When I posted on this subject a few days ago, I wish I had known this would be Mainstream Media Says College Sucks week. National Public Radio, the New York Times and the Economist have been discussing the ever greater burden of college tuition, the extremely poor guidance colleges give new students about the cost, the mismatch between graduates and the job market. Even the new sitcom Silicon Valley gets its hero his start by having him tell a major tech investor that if he doesn’t get funding, he might have to go back to college.
But no one has a solution, except regulation and future innovation. This avoids the problem. People go to college for different reasons, but most white-collar employers* use college as minimum requirement.
A college degree is not a guarantee of useful professional skills. A math major, a marketing major and an English major may join the same company the day after graduation, but the first two will get work in keeping with their training sooner than the last. I was a young English major looking for work in the recession of 1989, and I didn’t have a thing about me that an employer would want. But I didn’t quite know that until it was too late.
The university has failed to send many of its now indebted graduates out into the world with confidence.
I don’t think the answer is to restrict the number of liberal-arts degrees. Let people study what they want to study. But, rethink the purpose of the minor degree, as an indicator of learned real-world skills of use to employers. My dad observes that the Kaypro IIx computer he bought me in 1984 did more for my prospects than the four years of college. I had the skills of a web designer, back when the field was too young for a university to teach that, and it got me my great career. But I got lucky — not every hobby leads to a field that explodes.
Maybe today’s students should be encouraged to pick one course a semester focused only on future employment prospects — something they enjoy, and that someone would pay them for. This would be a perfect place for young imaginative people to experiment with new fields, like 3-d printing or genetic medicine. To make it easier the university might even define the curriculum, and make the eighth semester a coached effort to look for work. Dedicated future academics might skip that plan, but the rest of us could use it, and many employers would jump at the chance to work with sharp young minds exploring their industry.
That’s my modest proposal. More grandiosely, we need to better identify what kids still need when they leave high-school, including maturity, and find a way to support it. I often think that a year of work would have been a better thing for me than going straight to college from high-school. But our system has no real place for such a decision, so even today the seeker gets either an unskilled job** for a year, or unpaid internships that only the children of wealth can afford to take.
Higher education is going to change. Nice if people could find a way to do it with forethought, but maybe that’s just not possible. I started the last essay noting that my father had given my son college funds. We are lucky to be able to start saving now on his behalf, but it still seems like a scam — a tax advantage to save to pay future bills that will only fatten with the prospect of all that guaranteed revenue. Someone needs to realign the university to the public good, or people are going to do it with their feet.
*This includes the anti-collegians in the entrepreneurial world. They don’t pass on the need for general autodidacts to the HR department.
**I worked in telemarketing the summer before college, a field I returned to often.