Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Are there too many people with college degrees?

I heard this story on NPR last week: "Are Today's Millennials the 'Screwed Generation'? and it made my blood boil. Not because I disagree with the title and the main point Joel Kotkin makes - that young people coming of age are facing a terrible economy and poor job prospects - but I disagree with his notion that we could help the situation by sending fewer people to college.

Kotkin thinks far too many people have college degrees these days and the debt that often comes along with them. I completely agree that student loans are crippling to a lot of Americans. And lots of those students have a hard time finding good jobs, especially good jobs in their field of study. And to be honest, Kotkin is right, a college degree just isn't what it used to be - but that's because a much higher percentage of the population has a bachelor's degree than ever before, not because attending college is pointless.

The reason that so many people have college degrees is because universities have become more accessible to people from middle and lower income families. Do we really want to go back to a time when only the most privileged, only the wealthiest Americans, could afford to send their children to college? No thank you.

I also take issue with Kotkin's notion that part of the problem is that a lot of young people are whiners, they feel entitled, and their parents don't make them get jobs in the summer. I take offense, of course, because I am a millennial. I'm pretty sure parents still make their teenagers get summer jobs, at least mine did. But I am a little whiny, I'm whiny about the price of a college education. It is way too high. Students should not have to take out tens of thousands of dollars worth of loans to attain a bachelor's degree, let alone an advanced degree. And maybe I do feel entitled, I do think the government owes me an economy strong enough to have the promise of a job with a decent salary, health insurance, a retirement plan.

I also think people with Kotkin's point of view need to consider the population of students that are now going to college. In the past it was mostly white, upper and upper-middle class students who had well-educated parents and had gone to the best public or private schools available. Today, tons of people are attending college who will be the first in their families to earn a bachelor's degree. Many of those people did not attend the best elementary and secondary schools and their parents couldn't help prepare them for college. A lot of student who have been through public elementary and high school in recent years have also felt the effects of budget cuts - I never had to write a paper over 3 pages in high school because my English teachers had such large classes they couldn't grade anything longer. So I went to college never having written a long research paper. Does that make me a whiny, entitled student? I don't think so. It just makes me a person who went to a middle-of-the-road public school, but is no less capable than someone who went to a fantastic school.

I am proud to attend and teach at a University that has a strong emphasis on admitting students who will be the first in their families to attend a four-year college. In fact, over 40% of the incoming class at UW will fall into that category this year. And I can tell you, without a doubt, that those students are going to work their butts off at UW. They are students who haven't had anything handed to them, who know the value of a college education because no one in their family has ever had one. Sure, I've had my fair share of whiny students who want an easy A, but that is not the majority. Most of the students I've taught at UW know that they are attending a top-notch University and want to make the most of that opportunity - they are almost all smart, hard-working, idealistic, and many of them are dedicated to changing the world.

I don't think the answer to our current situation is to discourage people from attending college. Sure, some degrees - anthropology for example - are never going to get you a great job straight out of a undergrad - but no one majors in anthropology for the job, they major in anthropology to become a better citizen of the world. A college education should be more affordable and more accessible, not less.

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