In 2014 the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a lengthy article about higher education funding titled “An Era of Neglect.” The number of candidates proposing reforms in higher education funding this election cycle has made student debt, education funding, and education costs hot topics again, so I think now is a good time to revisit these reports.
In short, between 2008 and 2014 economic downturns and private sector commitments to paying as few taxes as possible has led to cuts in state budgets. Rises in tuition costs during this period were exactly proportional in many cases to cuts in state budgets for education, and in order to drive up admissions, colleges are increasingly investing in sports and amenities rather than in qualified educators.
The result is that the business sector is getting what they’re paying for in the form of lesser-skilled college grads, the costs of college are being increasingly pushed onto the public in the form of debt, and a new debt crisis is looming as college graduates are increasingly unemployable or underemployed, making it difficult to repay these student loans.
While colleges and universities can be more responsible in their spending patterns, that by itself isn’t enough to reverse this situation.
You might think it’s smart to just skip college altogether, but with few exceptions, bad prospects for college grads mean worse ones for those without a college education.
The only winner in this situation is the financial sector, at the expense of taxpayers.
Most of my posts about higher education are directed toward people who are planning to go to college. What about those on the fence? Should you go to college at all?
The quick answer is, if you can do it debt free, do it. If you can do it low cost and low debt, do it. Do it and pursue your love. And I would say this on all levels, from two year degrees to Ph.D.s. If what you love isn’t practical or doesn’t provide a clear job path for you, or if it’s creative and if, in this field, being successful is like a small lottery win — still do what you love. If you can go to college debt free, or with very minimal debt, you have more to lose by not pursuing your love than by chasing it.
Now of course you need to worry about employability. One problem with higher ed. right now is perhaps best illustrated by the embedded table.
This table lists the top scores on the GRE (Graduate Records Examination) by major. The GRE is typically taken by college students near graduation to qualify them for graduate study at different institutions. You can think of it like an SAT or ACT for graduate school. At the time this data was collected, it measured student competency in three areas: Verbal, Quantitative (math), and Analytical (logic). The table to the left is arranged in the order of who gets the highest analytical scores. Can you guess? No, not science or philosophy majors. English majors score the highest on both the analytical and the verbal sections of the GRE, followed by, in order, Religion, Physics, and American History.
Now of the top four highest scoring majors, only one of them seems to hold the promise of any kind of certain employment. So the situation seems to be that the least seemingly practical majors offer the highest potential for cognitive and creative self development, but somewhat lower potential for income and employment. Which is unfortunate, because of all of the people who might walk into any office to be interviewed for a job, the most intellectually capable will usually be liberal arts majors. They can think the clearest and the fastest and can learn the quickest.
The reasons for this are simple: liberal arts majors, and especially English and history majors, read the most and write the most. So do religion majors (religion is just the study of a different set of literatures). At most of my previous institutions, typical English majors will read perhaps 20,000 pages or more and write about 2,000 pages or more over the course of their study. Their writing has to be more than just summary writing too — they need to present original arguments about their topics, at least original to them within the context of limited research time. That’s why English majors were, and still are, favored by law schools. That kind of research and argument writing is great preparation for legal work.
But the problem is, employers don’t know this about liberal arts graduates, and they don’t know what to do with them. What we have is a massive disconnect, then: employers don’t know how college educations work and what they produce, and neither do they seem to know how to match employees with jobs if their education isn’t specifically vocational. Colleges and universities, on the other hand, don’t know how to sell their majors to employers. So it seems that the safe thing to do is to pursue a major that clearly matches a job, and then to get the job that your degree has prepared you for.
But no, that’s not always the safe thing to do. A highly vocational education prepares you for a very limited range of jobs, and if you hate that one job you’re educated to do, you’ll find yourself either working a job that you hate, or going and doing something else and feeling that your college education was a massive waste of time and money. And if the industry changes, or rather when the industry changes, every time the industry changes (and it will), you will have to educate yourself again. Education never is a waste of time or money, of course: it always develops you. That is an investment that never goes away. Even if you don’t use your specific skill sets, you have developed cognitively in ways you may not even know. But you still don’t want to be found in this situation.
But that brings me back to my first point: if you go to college, pursue the things that you love. If you devote your time studying what you love, you will never regret that time spent, and it will develop you in ways you never before considered possible. But as you major in what you love, also minor in something that employers recognize: marketing, PR, management, finance, coding (.html, .xml, .php, flash, java). . . there’s a wide range. I would advise all English majors to learn a programming language and web technologies. I would extend that advice to all liberal arts majors.
