Many years ago, a horticulturalist told me how and when certain potted plants bloom. When people see flowers, he said, they often think the plant is healthy and happy because the flowers are so beautiful. But he said that plants often bloom because they’re under physical stress, and they’re making a last biological shot to reproduce before they die. So while things may look beautiful and rosy, the presence of flowers often indicates the end is near.
Now fast forward to this week when I got my fall issue of U.C. Davis Magazine. UCD is my alma mater, and despite graduating nearly 30 years ago, the complimentary subscription has followed me wherever I’ve moved.
Rather than the usual colorful photo adorning the front cover, this issue featured a stark navy-blue background with a plain yellow headline in the center: “The Uncertain Fate of Higher Education.”
The table of contents summarized the cover article as follows: “With state funding down to 1997 levels and student fees up 82% in just six years, the UC is at a critical turning point.”
I blinked in astonishment at reading that. Student fees up 82 percent in six years? A table inside the article confirmed this figure. For a California resident in 2006-7, student fees were $8,323 per year. Last year, they were $15,123.
The article itself was a litany of woes: “The stories you hear around campus [are] disheartening as many students are forced to make a choice between ridiculous amounts of debt or to put a pause – sometimes an end – to their educations.”
The ultimate point of the article, of course, is the U.C. system wants struggling California taxpayers to further subsidize the cost of nearly a quarter-million college students enrolled in the nine-campus U.C. system. At the federal level, lobbyists are pushing for lower interest rates on student loans, almost all of which originate from the federal government.
Yet despite all the fiscal hardships facing students, college enrollment has not decreased. In fact, it’s increased. Like the beautiful blooming flowers of a potted plant, the seemingly healthy number of fresh-faced college students appears to indicate a thriving economy. With enrollment so high, everything must be healthy and happy, right?
Wrong. Like plants under physical stress, so many young people are enrolling in college because they don’t know what else to do after they graduate from high school. These students bloom during their college years, but underneath the seemingly healthy attendance numbers lay the massive stress of debt and the dire future of a depressed job market.
Often students live off government credit cards (student loans) while they obtain their degrees. Their hope is that good times will soon return along with endless job prospects, and they’ll be able to pay off that “credit card” someday.
But what actually happens when students graduate? Answer: For many, they’ll be dumped into a hostile economy that doesn’t care about their degree. Knowing this, some students won’t leave college. They’ll avoid facing the inevitable by pressing on for yet more higher education because, after all, no one’s hiring anybody with a mere bachelor’s degree in contemporary American literature. They’ll strive for a master’s degree or even a PhD, racking up more and more debt, hoping the economy will eventually improve enough that someone with a doctorate in contemporary American literature can actually find a job outside of a Starbuck’s.
Unfortunately, those people put adult plans (marriage, buying a home, etc.) on hold while they desperately wait for the economy to change. They continue racking up the debt until it becomes a truly threatening amount. And for what?
“Government data last year found that 53.6 percent of people under age 25 with a bachelor’s degree — about 1.5 million people — were unemployed or underemployed,” notes Karin Agness in Politico. “It is the highest percentage in more than a decade, reflecting just how far the economy is from recovery.”
“People with a college degree, on average, will earn significantly more over a lifetime than people without a degree,” writes educator and author Mike Rose. “[B]ut this wisdom is being challenged as tuition skyrockets, as certain white-collar occupations have become prey to computerization and outsourcing, and as the Great Recession has made so many kinds of employment vulnerable. We all know the stories of young people who are saddled with college debt and are working part time at jobs that do no require a college degree.”
In other words, you could be working as a barista with $100,000 in debt from your degree in psychology — or you could be working as a barista with no degree but also no debt. Which option sounds more attractive?
My advice to young people in today’s economy is this: As the U.C. Davis magazine notes, the cost of a higher education has nearly doubled in the last decade, climbing high above the rate of inflation. Unless you are firm and committed in your future plans, seriously reconsider the need to go to college until such time as there is a legitimate private-sector demand for your area of interest.
If you have a firm goal to be a doctor or an engineer or an architect, of course you’ll need the education to support these plans. But if you’re unsure of what you want to do – or, just as importantly, if you know the job market for your chosen field is very narrow – then please reconsider plunging yourself into crushing and unshakeable debt to obtain a useless degree in an unforgiving job market. Far better to cultivate practical and marketable skills as well as a practical and marketing work ethic.
I believe everyone should partake of higher education to qualify them for a productive adulthood in which they can make a living and support a family. But “higher education” is not limited to college, especially for an academic degree in (let’s face it) an impractical field. Rather, higher education should include training, apprenticeships, trade school or the old-fashioned working your way up the ladder from humble beginnings. Too many people graduate with elegant degrees but they can’t plumb, wire, build, sew, cook or tinker their way out of a paper bag and must hire well-paid experts to do this for them.
Additionally, young people ought to be cultivating the intangible but valuable skills all employers seek: a high work ethic, dedication, the ability to arrive on time, to perform a task without complaint and (after training) without supervision, the ability to write coherently instead of like a texting monkey, the ability to speak clearly without saying “like” or an expletive every fourth word and other indefinable skills that raise them head and shoulders above the crowd.
The nice thing about college is it’s always there. Nothing says you must attend college at 18. You can attend anytime. That door never shuts.
But a staggering debt at the tender age of 22 can shut doors – lots of them. You want to bloom out of joy, not stress. Please, think over your future plans carefully before plunging yourself into the pit of debt.