College educated people do have higher incomes and lower unemployment rates, on average, than those who have not been to college. However, the goal of achieving prosperity by obtaining a college education is becoming less attainable and secure than ever before, primarily because of staggering levels of student debt and a stagnant labor market offering mostly low wage jobs in the service sector, but also because of growing competition for limited space on college campuses.
“A college diploma no longer guarantees a direct pathway to the middle class, making it harder to justify the expense of a degree,” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Commissioner Jack Buckley told Diverse Education. Student loan debt is the only type of loan debt that has increased since the recession started. In 2012, total student loan debt reached $1 trillion, surpassing credit card debt, becoming the second largest source of personal debt after home mortgage debt. Consequently, even for those lucky enough to earn a college degree and find a job, high monthly loan payments can easily force them into the ranks of the working poor. Considering that the average undergraduate owes more than $25,000, a repayment schedule of 10 years at 6.8% comes to $288 per month, which is a lot of money for someone earning only $30-40,000 per year.
Despite his dire assessment, Buckley went on to repeat the cliché that most of the “good” jobs are going to those with college degrees. Yet, he does not define “good,” which, today, generally means “a steady salary,” regardless of the amount of that salary or the working conditions. Today people are working longer hours than they did 30-40 years ago and earning less in constant dollars, even with college degrees, so a more precise statement would be that people with college degrees are more likely to have just plain jobs, not necessarily good ones. Furthermore, even those who have college degrees are finding it harder to get hired and to hold onto their jobs. What good is a “good” job if it barely pays ones living expenses and college loan debt and leaves one with no time or energy to spend with family or leisure?
College For All: A Pathway Toward Unemployment and Lower Wages
While the growing expense of college and the ensuing debt burden are certainly good reasons to question the assumption that college is a good investment, one must now consider the job prospects that are possible with a college degree, as well, since many of the jobs that require a college degree are expected to decline over the next decade. This could result in a labor surplus in those fields and drive down wages, while forcing many graduates into other fields or the ranks of the unemployed. For example, over 250,000 bachelor’s or master’s degrees in education have been awarded yearly since 2000, though there will only be 539,100 teaching jobs available through 2020, and nearly ten times more advanced degrees in psychology will be awarded than there will be jobs in this field. Ph.D. scientists are already feeling the pinch of job and grantshortages, forcing them to look for other sources of income. (Statistics from National Center for Policy Analysis) And college graduates, in general, are having a tough time finding work in their fields of expertise, with 50% of all recent college graduates currently unemployed or underemployed in low wage jobs unrelated to their training like bartending or retail, the San Jose Mercury News reported last year. Roughly 1.5 million, or 53.6%, of those under the age of 25 with bachelor's degrees were jobless or underemployed last year—the highest rate in more than a decade.
One might reasonably wonder why legislators and reformers have been pushing a school reform agenda of “college for all” when college graduates routinely cannot find work in their fields of expertise and must then accept low-wage, unskilled jobs to repay their $25,000 of student debt. College may no longer be such a good investment for young people, but it is a huge boon to the banks and lending agencies that profit from the $1 trillion in student debt (a debt that cannot be erased through bankruptcy) and to the institutions and businesses that will be able to increase their profit margins as wages decline because of the increasing competition for scarce STEM jobs and other fields requiring highly educated workers.
Get Good Grades and to College or You’ll Wind Up a Ditch Digger
It used to be (and perhaps still is?) common for teachers to chastise shirking students with the threat that they’ll wind up digging ditches if they don’t start doing their homework and paying attention in class, yet the median income for a heavy equipment operator (e.g., backhoes, tractors, bulldozers and other ditch digging machinery) is $60,483, according to salary.com. The fact is there are lots of jobs that pay relatively high wages that do not require a college education and many of these industries are projected to grow considerably over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Jobs in masonry, for example, are expected to increase by 40%. Jobs in plumbing and pipefitting are expected to grow 26%. Jobs operating construction machinery are expected to increase by 23%. (Statistics from National Center for Policy Analysis)
Go To College (If You Can)
Another obvious problem with the College for All agenda is that it is impossible for everyone to go to college. Even before states started to slash contributions to their public universities there weren’t enough teachers and classrooms for every high school graduate. At the same time, large numbers of young people are either not graduating from high school, or graduating without the necessary skills to succeed in college. This problem has only been exacerbated by the recession and years of federal policies prior to the recession that favored the interests of older Americans at the expense of younger Americans. For example, the federal government now spends $480 billion on Medicare, but only $68 billion on education, according to Esquire. As a whole, the U.S. government spends 7 times as much on its seniors as it does on its children, per capita, according to a 2009 Brookings Institution study. Mike Males writes that younger workers are currently contributing 15% of their payroll income to pay for Social Security and Medicare payments for seniors, since Congress gutted the Social Security Trust Fund (originally designed to cover future generation’s benefits) to pay for current government needs.
As a result, the wealth gap between younger and older Americans is now the largest on record. In 1984 Americans who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under the age of thirty-five. By 2008, older Americans were earning nearly forty-seven times as much as the younger age group. Older Americans suffered far less under the current recession, with the median net worth of those under 35 falling 37% between 2005 and 2010, while falling only 13% for those over the age of 65. This wealth gap is not small, either. The median net worth of households headed by someone 65 or older has increased 42% since 1984, to a comfortable $170,494, while the median net worth for younger households has declined 68% to a desperate $3,662, according to the Pew Research Center. (For more, see the following articles in Esquire and Newsweek.
The road to prosperity for young people today, if there is one at all, may be taking care of their parents in their old age and hoping they inherit whatever wealth they may have had.