Just Don’t Go, the Sequel?

I regularly teach a graduate seminar on academic labor, but I’ve always hesitated to teach William Pannapacker’s, aka “Thomas H. Benton’s” inflammatory—and now classic Chronicle article—“Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” (January 30, 2009). I always felt that its compelling combination of cold logic and cynicism would depress my graduate students beyond recovery. But a Ph.D. student recently did a presentation on it in my current seminar, working up the courage to look into the abyss. The class seemed to take it in stride, but it led me to wonder about an even bleaker piece of advice: “College: Just Don’t Go?” I’m willing to include a question mark because the scenario I’m about to relate has yet to unfold completely, so I’m not willing to venture as certain a set of answers as Pannapacker did about graduate school nearly three years ago.

Graduate school aside, I believe one now has to wonder if going to college is a sensible decision. Such a suggestion would have been unthinkable as recently as five years ago, perhaps, but the combination of two factors—soaring tuition costs and what seems to be a permanently stagnant economy (or at the very least, yet another jobless recovery from a recession), have made me seriously consider whether going to college is now a good choice. So, with a nod to Professor Pannapacker, let me make my case.

First, the economy and consequent employment outlook for college graduates. The national unemployment rate is officially 9.2 percent, but everyone knows that’s an artificially low number. The Web site, The Economic Populist cites a variety of much higher figures, the most alarming of which is the following: The July 2011 unemployment rate for those officially unemployed, part-timers who seek full-time work, and all of the people not counted who report they want a job stands at 18.1 percent.
That’s a staggering number. What if we limit our search to college graduates in the last two years? A much harder challenge: an unknown number of college graduates have opted to go to graduate school in order to ride out the current economic hard times. The number of college graduates working part time (but who wish to work full time) and the number who have given up on the search for a job is also impossible to calculate. Thus while the Web site My Budget 360 reports that unemployment for those with college and graduate degrees has soared to an all-time high of nearly 5%, that number is very likely a low estimate too. These add up to one thing: The axiom that a college degree will guarantee you a solid career, an entry point into the middle class, and double the income of anyone without a degree simply no longer holds true. The same Web site makes my point more articulately: “Clearly the current economic recession has much to do with it but also, the fact that those with college degrees are losing jobs in large numbers as well. Many are no longer able to service their own debt. As we have mentioned, a college degree does not protect your job nor does it assure you in getting one.”
This brings me to my second point, the massive increase in student debt, triggered in a large part by the fact that college tuition continues to rise at a rate much higher than the cost of living. According to CNN, here are the grim statistics (bear in mind that the unemployment numbers for college grads tend to vary because they are so difficult to calculate): College seniors who graduated last year owed an average of $24,000 in student-loan debt, up 6% from the year before, according to a report from the Project on Student Debt. That data is based on an annual analysis of student-loan debt at more than 1,000 public and private nonprofit four-year institutions. At the same time, unemployment for recent college graduates (according to this site) jumped from 5.8% in 2008 to 8.7% in 2009—the highest annual rate on record.

So here’s my somewhat obvious question: Is it worthwhile for high-school graduates to go to college right now? My provisional answer, and I’d really like to be persuaded otherwise is “no.” The Republican Party and President Obama are clearly, as we’ve learned in the last weeks, at loggerheads over student-loan reform, so it’s unlikely to happen. Obama argues that students are being crushed by education-related debt; Republicans argue that tightening student-loan regulations and making it easier (and ultimately less punitive) for students to borrow will only serve as an incentive for colleges to increase tuition even more. Both positions are supportable, but as for high-school graduates right now, I think college is a bad bet. The exceptions:  highly practical occupation-related fields and quick and cheap two-year credentials, or, of course, independently wealthy parents or some other guaranteed lifetime-income stream. Otherwise, to start your life with a massive amount of debt (on which one cannot default) and a good chance that you won’t find a full-time job, let alone a secure one with career potential, just doesn’t make sense.

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