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Buried Under a Mountain of Student Debt: But Do You Really Need a College Degree?

"Credential inflation" keeps you chasing after more degrees that may not even help you find a job. A college education may now be a “fraudulent investment”

Widener Library at Harvard University. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Educators know that college may not be for everyone. There are all kinds of aptitudes, skills, talents, and abilities—and above all, motivations and interests. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are all college dropouts. Sadly though, it’s politically incorrect to acknowledge that people are different and that there are many ways to fulfill your potential, find a rewarding occupation and earn a good living. Our young people have been blinded to the many possibilities that exist and we educators are too paralyzed by political correctness to give them sound and realistic advice.

The cost of a college education is out of control. This isn’t a surprise to anyone who reads the news, and most especially to any parent who either has a son or daughter attending college or who soon will have one. We all know about the prohibitive cost of tuition at elite private institutions, but did you know that proportionally, even a public system such as SUNY or CUNY is now out of reach for many aspiring students?

Lehman College, City University of New York. Annual cost: $7,410. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In my many years of teaching at City University of New York I was privy to many heartbreaking stories from students who wanted more than anything to attend college, but they had to make enormous sacrifices in order to do so. Occasionally I would have a student who would fall asleep during class (and not because I was a boring teacher) and I would later find out that this young man or woman was working nights in order to afford the tuition and fees, attended classes during the day and still had to find time to study. In one particularly distressing case a young woman confessed to me that she had to walk miles and miles to the campus because she was homeless and didn’t have the bus fare. This incredibly sad story was later verified when I referred her to Student Services and they helped her find housing and gave her a stipend for transportation.

The amount that these students pay, an average of $7,500 a year, may seem modest to others who spend $60,000 or $70,000 for a private college, but the relative expense is equally crushing, and they end up with student loan debt that will make the difference between success or failure in their careers.

The debate about cancelling student debt has gained momentum since the presidential campaign of 2020, mostly thanks to the progressive candidates and other lawmakers such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Now  under President Biden, the focus seems to have shifted from whether we should forgive student debt, to what amount we should cancel.

President Biden is suggesting canceling $10,000 in debt for all borrowers, Senators Charles Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, up to $50,000 in debt per borrower. Other lawmakers, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ayanna Pressley, go all out and propose the cancellation of all debt for each borrower. This latter proposal would cost about $1.56 trillion.

There are many  reasons being adduced to justify canceling student debt, but an upshot of the increased scrutiny on the issue is that now we’re even questioning whether a college education is a good investment at all. Ever since the post-WWII period we have held on to the belief that a college education was a fundamental necessity to get ahead in life and that as a result, each generation would do better than the previous. This may have been true for boomers, but as one writer put it, “that dream is now dead.”  The social model that posited that each individual would have secure full-time employment and own a house, what has been called the concept of perpetual progress, is a thing of the past.

The long-standing socio-economic class model used to be a triangle with the tip representing roughly 5% of the total population, while the middle class represented a large proportion of it and the working class the broad but thin, base. Today, as economic inequity increases, the middle class is slowly but surely shrinking while the tiny elite gets richer and the working class gets more populous and poorer. As the top and the bottom are pulling away from each other, the socio-economic model now resembles an hour-glass.

Young people joining the labor market today often already have an average of $50,000 to $100,000 in student debt–and as much as close to $200,000 for an advanced degree.  And they “will struggle to find the sort of permanent well-paid, pensionable job that their parents would have walked into three or four decades ago.”  They are far less likely to have job security and will most likely rent rather than buy a home—at least for a long, long time. In short, a college education is no longer a guarantee of success.

What’s more, thanks to what has been called  credential inflation, they are being forced to buy more education to qualify for the same jobs, but wages have not kept up with the cost of the degrees that they are being compelled to chase.

Students on Drexel Campus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Given these serious considerations regarding the value of a college education and the hardships it imposes on young people and their parents, it’s time to ask, “Why do it?”

My own experience as an educator has repeatedly confirmed that college is not for everyone, and let me make it clear right here that this applies to all races and ethnicities, no matter whether you’re black, white or brown. As an educator I shouldn’t be saying this because the official line is that every student is “college material”. What this means, I don’t know because there are all kinds of aptitudes, skills, talents, and abilities—and above all, interests and motivations. It’s only a matter of finding what is the right fit for the individual, and this doesn’t always involve college. Richard Branson, the founder of  the Virgin Group, never finished high school. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are all college dropouts. Sadly though, it’s politically incorrect to acknowledge that people are different and that there are many ways to fulfill your potential, find a rewarding occupation and earn a good living. Our young people have been blinded to the many possibilities that exist and we educators are too paralyzed by political correctness to give them sound and realistic advice.

A plumber earns an average of $50,000. An electrician $60,000. Compare that to the $28,000 salary of a NYC government office clerk–a frequent employment outlet for non-specialized graduates especially of State or Municipal systems.

Boardman Manual Training School in New Haven, Connecticut, where manual skills were taught alongside academics between 1847 to 1956. Photo: Picryl

Looking at the big picture, the trades are dying out, yet skilled manual occupations are essential to any society. How can a society run efficiently without the panoply of occupations that don’t demand a college degree? In an ironic twist, there was a time, some decades ago, when education used to be more democratic, when it used to offer the choice of “tracks”: vocational, artistic and academic in just about any public high school, and some were specialized in just vocational or artistic.  However, at a certain point it was decided that vocational schools dragged students down and were condescending. The belief that everyone should get an academic education meant that the choice was taken away from those who might have wanted to get the training necessary to go into the trades. Only a handful of public vocational high schools still exist. Such programs, formerly free, are now available in for-profit trade schools for what is sometimes  quite a hefty fee.

In an article in Education Week, Marc Tucker writes about the connections between the death of vocational education and the demise of the middle class. He points out that in this country education evolved as an either/or proposition: academic or vocational—and the two were mutually exclusive, but “Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Denmark and other leading industrial countries…doubled down to improve both their academic and their vocational programs. They built education systems designed to support the middle class as well as an elite. They built vocational education programs that require high academic skills”. What’s more, apprenticeships offered through the public schools, are making a comeback in Switzerland.

Queens Technical High School, one of the few public vocational high schools still in existence in New York. Photo: Wikipedia

Far from limiting the choices available to students in the interests of political correctness, these countries now enjoy the benefits of “a work force that is balanced between managers and workers, scientists and technicians. No one tells an individual student what he or she will do with their life. But those students have a range of attractive choices.”

With hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition costs for a college degree that is increasingly being called a “fraudulent investment,” it’s time to think of the alternatives for the greater good of the individual and society. College truly is not for everyone, but it may also not be necessary.



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