have to find employment, yet in order to find employment, they will have to have spotless credit records. If there is one cause that this lost generation should take up, it should push for legislation to bar employers from using credit reports to screen job applicants except for financially sensitive positions.

Papier-mâché or Piñata Wrap: the College Diploma

In this day of investment, no one generally thinks of a college education as an investment that carries a certain amount of risk. That’s right, risk, much like marriage is an investment that carries its own risk. A prospective college student (and this applies to graduate education as well) throws into the university’s coffers student loan money and invests study in a major field that he or she loves and hopes he or she can make a living off of to pay the loans.

It is rather strange how the overall costs of degrees have increased over the past twenty years when the job market has not seen any robust spurts of hiring: at least not the sort we have seen since World War II and the 50s. My undergraduate alma mater, the University of Richmond, which is a private school, cost about 8k a year during the late 80s to the early 90s. The cost to attend now is nearly 50k a year. I can say that considering my time there and my overall job history, it was probably not a good investment despite the school having the perception that it is “very competitive”. But what justifies such increases in tuition, especially at a time when employers are reluctant to hire college graduates at all? It would seem that the lack of demand might drive down the cost of the degree but that has not happened.

We hear of the studies indicating that on average, individuals who have college degrees make more over their lifetimes than those who do not have college degrees. We have to be wary of these statistics because that’s what they are: a sample of individuals who provide information for quantitative analysis and the information those individuals provide may or may not be true. All of the exit polls in the world will never guarantee who the winner of an election will be: only an accurate tally of the actual votes will.

But considering that a college education is an investment that carries risk, what does that mean for the public? Should we consider universities as no more than investment houses, like so many banks that have fallen out of favor in recent years? And do we not hear the public call for more regulation—in light of the mortgage crisis—of banks? If we are facing the possibility of large student defaults, should the public call for more control of the university curriculum, so that students graduate into jobs for which there is an ample supply?

The Liberal Arts Degree in the Human Disciplines

Mostly professors and graduate students these days are all up in arms about budget cuts in the human disciplines. At one of my graduate alma maters, Florida State University, the university has been phasing out the anthropology department because of state budget cuts.

Essentially, all of the human disciplines, from English to philosophy to history and religion, claim critical thinking as their mission. Well, with so many disciplines claiming critical thinking as their mission, is there not the hint of redundancy in the air? What if the physics department and the statistics department claimed education in calculus was their mission? If that was the case, then it would seem prudent that one department ought to be eliminated. But also consider this: is it not the mission of the sciences to also encourage critical thinking among their students? If so, then that would express another redundancy in the existence of the human disciplines: for they cannot show that they are alone the exclusive domain of critical thinking within the academy.

I am not calling for the extinction of all of the human disciplines here: I think that the fine arts, digital arts, and music are all valuable because the market does reward creativity.1 Each of the departments of human disciplines for which there are literature components should be stringently evaluated for their effectiveness (from the categories I mentioned above). Not every English major will be an English professor and even if he or she does obtain the PhD, tenure track jobs in the humanities are about as plentiful as polka dot onions. The professoriate these days is still top heavy with scholars from the baby boomer generation who are staying on longer now that their TIAA-CREF accounts took a major hit after the mortgage crisis became full blown. The public should also consider modifying tenure to address the specter of faculty who have long stopped publishing after they have gained tenure.

Because education is of high value to the public, the public, and not the professoriate, should determine which subjects are worthwhile and such a determination should be made with, perhaps, some consideration of market demands and realistic outcomes. The ability to critically analyze literature is simply not a valuable job skill unless one is going into the professoriate or editorial/writing related field: jobs that are by definition scarce. If we are going to socialize the losses of banks or the auto industry and regulate them to prevent future risky behavior, we have to socialize the goals of the university to make sure that it does not profit off of degrees that are worthless to former students in the job market and saddles them with needless debt that will strain the social safety net.

  1. Well, I say that knowing the likes of Justin Bieber accumulate wealth by the second without burning a brain cell while avant-garde, cutting edge artists like Laurie Anderson or Brian Eno still labor in the shadows. []

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is working on his dissertation in history at Florida State University. He has taught US history, Western Civilizations, and Modern Global history at Tallahassee Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, and Howard Community College, the history of western science at Florida State University, symbolic logic at Ohio University, and digital multimedia and graphic design at Sanford Brown College in Boston, MA. Read other articles by Harvey.