Is higher education worth the high cost?


When my generation and I were young(er) kids, we were taught that if you worked hard and stayed in school that you could be whatever you wanted when you grew up. But now that we’re in our 20s, we know that we can’t all be astronauts, professional athletes or rock stars. And none of us ever answered the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” — whether posed by a guidance counselor or in multi-choice form on the SAT — with, “I aspire to work in middle management.”

Of course, most of our parents didn’t live out their childhood dreams either, but in most of their cases a bachelor’s degree ensured immediate job placement, and middle management was always a possibility. Today, most of my friends with degrees are still waiting tables or working similar jobs that they could have easily attained without a college degree.

As an English major, I can write a paper about the significance of spirituality in the works of Flannery O’Connor or analyze the satire of “A Modest Proposal,” but nobody will ask me about those topics in a job interview. I have written a multi-page paper analyzing three lines of Shakespeare text with sufficient adherence to the specific usage and origin of words by utilizing the Oxford English Dictionary, though I’ve found a much more applicable resource in day-to day life. What I’m typing right now, as an intern at YES! Weekly, is more crucial to my employment prospects when I graduate then my grade in college algebra.

Of course, for liberal arts majors like me graduate school is always an option. But a lot of us already have to payback our student loans for our bachelors degrees and don’t want to add more. According to the recent PBS “Frontline” documentary “College Inc.,” the amount US citizens owe in student loans is roughly equivalent to all US credit-card debt: about $750 billion. Furthermore, with many people already trying to hide from the recession in academia, graduate school admission and acceptance is harder than ever and still does not ensure successful job placement.

Even those of us with gainful employment are not ensured advancement because our baby boomer parents are reluctant to retire now that most of their 401ks have been obliterated. In many cases, it is far more economical and practical to get a two-year degree at a trade school or associates degree in plumbing or carpentry than to immerse yourself in the study and intricacies of 20 th century Eastern European history for four or more years.

No less a source than an academic, Indiana University Sociology Professor Scott Sernau, author of Global Programs: The Search for Equity, Peace, and Sustainability (a textbook used in a UNCG sociology course), criticizes our higher education system as ineffective at preparing students to enter the workforce. As opposed to the educational systems in Europe and Japan, where students are prepared for specific careers at an early age, most US students float indecisively through school.

“Students in the United States are often allowed to remain undecided longer and to have more second chances in returning to school and in changing programs. At the same time, US students often get lessclear directions and are less likely to be on a path that leads directly to employment; this means they run a greater risk of falling through the cracks in the system.”

The US university system needs to strike a balance between a practical education — one that prepares the student for the work force — and a liberal education where students are exposed to the best of humanity’s hopes and ideas. I always wondered why my AP US History class in high school stopped at World War II, though I’m thankful that Mr. Merrill showed us Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb on the last three days of class.

With the increase in for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix essentially acting as diploma factories in exchange for tuition, the value of a degree and ability to find gainful enough employment to payback student loans is a major issue for US students.

I had a philosophy professor named Dr. Hortal who was from Madrid. He told our class that if Spanish universities charged the exorbitant tuition US universities do, the students would simply strike. Playing hookie is a time-honored tradition at all levels of the US education system. Any other students out there down for a strike?