College educated and underemployed – America’s newest ‘success’ story?

By Jeff Bahr 

I was a youngster when I first heard my dad use the term.

“That young man is ‘college material,’ ” Pop said, with reverence in his voice, as he spoke of a favorite nephew who was heading off to a state university.

The implication of my father’s statement was well understood. A four-year college degree, during the 1960s, placed the recipient on the fast track to success. It was that cut and dry. If a graduate held a degree in business, for example, there was an expectation that he/ she would be financially set for life. This was true of many, if not most, college degrees. With a sheepskin in hand, the only place to go was up, it seemed, and up many graduates went.

For those who didn’t attend college, or a trade school for that matter, the situation could be different but was nowhere near desperate. Production firms were only entering their downward cycle back then and many high-school graduates would start and end their careers working for only one company.

It’s important to note that many of these firms trained new hires – in-house or through company-sponsored training programs – and often required nothing more than a high school diploma. On average, such workers enjoyed fully-paid benefits, a weekly wage that in time could grow fat enough to support an entire family, and a full pension waiting for them at the end of the rainbow.

But, as Bob Dylan pointed out, the times were changing. America would eventually lose the manufacturing/ industrial base that had once distinguished it from other countries. The end result? These days it seems almost as likely to find a college-graduate working at WalMart as it is to find one working on Wall Street.

Nevertheless, people continue to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars in pursuit of college degrees that, at least from an employment standpoint, may not carry as much weight as they once did. Let’s examine the facts.

Item: The education paradigm is rapidly changing. No longer must one enter a brick and mortar building in order to receive quality training. In fact, much of what’s available at a typical university can now be found online, often for free or for a fraction of the cost of a traditional college course. According to a Sloan Survey conducted in 2010, enrollment in online education grew 21% that year while enrollment at traditional colleges grew only 2%. Even more tellingly, the study found that more than 5.6 million people – nearly one-third of all students – were taking at least one course online. A harbinger of things to come?

Item: Student loans unduly burden a graduate. There’s no getting around it. According to a November 2011 study conducted by The New York Times, the average debt carried by a graduate is more than $25,000. Young people saddled with this level of debt (and often much higher) are increasingly sinking like anchors at a time when their earning power is at its comparative lowest. If graduates don’t land decent paying jobs and quick – a genuine rarity in these days of nagging unemployment/ underemployment – they may go belly-up before they’ve ever really started. Then, they’ll not only be floundering at a job that’s beneath their skill level, they’ll also have a severe mark against their credit record.

Item: Not everyone qualifies as “college material,” and that’s precisely as it should be. Greatly accomplished people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have gone on record saying that they were repelled by classroom regimentation, or bored silly by the learn-by-rote style of teaching often found in classroom settings. Others have interests or show aptitude in areas that fall well outside the college realm. Many believe that the comparatively new assumption that all will benefit from the typical college experience is as staggering for its naïveté as it is for its hubris. Human beings aren’t interchangeable units, proponents from this camp argue. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all.

Item: Perception and reality can be very different things especially where college educations are concerned. Even as today’s graduates experience questionable returns on their hefty college investments, high school graduates clamber to get into the “right” schools. The curious thing about this is the fact that, in many cases, the particular college that one attends matters less than the fact that they have a degree. If better jobs come to those who attend “better” schools, studies show that it often traces to the connections that one makes while a student, not the inherent value of the sheepskin itself.

Item: Somewhere along the lines the American outlook on college has changed. There was a time when young men and women looked toward higher education as a tried-and- true path toward self-betterment. Sure, a diploma might pay dividends in the form of career advancement, security and higher wages, but that wasn’t necessarily its sole objective. Nowadays, it’s no great secret that college is increasingly viewed as a means to an end – no longer an end in itself. This undoubtedly traces to economics. It’s hard to remain principled if one can’t first acquire the required necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing). If companies are increasingly demanding that their employees hold college degrees, many people feel that it’s incumbent upon them to meet such requirements.

Item: Many, if not most, colleges offer little to nothing in the way of job placement. Critics believe that colleges dangle their four-year degrees in front of prospective students like carrots – setting their sheepskins up as grand prizes, sought out as much for their cache as their implied earning power. If the big “payoff” doesn’t arrive when a student moves out into the workforce, or if that student can’t find work in his/her chosen field, it’s no sweat to the institution, according to these critics. The schools were already paid handsomely for their sheepskin. Next.

Item: The value of a four-year college education is being scrutinized like never before. When “Johnny Jr.” graduates and finds himself underemployed in a low-paying “career” that comes nowhere near the level to which he originally aspired, his disenchantment with the system may find its way onto social networks like Facebook and Twitter. It doesn’t take a college graduate to see that such negative reports might effect future college enrollments.

Item: A recent Pew Research Center study found that 75% of Americans feel that college has become too expensive for most people. That same study showed that only 53% believe that college makes work more interesting. Only a slim majority (55%) of higher education graduates felt that college prepared them for a job, yet a whopping 86% believed that college was a good investment for them.

Item: A Bureau of Labor Statistics study shows that, despite the skepticism, college is still the best bet in the long run for young people looking to get ahead financially. According to the study, the median earning potential of an average college graduate outpaces that of high school graduates by some 13.5%. On the other hand, the study fails to factor in college loan debt that many graduates carry with them for years afterward.

Make no mistake, for the moment at least, the traditional college experience is still perceived as the gold standard in education. Even so, colleges may eventually price themselves out of the market when people decide that their return on investment is no longer in tune with the astounding and continually escalating price of tuition. Only time will tell.



What are your thoughts on this great college debate? We’d like to know. We’re inviting recent graduates (out of school for six months or longer) to share their experiences with us via an informal survey (see following questions). The findings will be posted in a follow-up article. Please send responses to: or The Observer, 531 Kearny Ave., Kearny, N.J. 07032.

Survey questions:

• After graduation, how long did it take you to land a job?

• Was that job in your chosen field?

• Was the pay scale in sync with what you expected?

• Do you carry student debt? If so, how much? Do you consider such payments a burden or are they worth it in the long run?

• Do you feel that college as a whole is still worth the price of admission? What are your feelings about online education or other alternatives to the standard college experience?

• If you had it to do again, would you still attend college?

• Would you recommend the college experience to others? Why? Why not?

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