Last week I read a short, brutally honest and refreshingly hard-hitting book titled “Worthless: The Young Person’s Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major,” by Aaron Clarey.
According to the blurb on Amazon.com: “‘Worthless’ delivers a blunt and real-world assessment about the economic realities and consequences of choosing various degrees with a necessary and tough fatherly love. Don’t lie to yourself. And certainly don’t waste four years of your youth and thousands of dollars in tuition on a worthless degree.”
The book more than lived up to its title. Seldom have I seen the college industry laid out with such harsh honesty – and I mean that in the best sense of the word.
The big concept this author attempts to convey is to match supply with demand. Don’t waste time and money getting useless degrees for which there is no need. There are far more degreed individuals than there are well-paying jobs to employ them, which is why so many college graduates can’t find jobs commensurate with their education.
The author warns young people that it isn’t just the unemployment rate they should be worried about; it’s the underemployment rate. Y’know, the barista working at Starbucks with a master’s degree in gender studies who has $90,000 in student loans weighing her down.
Clarey lists some sample fields of study: international studies, sociology, nonprofit administration, African studies, English, psychology, elementary education, arts and architectural history. He points out that every single one of these graduates will be lucky to work as baristas at Starbucks for one simple reason: There is no demand for graduates in these fields.
I don’t care how interesting, worthy, compassionate or intellectually stimulating these areas of study are. The brutal, ugly truth is, no one is in a position to pay a living wage for them, so graduates will be cut adrift the moment they leave the artificial environment of college.
The author illustrates this point by highlighting a news article about a young art teacher who returned to graduate school and spent three years and $35,000 to get his master’s degree in – are you ready for this? – puppetry.
At best, graduates in “useless” fields may find work in what Clarey calls “the circle of why bother” in which “the primary form of employment … is to simply re-teach it to future students.” He points out that these fields have no practical application outside of academia and, therefore, have no value in the marketplace.
It’s not hard to figure out what’s worthwhile studying in college. Simply look at who’s hiring. Go through the want ads and figure out what businesses or companies are shelling out $50,000 in starting salaries and benefits. I see nurses, I see accountants, I see physicians, I see engineers, I see clerical and construction and data entry and computer programming and landscaping and truck driving. I never see ads in the fields of history, gender or women’s studies, peace studies, hyphenated-American studies, theater majors or literature experts. Why is that, do you suppose?
As young people face the challenge of what to do in their adult lives, they must be practical, not idealistic. They can get away with idealism when they’re being supported by Mom and Dad (or by student loans), but once they’re out on their own, they’d darn well better have some marketable skills. And no matter how you slice it, degrees in gender studies or puppetry simply aren’t marketable. Even journalism and education, traditionally marketable subjects, are feeling the pinch of too many applicants and too few openings.
If someone isn’t inclined to study a hard STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) or another field with a high employment rate (such as accounting or nursing), then young people would be far better off creating their own employment or going to a technical or trade school to learn an in-demand skill.
We have many friends with children graduating high school and making decisions about their futures. One young man is learning to be a diesel mechanic. Another went to trade school to learn car upholstery. Yet another is becoming a butcher. These are highly-skilled trades that society will always need.
Yet ironically, many liberal arts graduates will actually look down at plumbers or welders or electricians or mechanics, who are making four times their salary, simply because these fields don’t have elegant letters after their names. However, as one recent grad named Andria (who has an “honors BA in social justice and peace studies” and a master’s degree in gender studies) lamented: “I have a honors BA and I’m defending my MA thesis in two weeks. I am also apply[ing] for jobs and I can only find stuff in the service industry. I applied for a hotel front desk clerk job today. My degrees mean NOTHING. I am at the end of my rope.”
Perhaps Andria should have become a plumber. Better job prospects, Andria.
The litmus test Clarey recommends is this: Take your area of interest (and/or study) and ask yourself, “Can I get the exact same education by either buying a product or doing it myself?”
Endless people have educated themselves and achieved career success without “formally” studying such things as foreign languages, journalism, business, education, leadership, advertising, theater, writing, broadcasting and sales.
The day of college just for college’s sake is past. The cost of college has surged 500 percent since 1985, making these worthless degrees even more worthless (and expensive). In the case of Andria, some degrees even have a negative value.
Perhaps this makes me sound like I loathe the liberal arts or higher education in general. Nothing could be further from the truth. My husband and I both have master’s degrees in the sciences. We have a private library of over 5,000 books. We have a lively interest in the arts, music, history, psychology, economics, politics and, yes, even feminism. We just didn’t waste our time or money getting worthless, unemployable degrees in those subjects.
Oh, and what are we doing with our science degrees? Nothing. We have a home woodcraft business. That’s reality, folks.
We’re reaching a point in our country where the economy is in deep, deep trouble. My advice for young people is this: Unless you’re entering a highly marketable field, then save yourself from acquiring the burden of debt caused by studying a useless subject. Instead, spend those four (or more) years apprenticing, attending a trade school, developing a work ethic, acquiring skills and talents and otherwise making yourself saleable in a harsh economy.
College will always be there.
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