Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rethinking College for the Recession Generation

I was talking to a friend of mine who has kids in college and he lamented that he would be two hundred thousand dollars in debt when it was all done. The college students in question mooned around the graduation party for another friend soon to partake in the great middle class migration started after WWII with the GI Bill allowing people for the first time to partake in higher education. Up until that FDR moment there was college for the rich and the few who could actually work their way through college at a time when someone could actually pay as they went.

But now there are loans galore and middle class people follow the script of revved up highshool GPAs to revved up ACT and SAT scores and the eventual departure to private state Big Ten or the coveted Ivy League prize. Then they return four years later to look for a job. In the worst economy since the Great Depression. With incredible debt. We have heard of young women turning to prostitution to pay for these  debts now. Such is the desperation of a job market that marginalizes even the best and brightest. Maybe it's time to rethink the auto return of going to college.

Now if you are going to college like days of old to get a liberal arts education and become that limited of all specialists "the well rounded man" So be it. Take your debt like a man or a woman and pursue your journey. But ninety nine percent of the middle class take the utilitarian view that college will get you a job. And that is why the debt and the four years are worth it. A leg up on the rest of the population. There is still a leg up but the problem is there a lot more people with legs now. In fact the whole world is growing legs.  

The difference is the Global job market. College graduates are now competing globally for the more highly technical jobs that a twenty first century economy demands. If you are not specializing and at the top of your class then you will be in the great unwashed of college graduate moving back home. As the New York Times put it "college graduates now have to up their game." Which brings me back to this point, college is maybe not for everyone anymore.

The weighing of debt and time and getting a job is a brutal equation. And if you are going to be a salesman or you have that burning entrepreneurial idea, then maybe the four year hiatus is a waste of time. The fact is the mediocre middleclass jobs for mediocre college students don't exist anymore. These jobs are being replaced by computers or eliminated. Or there is one for every thousand applicants What used to be vast fertile ground for middle management white collar jobs has now gone vertical. Specialization and cream of the crop applicants take the jobs corporate America has to offer. For the rest it is a straight commission landscape or entry level sweatshops.

So this paradyme of middle class kids to college for a job might have reached it's level of obsolescence. The brutal truth is if you are going to take on that debt you better have a game plan. Or go for an education and call it at that and be comfortable you will be in debt for many many years.  Educated and broke is not without precedent.

Books by William Hazelgrove