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A matter of degrees: a debate over higher education

Not long ago, there was a lively discussion brewing on Sal Gentile’s article about the U.S. falling behind its rivals in college degrees. Readers weighed in about the ills of the country’s educational system, high school graduates’ lack of preparedness for the rigors of college-level work, and most of all, the fact that college graduates can face stratospheric levels of student debt without any guarantee of full-time employment. Given the state of today’s economy and the uncertainty that belies the job market, it’s no real surprise that the topic would generate a wealth of diverse opinions. One reader, Anna, said that college freshman are woefully unprepared for college life:

Colleges pack in large freshmen classes with students that are not prepared for it. Everyone in America now expects their kids to attend college, but a lot of them don’t understand that it involves hard work, sacrifice and dedication. Therefore, students are coming underprepared to college in increasing numbers. There is plenty of fault to go around on this one.

PBS Facebook fan Jean  agreed, but argued that the lack of high school academic preparedness makes a college education more important:

College provides what high schools USED to provide, so it is even more necessary than ever. OR until such time as high schools stop churning out people who have no respect for education. Ignorance is not bliss, it is merely the sad state of affairs in our current educational system.

Another reader, Tammy, faulted the ever-rising cost of higher education, suggesting that we take tips from other countries that expedite the college graduation process (perhaps a worthy topic for a Need to Know Web feature?):

The cost of higher education in this country is a travesty. It would be interesting to know the percentage of kids attending college in these rival countries, as well as the cost to attend university as a percentage of annual income. In England, a bachelor’s degree is typically earned in three years rather than the four years it takes here. A master’s degree typically takes one year rather than two. That alone significantly reduces costs for a student. American higher education is a business like any other, and students and families would be wise to shop around for the best value.

Meanwhile, reader Dennis pointed out the decline in funding for four-year colleges:

This does not take into account the large push, since 1998, for increased federal and state support for community colleges, which only offer certificates or associate’s degrees. The amount of direct support for four-year baccalaureate institutions has gone down in real dollar amounts.

With so much adversity toward those endeavoring to obtain a college degree, this begs the question: Is a college degree even worth the sunk cost? (The latest installment of our show’s regular humor segment, “Next Week’s News” with Andy Borowitz, solicited the help of PBS pals Ken Burns and Elmo to answer this question).  On PBS’s Facebook fan page, a fan named Landine stated her point bluntly:

College is vastly overrated. Not everyone needs to go. America still needs master craftsmen and skilled tradesmen, for example.

Another Facebook fan, Terry, agreed, arguing for more real-world training in colleges:

College tends to push EVERYBODY towards where statistics say the jobs will be – and when you have a couple of hundred thousand kids being inadequately trained to take over the 10,000 jobs available in that industry…
It would work better if ALL programs had a paid apprenticeship – so the grad would actually have working knowledge and be able to step from the classroom to the workplace. As it is, when you make that transition, you find that most of what you were taught has no real relevance for the work area — and you have wasted 1-2 years on ‘being a well-rounded scholar.’

But another Facebook fan, Pat, defended the value of a well-rounded education:

The purpose of going to college is to get an education and not a career. The more well-rounded a person’s education, the more new ideas, the more tolerance and the more original thought. If a person can read constantly at a high level, then it can be obtained outside of college. There is no free lunch, better to be in business for yourself.

And another fan, Pamela, tied the job market’s ills to the growing pace of technological development:

I feel people have the wrong focus. It’s not politics that are shifting the job market, it’s technology. Technology’s main purpose is to make mankind’s life easier…that is,… to reduce the work-load for human beings. Therefore, as technology increases, jobs will automatically decrease – because for each job a machine can do, let’s say 10 people are replaced (just an approximation I’m throwing out there, obviously the amount changes per type of job).

And for those that argue new tech. creates jobs – true…but I feel the ratio of jobs gained to jobs lost is inversely proportionate…so we keep losing. For each job gained, still more are lost. Like I said – it’s the M.O. of tech to alleviate the work-load.

So what do we have then? An entire world where the top-paying jobs are extremely specialized, requiring very advanced levels of education – but they are few. And because of their specialization, studies like “liberal arts,” etc. are seen as a “waste” or not practical. So now, many students can have a PhD, but not know where Ethiopia is on a map. They probably don’t know much history. Their music appreciation or writing abilities are pretty poor. We’re basically producing machines in schools…people whose main focus in life is simply to get a job in order to supply the system.

Yes these are generalizations…you can always counter them with specifics. It’s just the trend I see happening, and I feel, will only increase over time.

In a few weeks, Need to Know will be featuring a segment on the employment prospects — or lack thereof — for the “millennial” generation of recent college graduates. That story will undoubtedly spark this conversation all over again — but you can get a head start on that discussion in the comments below.


