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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.