I have not yet made it to the central question, though: should you go to college at all? I have known many capable, intelligent, and yes educated people who have never gone to college and have done well for themselves. These people are, however, in every sense of the word, exceptional. You also probably don’t need to go to college to play pro football, basketball, baseball, or if you’re very good at making money and selling, or if you have a marketable skill and a good head for business, or if you win the lottery, but most people can’t count on any of these things.
The numbers are out there. As poorly as the job market is performing for college grads, it always performs much worse for those without a college education. Except in very rare cases, employers won’t consider your application unless you have at least a bachelor’s degree, and if you get a job, you will only go so far without a degree. Even people with some college and no degree earn more money than those with no college at all.
So if you can go to college, go to college. It’s still the smartest choice. But as I’ve been saying, study what you love, get a vocationally oriented minor, and go to school as close to debt free as possible.
How can you go to school debt free? Attend a state school. They’re cheaper. Start at a community college and transfer in state — that’s even cheaper. I had a student once describe taking out student loans so he could party during Spring break: okay, don’t do that. I had friends in high school who worked Alaskan fishing boats over the summer, made a lot of money, and then used it to pay for college during the year. And most importantly, go before you get married, and especially before you have children.
Do you need to go to college to be educated? No, of course not. I didn’t start college until I was 23, and by that time I had done more reading on my own than I was required to do for my all of my undergraduate college classes combined. I read a lot. I only went to college because, I thought, if I’m going to do all of this reading and writing I may as well earn a degree with it. So I know what it’s like to be self educated, and I also know what it’s like to go through an educational system (I have a Ph.D. in English). The only thing you need to get educated is enough of an education to get you started, a willingness to work hard, and a library.
The advantages of a college education, however, are that your knowledge is structured, that you have some guidance and confidence in your knowledge, that you have credentials, and that you’re learning with other people, which makes the educational experience that much more intense, rewarding, and meaningful. And perhaps most importantly of all: you have a sense of what other people know. You know what knowledge to take for granted. That’s part of being socialized into the knowledge that you gain, and you learn not just a bunch of information, but how to arrange that information — you learn what’s more important and what is less important.
Ultimately, what will matter is what you can do. There are plenty of useless people out there with degrees, and the people I know working at the highest levels care about what you really know and what you can really do, not so much about your credentials. Credentials are just a way to weed out people less likely to perform — they are a way for the people holding the keys to the doors to hedge their bets. But credentials are no guarantee, and too many people waste their time in college, squeak by in their classes doing minimal work, and graduate almost as useless as when they went in, usually after taking some kind of vocationally-oriented major.
How do you avoid being one of these useless, credentialed people? Study what you love.
I’d like to add that there are many two year degrees offered through community colleges that are vocationally oriented and lead to good paying jobs. Again, your training will be very narrow, as will be your skill set, but some of these jobs pay better than most four year grads make right out of college. This may be an option if you don’t know what you love, or if you know that what you really love will never be something you can do for money. But you will find if you choose this path that you will peak early in your career unless you finish a B.A. and Master’s degree, so the upper end of your earning potential — at least as far as your degree will take you — will usually be limited compared to those with more education. This path is, however, a quick way to a good paying job if you choose the right A.S. degree.
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Quite a bit of educational consulting is focused on getting students admitted to college, but not enough is focused on what students do when they get there. In my years of experience in higher education, I’ve learned that you’re getting the cart before the horse by thinking that way. Choose a major first, and then choose the best college for it. But how do you choose a major? I’d like to encourage you to think about your degree choices in terms of three central questions:
What are the emotional facets of your decision to choose a specific college or major?
What are the professional facets of that decision?
What are the economic facets of that decision?
Let’s explore these one at a time.
The emotional content of your decision to pursue a major or college matters. While not every major will set you on a predetermined career path, your study still defines you and the doors that are either opened or closed for you in the future. Your choice of a college or major does not mean everything, but it still means a lot, so you want to spend some time thinking about who you are and what you really love before choosing a college or major. Engineers tend to be the highest paid graduates right out of college: are you that good at math? Do you love it? Are you really able to pursue a vocation that you don’t love just for the money it might make you? Some people make this decision, find their happiness outside of work, and live fulfilling lives. Other people make expensive and time consuming mid-career shifts from jobs that they hate to courses of study that will lead them to jobs they love. What do you think you can live with? If it’s at all possible, pursue a course of study that you love. You will do better in it, and your skill sets and enthusiasm can open doors in skills-appropriate fields. If that course of study doesn’t lead to a clear career path, minor in something that does, like being an English major who minors in business or web development. It will make you easier to place in entry-level positions.