  • M Gerard Pavuk

    I personally think that the college does sometimes provide needed degrees. I know of several Radiologist that obtained their degrees at the college I attended and now have since been working at a near by hospital in the X-Ray department. I also personally know of a case where a pre-school teacher went back to college and now is a teacher and raised her wages from 10.50 an hour to 16.50 an hour. Also since I have gone to college I met some from the geology department that where assigned to the Lake Michigan water table project. I even know of one woman who furthered her career in art and is now showing with art orginizations with unbelievable earnings. I don’t blame the colleges, but it is the individual that strives in college to further their careers do so. So it is true sending your child to college may be a waste of time if your child is not really interested in a specific career. But if your child chooses to expand on an idea or career, College is probably your best bet!

  • jai accles

    There are many factors to be considered in what may very well be a skewed study result. As a high school teacher who has been in education since 1966, I feel I can speak to this issue from long experience.
    1. College is a priviledge, not a right. One traditionally earns the priviledge to gain access to college. Once there, one earns the four year degree through study and hard work. Today, college recruiters arrive at high schools and are ready to accept students that day. They are all competing for the funds available to students of limited financial resources.
    2. The number one factor in a childs education is the parents. Without the support and assistance of the parents, a child may be doomed to failure. This is well documented. The parent who listens to a child spell words or recite multiplication tables, who makes it a point of demanding good grades, who gives their child a time and place to study, who looks at the work before the child hands it to the teacher is preparing their child to succeed. I have taught many students who are immigrants and whose parents do not speak English, who are very successful students. Why? Because the parents do what they can to create an atmosphere where learning is valued.
    3. College has been a political strategy to get votes. “You can be whatever you want to be” is a slogan politicians use. The truth is, you can not be whatever you want to be just because you want to be it, We are not all created with the same intelect or abilities. “Get what you deserve.” Another quote used to get votes or business. Make no mistake, most colleges are for profit.
    4. Blaming high schools for not adequately preparing students for college is ridiculous. As it was in 1962, when I graduated, not everyone is cut out for college. Or, wants to go to college.
    5. We need to bring back to high school those courses that address the needs of the child who has skills and interests in areas other than academics. High schools have phased out vocational courses many students would love to take so they might learn a trade. Now these students must finish a high school curriculum designed for the college bound and then enroll in a trade school.
    Our country is made up of people from all over the world and it is not a level playing field when comparing us to homogenious countries whose populations are significantly lower than the USA.

  • Will

    Hate to go here but… Postmodern society has made higher education a contest for jobs and sports programs based in alumni egos, not real education. The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy them; not merely be industrious, but love industry; not merely learn, but love knowledge; not merely be pure, but love purity; not merely be just, but hunger and thirst after justice. (John Ruskin) I still owe more in student loans than I make in a year and I have a Masters. I have worked years and paid regularly but I will probably be retirement age by the time the loans are paid. Very Sad!

  • Michael

    Im sitting in a unique position though one that doesn’t sit well for higher education. At 35 I’ve attended very little college though work as a technology consultant for higher education and healthcare consuming an income of just over 100k. With over 10years experience Ive crossed the line in applying for positions where experience and achievement has more value than engineering degrees from Pedigree U.

    On the one hand I’d like to go back to school and get a notarized piece of paper to get me the interview for the job I already do as a person that I already terminate, though I just cant justify stopping working just to commit the time required and accumulate massive loads of debt that has literally no value to my professional career.

    At some point the institutions of higher education became less of a service and more of a business, building milti-billion dollar endowments, lavish art collections, massive stadiums and oh yeah, some classrooms. With this came the push for pointless and highly profitable dead end degree tracts such as communications or liberal arts. Further with the advent of “distance learning” Universities have managed to increase margins further by increasing their student base without the infrastructure to educate them.

    While this shift in focus from serving mankind to profiting from them remains in place, a more than intrinsic value of an achieved degree remains elusive and reserved to very select institutions with fewer degree programs. When my advice for education is solicited, my advice consist of:

    “Take what your interested in, get an entry level job and acquire an industry experience/knowledge certification every year while you work and by the time your friends get out of college you’ll be able to offer them a job, though be prepared to let them go as chances are they are not only not qualified, but dont have any experience and haven’t the faintest idea what it means to be employed.”

  • Connie

    I agree that we seem to have lost sight of the difference between education and vocational training. I think that’s sad. I have wanted for years to go to college to obtain a degree in Liberal Arts, not because it will prepare me for a particular occupation but because it will help me to feel more well-rounded. I love to learn but independent study is hard when you are a working single mother of two children. I know people who have gone to school and done nothing more than surf the internet, repeatedly clicking copy and paste when it came time to write papers and it makes me so angry to see such waste. No, don’t send everyone to college, there’s no integrity left in a system that does that. Everyone should have the ability to attend but let it be for real education! It seems like you need a degree for every job these days but I get the sense it’s becoming more about the applicants you keep out then the ones you take in, just another way to hold down the disadvantaged. Vocational training, on the job training, and internal advancement are plenty for some fields.

