Generations of young Americans have been told they must go to college in order to have a decent life, but there is reason to believe that isn’t necessarily the case today.
Companies have closed and millions of jobs have been lost over the past decade, but the “university business” has boomed.
Most institutions are seeing record enrollment, fueled by the usual annual influx of high school graduates as well as displaced people in the labor force who are going back to class in order to gain new skills.
Everywhere you turn, there are promotions for various and sundry institutions seeking to increase their ranks of students. This runs the gamut, from the local community college to online universities offering the lure of long-distance education.
Folks have been scrambling to enroll in college despite the cost of tuition rising on a regular basis, and taking out costly student loans in some cases to help them make ends meet.
And what is waiting at the end of the line after they blindly march to the hallowed halls (or to the computer monitor) and earn that degree? There is a graduation ceremony and maybe a celebration here or there — but also a big dose of reality.
Average student debt in the U.S. now totals $25,000, and in some cases — such as medical school grads — the sum can easily exceed $100,000.
That’s all well and good, assuming one hasn’t majored in 14th-century Polish archaeology and actually has a good job waiting at the end of his or her academic sojourn due to gaining some marketable skill.
But the idea that a college degree offers a direct pathway to success is not a given anymore. One report has revealed that one of every two recent college graduates is either jobless or underemployed.
And the issue of debt is not just for “kids,” with new federal research showing that Americans who are 60 and older still owe some $36 billion in student loans.
Yet such harsh realities haven’t stopped the intense pressure on people to get that elusive degree.
This reminds me of the other great obsession in our society, that of owning your own home. As we’ve seen with the foreclosure crisis, home ownership might sound good, but is not for everyone, and those who take that big step better do their homework first.
A college education needs to be approached with equal diligence, since it can be argued that high school graduates are better off not continuing their education at all rather than attending mediocre schools offering meaningless degrees and mountains of debt.
Politics also has become part of the problem, as evidenced by efforts of the president and Congress this week to freeze interest rates on student loans. This will only cause more people to head down what could be a dead-end path.
These times call for careful choices by young people and their parents, which could lead them instead to decide that learning an in-demand trade such as auto mechanics or plumbing is better in the long run. Or at least entering a career field where one has at least some hope of landing a job.
Research likely would reveal certain technical positions in manufacturing or other areas which are not being filled because of a lack of skilled workers.
One only needs to look at the situation in Germany to understand the relationship between education and the real world. That country’s percentage of college graduates is well under that of the United States, but Germany boasts a low jobless rate and unlike the U.S. has a healthy industrial sector.
Given recent data, the worst thing a person can do is cave in to all the hard-sell advertisements by colleges and the pressures to get that degree, without considering the likely result as well as alternatives to the traditional approach.
Ironically, young people must get a pretty good education under their belt nowadays before they even crack open the first college textbook.
Tom Joyce is a reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 719-1924 or email@example.com.