Should A College Degree Be About More Than Getting A Job?
11:15 am, April 16th | by Sarah Devlin and Colette McIntyre
Sarah: First thing’s first: please list your degree/major and any minors.
Colette: Hahaha oh god, okay. I was an English major with a Concentration in Creative Writing and minors in Anthropology and American history. …So Words, People, and Things That Already Happened.
Colette: Clearly my real major was indecision, since I have fourteen different minors and concentrations. Nonsense.
Sarah: And I have a BA in Political Science/Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from a big state school, and and MFA in Non-Fiction Writing from a very expensive private college. So suffice it to say, we did not take the advice in this Forbes piece.
Colette: We done goofed?
Sarah: However, we are both employed! And graduated in the midst of the Great Recession.
But more than just that, I want to pose a question to you: is it a problem that we place so much emphasis on job training/employment via university education? On the one hand, that’s not really what college is about. On the other, given that it’s so darn expensive these days, that BETTER be what it’s about. Thoughts?
Colette: I do think it is a problem, and believe me, I am not speaking from any place of financial privilege — it’s not as if my parents were able to bankroll my dalliances in the liberal arts. But since when do we have to justify education by demonstrating its financial reward? I understand that tuitions are soaring and students have to worry about real life things like rent, food, car payments, etc. But measuring the worth of knowledge through starting salaries is destructive, I think. Many things of value in a liberal arts education aren’t monetarily quantifiable — like critical thinking skills, quantitative reasoning, problem-solving, creative thinking…
Sarah: Well, I think it’s more a question of what you’re hoping to get out of a university education. If you want to treat it as a trade school, you should definitely be looking at that stuff. If you want it to be something else, then this information isn’t super useful. And I agree with you! HOWEVER.
Colette: Exactly!!! Uh-oh…
Sarah: I think we liberal arts people maybe get a little bit…OVER-defensive about how useful our educations are? I understand that it’s frustrating for people to not understand that you can develop skills by studying things other than engineering/hard sciences, but I’m also 1000% certain that my “Intro to Writing Poetry” class did precisely jack sh*t to help me develop as a thinker/person/future employee. I almost feel like it would be useful for someone to say “Look, going to college is useful because you can say you went/bond with other middle class educated people/apply for most jobs, but if you are hoping to maximize your earning potential you should maybe not f*ck around with anything other than a medical/hard science degree.” I mean, I sort of wish that we had that conversation with more 17 and 18 year olds. Fewer people might decide to go to college, and I feel like for a lot of them that would probably be a positive thing. Or fewer people would take out loans to screw around for four years at a private school and go to a state school instead, and so on.
Colette: Well said. I do tend to get a little prickly when forced to discuss my education, which is silly because I shouldn’t worry whether or not others feel comfortable about what they perceive as my success. But, when you have people like Marco Andreessen, the founder of Netscape and a big cheese in the tech world, dividing college into two types of degrees – a math-based major and “the softer soft” and alleging that the average college graduate witha degree in English is going to end up “working in a shoe store” — can you blame me? But you’re right; high school students should spend more time thinking about what they wish to gain out of college and what they personally value. But I also believe that if tuition prices were more reasonable or if loans were more bearable, perhaps you would see more students going into liberal arts colleges.
Sarah: Well, sure. It’s super annoying. And the fact is, one of the reasons that I was drawn to English/writing (and PolySci, for that matter) is that I’ve always been good at taking in huge amounts of information and then figuring out exactly what’s most important about what I just read. And my BA and my MFA only made me better at that. And that’s a less quantifiable skill than what you know you’re getting out of an engineering degree, but no less valuable. But I think in pitting Math majors against English majors we’re losing sight of the bigger question, which is “What do we want college to be?” What’s practical to expect, today in 2013? What’s unreasonable? Is it unreasonable to expect that you’ll get a BA in English and not be able to find a job? I mean no, it’s not, it’s likely very true. I think one of the most destructive things to tell people is “Follow your dreams and the money will come.” Maybe the solution is that people learn trades AND major in English, you know?
(This is also relevant to our discussion.)
Colette: But since when does an English degree have no value in the professional world? It’s not as if the only jobs out there are developers, engineers, or nurses. Yes, it is highly unlikely that a person will become a famous writer, but there are other ways to parlay an English degree into success. Isn’t learning about communication and writing training enough? Sure, telling people to follow their dreams and that the money will come is destructive (though I don’t even know whether people are told that anymore) but I also think that teaching incoming college students/graduating college students that they only way to measure success is through salaries and that they only thing of value anymore is whatever you can add onto your LinkedIn profile is just as destructive.
Sarah: But I think the problem is that just that degree isn’t enough. You need to take a few extra steps that, unfortunately, an engineering grad doesn’t. Someone who gets an engineering degree can apply for jobs with “engineer” in the title. You’re going to have to get a lot more creative with a liberal arts degree.
Colette: Absolutely. I won’t deny that it takes a little imagination to sell a Philosophy degree.
Sarah: And that’s a reality that I think a lot of people just sort of ignore.
Colette: That may speak to our different college experiences, since I feel like I was bombarded with “the value” of my education every day until I graduated.
Sarah: In the end, I think pretending that all degrees are valued equally doesn’t do anyone any favors. Even though of COURSE people should value them equally. I would much rather have been told explicitly “Look, this degree makes you way less employable than, say, this degree. Are you cool with that? Are you so into what you’re studying that that is an extra challenge youre willing to take on?” I don’t even think I would have done anything differently! But somebody else who majors in “I dunno, English I guess” might.
Colette: But seriously, does anyone need to be told that? Does anyone REALLY not know that it’s going to be harder to translate a Latin American Studies degree into a full-time job than, say, a degree in Engineering?
Sarah: I think so. Too many people just absorb the message that College is the answer. Go To College and then you will Get A Job. It’s not like that anymore, especially for people our age. All of College is not created equal. If more people are forced to absorb that message I think you might see people making different choices.
Colette: Right, right.
Sarah: Artsy people will still get arts degrees. Like I said, I don’t think that message would have persuaded me to do anything different. I would be the world’s worst engineer! My spatial skills are horrifying! THIS IS ALL I HAVE. But I think that the message that going to college = employment is still being given out pretty indiscriminately. Which is also why I think a lot of people who are in college don’t take it as seriously as they should.
Colette: Sure. A large percentage of people currently unemployed have BAs — a larger percentage than there ever was before. So you’re right, college doesn’t necessarily equal employment. But I think it also needs to be said that it doesn’t necessarily NEED to. We should allow education to be about more things than “career potential.” We don’t just want to get jobs after graduation, we want rewarding careers and fulfilling lives. It can’t just be about THE JOB.
Sarah: But I don’t feel right telling people they should take out 40k in loans or whatever for a four year experience that’s about MORE than “career potential.” I feel like a college experience that’s about more than career potential is sort of a rich person thing…
Colette: Well, I think it’s about the student’s own value system.
Sarah: Unfortunately, until we decide that everyone should be able to go to college for very little money, that is what the deal is.
Sarah: Basically, I hate that it is this way, but I do feel like people should know the reality of what employment prospects after college look like for less sought after degrees. Even though they might choose to get those less sought after degrees anyway — especially because they might! I think it would lead to people feeling a LOT less cheated.
What do you think about the Forbes list, and how does it match up with your experience? Tell us in the comments.
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