  • Karen B.

    Unfortunately, I can see both sides of the coin. Being a non-traditional student who went back to get two undergraduate degrees (one in English and one in Spanish) and now a graduate student, I can relate to the ever increasing cost of an education. At times I do wonder if it’s worth the cost of having to pay back the loans, but I don’t wonder long. I went back to school because I wanted to, not because I was forced to by my parents. I wanted to learn about what I loved, English. I now feel more prepared to take on any job that comes my way. I am going to eventually teach on the college level and I think that professors should be concerned about the whole person and not look at the student as just another body to fill the class room. I think that if people don’t continue their education beyond high school, they are doing themselves a disservice. Everyone needs to be educated beyond high school. These days high school is mostly focused on the students passing the EOG’s and getting them out of the system. Unfortunately, it’s a costly continuation but it’s well worth it.

  • molly

    I’m an adult who is just now returning to college after a long hiatus. I dropped out when I was younger not because I was unprepared for college but because I was wasting money. I was immature and didn’t have any focus on what I wanted to do. Rather than study or go to class, I wanted to enjoy my new freedoms granted me outside of the family home. Many friends I have also took breaks from school for the same reasons. Most of them returned within a year or so to finish up their degrees at our prestigious university in the area. Now they are all bartenders, babysitters, or baristas.

    Since I have returned to get my degree, I’ve been attending a community college for economical reasons. Recently this college has really raised the bar with more challenging curriculum in all of its programs many of the professors are adjuncts and teach at the university as well. I think the strangest contrast I’ve noticed among the students of the two schools is this: at the community college they are far more determined to get an education, and use it, than the students of the private university. Many of the community college’s recent graduates I have known have already settled into serious careers.

    The students at these two schools have very contrasting economical backgrounds and I believe that has much to do with their levels of determination and perseverance. These community college students want their money’s worth; education is not cheap and they don’t want to waste it. Upon graduation they are like hungry wolves on the job market, competing ruthlessly for good jobs to make a return on their investment of education. I haven’t observed similar behavior with the university students. Those students seem to behave as though their education is a birthright and tend to be apathetic towards their post-graduation future.

    College is expensive but I think it’s value is subjective to the individual student’s perception. It’s ridiculous to force feed an education to apathetic young Americans, shove them out the door to go find a career, and then wonder why all that tuition money was wasted.

  • Karrissa

    Like Molly, I too left school when I was younger due to having an inability to focus and find what I wanted to do after college. When I returned, 10 years later with a family, I was more determined to finish and was more willing to sacrifice to complete the degree (a bachelor of science in business administration).

    However, the loans I took out (since it was a challenge for me to work and keep up good grades) have been very difficult to pay back. I was unable to return to work after I finished college due to a medical condition & my loans still racked up interest. There were no forbearances for those who could not return to work due to pregnancy (just permanent medical or unemployment).

    The jobs I was able to find in the job market I live in 2005, though very fulfilling, did not pay very well even though they required a bachelor’s degree. I was so far behind when I finally was able to return to work & find a full time position. Though I am glad I was able to complete my degree for my own educational purposes, the economic benefits many of us were promised (and used as motivation to complete the arduous process) have not come to fruition.

    On another note, I have a difficult time understanding how people are not going to college prepared for its endeavors. When I graduated HS in 1991, I had 4 years of math (including calculus), 3 years of Science (with labs), 3 years of composition, 1 year of literature, 3 years of history. Though I was taking honors classes in the math & sciences, I was taking College Preparatory level classes in the other disciplines.

    I felt I was repeating my senior year again when I attended my first year of college. This was a good thing since it allowed me to get adjusted to the independence without my grades suffering.

    Has high schools changed that much over the past 20 years? Are 4 year institutions changing their admission standards so those who did not have college prep level high school classes are being admitted knowing those students are not going to be successful or prepared?

  • rich

    This is yet another American daydream. When we stop lying to our kids by telling them that they “need” a college degree to succeed financially, we’ll all be in better shape. The fact is MOST (not all) kids at that age are driven but have no clue what they really want to do with their lives. Why not take a few years, learn what it’s like to work and (god forbid) struggle for a few years?

    Then you enter college with not only a little more focus but also some cash in your pocket to help mommy and daddy flip the bill? So, un-American. I know.

    Like most, I went to college right out of high school, finished with a BA and went to work in an completely unrelated field to my field of study. That makes me about as special as 90% of every other college graduate out there. It wasn’t a “waste of time” for me because they were great years (expensive, but great,) but I constantly look back at my decisions then and wonder how much better off I would be if I would have went to work first and learned a thing or two before I made certain decisions.