The professional content of your decision to pursue a course of study should be considered as well. Some degree programs are essentially vocational schools: programs such as law, education, and engineering focus your education on one specific industry. You may be able to switch career paths down the road, but your skill sets will be fairly narrow and limiting. Liberal arts majors such as English, history, art, and philosophy, on the other hand, tend to be trainable across a wide range of fields and find success in many different industries, but they sometimes have a harder time getting initially placed because their degrees aren’t clearly associated with a job function. They have much better soft skills than the hordes of B.B.A. and M.B.A. graduates produced every year, though, so they can distinguish themselves once employed. It’s usually smart to pair liberal arts degrees with something like programming or business minors to help employability right out of college. Remember that a degree does not get you a job. It only makes you eligible to apply for certain jobs, and different degrees make you eligible to apply for different kinds of jobs.
The economic contentof your decision to pursue a degree is related to the following factors:
Cost of the degree.
Income potential for the degree.
Age to retirement (related to no. 2) — your income earning potential is limited to your age at graduation. So, obviously, the best financial decision in the degree seeking process, or the best return on your investment for the cost of your degree, is to pick a degree that is pursued cheaply and yields high pay as soon as possible. In the current market, that would be a degree in petroleum or chemical engineering with no debt at graduation. But probably less than 5% of all high school graduates have the math skills to be engineers of any kind, so what do the rest of us do? We try to avoid going into high debt for low paying careers, especially late in life when our income potential is limited. You can save a lot of money by starting in community college and then transferring to a state university, or at least starting at a state university. Keep in mind that the economic value of a course of study is not a measure of its inherent value: that is only a reflection of market conditions at the time, and they can vary. The highest paying fields right now would hit bottom if saturated with more graduates than available jobs. People aren’t paid what they are worth. They’re paid on a supply and demand basis. Pay is only driven up when employers have to compete with each other for employees. Pay bottoms out when graduates are a dime a dozen, and especially when there’s not a lot of money in the industry.
What I’ve just described are the three factors that you should consider when selecting a degree program at any level. While I can’t tell you which of these are more important to you personally, Bright Futures Educational Consulting does have an extensive proprietary college choice survey that can guide you through your decision making process. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about lost income or student loan debt in your pursuit of a degree, pursue what you love and forget about everything else. If you have to worry about debt, think about the other two. But no one can tell you how much each of these factors will weigh in your own decision making process. Be careful about using an emotional logic for financial decisions. That doesn’t usually turn out well. Be careful about being purely financially motivated as well, unless that’s who you are.
In other words, if you’re like most people, seek a balance between the three. Your ideal degree program at any level would be where your passions intersect with your best professional identity and your most viable financial position. Most of us have to make compromises, so be careful about compromising any one of these too much.
You need to know that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has been warning about law school overproduction since 1996: there are too many law schools producing too many graduates for the number of jobs out there. It’s just gotten worse since then, to the point where just in this decade class action lawsuits have been filed against quite a number of law schools for fraudulent admissions practices such as lying about job placement.
Why have law schools become such a point of contention? Colleges and universities love them because they produce revenue and lend prestige to an institution. If an institution has had the money to invest in a law school, it’s been difficult for many of them to resist. The problem is that available jobs for lawyers are unable to keep up with an increasingly large pool of law school graduates, forcing more and more people who earn law degrees to work in jobs that don’t require the degree. While legal study and the soft skills developed by that study are assets to many employers, there are less expensive ways to develop those skills.
So what should you do if law school is your dream? Here’s my advice:
Think first about where you want to practice law.
Think next about what kind of law you want to practice.
Ignore law school rankings, or think about them only secondarily.
Pay attention to law school job placement rate instead. The top schools for job placement are not necessarily the top ranked schools.
Don’t get this information from the law schools themselves.
Keep in mind that it’s becoming conventional wisdom that pre-law degrees are not the best path into law school.
That last point may be surprising, but the link above cites data indicating that philosophy, history, and journalism majors are admitted to law school at higher rates than pre-law or criminal justice majors. English has been, traditionally, a solid degree leading to law school as it requires a lot of reading, writing, and argument-building, even better than a degree in political science.
If you’d like professional help thinking through your law school choices, get in touch with Bright Futures Educational Consulting through our Contact Page. Your first hour of consultation is always free.