  • Faye

    It’s interesting to read reports about high college attendance rates but low completion rates. At my community college, all of these trends are visible. Freshmen overload the parking lots in fall semesters until a few weeks in when they drop out. Many see the military as being a more lucrative career option. Although it’s possible to get a 2-year degree in two years, the overwhelming majority of my classmates and friends have taken 3 to 5 years (or more) just to get an Associate’s: I will be graduating with mine soon after almost 4 years. A lot of students work full-time for minimum wage and go to school part-time, forced to pay their college bill alone because their parents won’t or are unable to help them, and yet due to the policy that you’re considered dependent until 24, whether or not your parents help you, few qualify for financial aid. Many are barely able to succeed in college and repeat 100-level courses over and over again until they pass.

    There are definitely advantages to going to college if you’re cut out academically for it. My girlfriend and I both volunteer and intern in the Non-Profit sector and we see job openings all the time, for which we have enough experience to get but not the 4-year degree they require. If you want to go into a field that generally requires education, get educated. If not, don’t. There are plenty of ways to get trained for a career that don’t require university price tags. But it’s a shame to have thousands or millions of intelligent young Americans who can be successful in college to not go simply because of the cost. Not everyone can be a NASA engineer or a neurosurgeon or a foreign ambassador, but those who can should not be waiters all their lives simply because they can’t afford the education.

  • Grace

    I agree with many of the comments here, and am happy to see that even the comments I disagree with are still respectful and well-reasoned.

    I am 24 years old, and I work in the field of Media and Technology. I come from a very poor background and still went to a prestigious 4-year college to get a great education in an area I’m passionate about. I worked all the way through school, got out in 3 1/2 years to save money, and graduated with honors. I get frustrated when people blithely refer to my generation as one that is selfish, unmotivated, and spoiled. We face real problems, and we’re about to inherit even more. I don’t know where these anecdotal lazy college kids are. Most of my peers are incredibly pragmatic, motivated, and severely stressed out, just like me.

    I knew what I was getting myself into when I took on college debt. I weighed my options and did it anyway. Today I make an entry-level salary and would be very comfortable if it weren’t for my massive loan payments, which are almost as much as rent. My sister calls it a “membership fee to the middle class” and she’s right. I don’t think about paying it off. I just think about paying that month. I have no regrets. But that doesn’t make it okay. I worry about the people coming after me, and I grieve for the ones who can’t.

    It is said that higher education is a privilege and not a right. But a privilege for who, the hardworking or the children of the wealthy? It is absolutely true that you don’t need a degree for everything, and absolutely true that many people would be happy with vocational training, and that we should honor production skills and craftsmanship because we desperately need them. Also true that education has become a business, and being told that you need to pay 80k or you’ll never succeed is flat out unethical. But people who work diligently toward college should have that right – rich or poor, same as black or white, male or female. We need reform. But first, we need to stop blaming it on poor kids who have dreams and are being “unreasonable” for pursuing them.

    Two conclusions one could draw from this attitude. Either they think it’s okay to have unequal access to education, thus preserving class stratification and preventing upward mobility, or they think higher education is a rather immaterial luxury. I’m not sure which one scares me more.

    Education does not just teach you facts. It teaches you how to synthesize facts. This is a life skill. I think it’s horrifyingly apparent in this country that we don’t value the rational approach to government, ethics, culture, economics, sociology, etc. I don’t need people to agree with me, but the way we bicker, quibble, sidestep, and omit things to justify our dogmas tells me that we don’t know how to argue or how to properly analyze. From the current state of affairs I’d venture that yes, there is an actual reason to learn the Socratic method. Or Kant. Or any of the ideas upon which modern civilization was founded. Isn’t it slightly unhealthy to pretend that no one -needs- college, but if rich kids want it, then by all means? Should we really be treating a BA like it’s a Bentley? If that’s the case, there’s no longer any point in being an American.

  • Grace

    Just to clarify on my last comment, which may sound a little like sour grapes: I’m saying that if a lack of college degree limits your employment (not always, but overwhelmingly often), and the income of your parents determines your access to a college degree, then we are very close to a sort of weird capitalist aristocracy, which is a huge contradiction to our supposed American values. Equality. Meritocracy. That sort of thing.

  • Lizzil

    “I want money, lots and lots of money. I want to fly in the sky. I want money, lots and lots of money so don’t be askin me why I wanna be rich.”
    That is American. But we can’t all be rich, smart, or even decent. College is just another experience like having a job or having to pay off your loans or having a brain tumor. Deal with it. Opinions are like onions because they stink and when you cut them you cry. I feel a tear or two right now, so I am going to stop.

  • Jamis

    I can see where you came to that conclusion. The current system of higher education is contrary to the promotion of free will and the idea that everyone has an equal chance to succeed as laid out in the American dream.