Quick blurb, I’m a subscriber to Esquire, a pretty decent periodical that lies somewhere in the cross-section of Cosmopolitan, Gentleman’s Quarterly, and a watered down Economist. Generally, as with most magazines, there are more ads than content, featuring a host of chiseled models flaunting booze or watches or clothes. Some pretty decent articles in there though. I particularly enjoy Stephen Marche’s column that appears in every issue, “1000 Words About Our Culture”. Sometimes lighthearted, most of the time insightful, generally critical, Mr. Marche is what comes to mind when I think of modern editorials.
The latest issue had this terrific piece titled “The War On Youth” generally talking about how the debt is packed against the interests of the future American generations. The point that I particularly liked was the discussion about education. If you have an ear to things that make noise about our current situation, education is a hot topic and one that probably is vitally important to the other, more publicized areas of concern that will be hotly debated in the coming election. From what I gather, everyone seems to agree something needs to change but what and how are still left blank. The United States is falling behind other industrialized nations in terms of quality of education and we are attaching far more debt to that situation than any other time in history. Marche’s article sums it up kind of like this (page 2 of the article linked above):
High School > College > Internship > Job> Work Until Somebody Retires > Maybe $$$* > Worried Some Young Guy With a Fancy Degree is Going to Take You Job > Retire**
*(more likely it will be $, instead)
**No Social Security. Also Do Not Pass Go. Possibly Eat Cat Food. Shake Your Fist at Politicians. And Children. Tell them to invest early for Retirement.
You have to get a college education. According to the data, you are going to make more money and have more job security. But the data and Marche show that the price of higher education has risen a staggering 128% since 1980. Compound that with numbers that show “no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing” after two years in college. Having just recently exited a university setting, I know that is definitely the truth. The University of Missouri-Kansas City has a test called* the WEPT (Written English Proficiency Test). Requirements are to have taken a “sophomore” level English course as well as have at least 45 credits accumulated. What does that mean exactly? You need to be at least a junior standing in order to sit for a test that is supposed to evaluate your ability to write critically at a college level and enroll in “WI” Writing Intensive courses that are required to graduate. Ridiculous!
But even higher institutions are not immune to such ridiculousness. Highly vaunted Truman State University has a required course called “Writing and Critical Thinking” or** WACT. That course is coded ENG 190 and is a first year requirement at the “Harvard of the Midwest”*** And as much as I hate calling attention to the school paper, “The Index” there was a decent column written by biased and “TTS” (Typical Truman Student), Tyler Retherford in which he asked aloud why so many resources were being pumped into these WACT courses and other similar courses (Public Speaking and College Algebra) at Truman. Part of the appeal of Truman is that it accepts some of the best students in the region and there is more money being spent on making sure that they can write paragraphs than have adequate professors for junior and senior levels courses in certain majors offered.
***Also known as: The Princeton of the Prairie, The Yale of the Yokels, Oxford near the Ozarks
So yes, I would imagine that indeed the quality of the American college graduate has suffered while the prices have gone up. So what does that mean? That means several things happen almost simultaneously.
First and most importantly, many, many people are earning college degrees that don’t deserve them.*
Second, the rise in prices creates a demand for education at (more) affordable pricing which brings in such institutions as Phoenix Online which offers college degrees through your computer at your convenience for a price you won’t get at any brick and mortar school. (Side effect of second point, more people who probably shouldn’t have a degree).
Thirdly, there is a massive amount of debt being racked up by those students. This is the tricky part. There are more people out there with college degrees** which means employers can afford to pay less. You are suddenly very replaceable and you are getting less pay than previous generations of college grads and on top of that you have all that debt. So what happens now?
*Like politicians and people getting “honorary” degrees. Also Pay for Degrees.
**Let’s not talk about quality of one university against another. Pretend it is a level playing field for a little bit. The difference in education between, let’s say Rockhurst, UMKC, Baker, and Southwest Baptist are likely negligible to a hiring company in let’s say Florida. Unless the hiring manager is an alum from one of those institutions, you’re likely going to get the same shot as the next guy. That brings up a rather sticky issue of “who you know” rather than “what you know” but that is a conversation for another time.
Now you really want to set yourself apart. This becomes a paper chase. Master’s Degree, Law School, Medical School, all are prestigious (although a masters in business administration (MBA) means about as much as an associate’s degree* nowadays), and all are super expensive. So you saddle yourself down with more debt and you become a lawyer or a doctor or a professor. Your dreams of reaching a higher salary are finally reached? Nope! Stuck slogging it out until one of your esteemed colleagues retires. Meanwhile more and more people are diluting your once exclusive pool.
*See also Bounty v Brawny or Charmin v Cottonelle
So you skip college and get a technical job. Labor is still important right? Work your way up in less time but with more physicality. You’ll be making about as much as a college grad in about a decade or so (and more than a college grad in sociology, psychology, or the arts!). And manufacturing is starting to return to the US! All good news except for the fact that manual processes are being done faster and more efficiently by machines and, as Marche points out in his article, the jobs that are coming back aren’t coming back how we left them. Globalization goes both ways, it brings the First World to the Third World but it also brings the Third World home, and in our case that means wages. Jobs are coming back at Third World rates and to make it through, we have to accept them.
What happens now? What is my grand solution? I really don’t have one. I would suggest for one, to take away the tenure of professors and de-unionize the teachers. I understand that this will turn away a lot of people wanting to become teachers but I think it will grant the more important power of taking away bad teachers. Please understand, I know about the general “everyone wins” psyche of the American student but I think that will fall more in line once the teachers are in line and the administrations are roundly dismissed. People more concerned about keeping jobs than the welfare of the students (sound familiar?*) No more blatant example of this can I give you than the case I believe I have discussed with Staley High School in the North Kansas City School District. At Staley you have the ability to retake tests and resubmit assignments. When it first opened the window for these actions was 18 weeks. I didn’t type that wrong. 18 weeks. Now it has been forcefully trimmed back to 3 weeks for normal classes and 2 weeks for AP and College courses. A retake or resubmission is good for a 100% replacement of the first grade that you got. Say you got a 0 on a test. Retake it! Get a 70 and that now replaces your grade. Such a blatant act that openly harms students and attempts to artificially boost GPA for the entire school. That this policy stands not only makes an open mockery of the administration but also only further cements that particular advantages given to the school. For those not familiar with the area, Staley High School is conveniently located in a predominately upper-middle class, predominately white cross section of the North Kansas City School District.
*Politics. I’m talking about people in politics.
In the end, there are a lot of problems. Maybe publicly funded schools are the problem. Maybe we as a society don’t read enough. Maybe it is because textbook manufacturers are a bunch of cronies.** In the meantime, I’m going back to work in the morning. I’m in the financial industry because in business I believe the hierarchy looks kind of like this:
Management, Finance, Marketing, Accounting, HR
By Actual Money Made:
Accounting, Finance, HR, Management, Marketing***
**You know the politicians are. Am I right? Can I get a high five over here?
***Guess who has two thumbs, a blog, and a marketing major? If you said politicians, congrats! What a savvy humorist you are. If you said Thangers, you are sadly right! Also congrats!
I’m also likely to get in the paper chase as well. The company where I am gainfully employed has a tidy incentive program for those wanting to improve themselves, in this case, a bi-annual stipend for continuing education, namely the pursuit of a MBA (or as is the curious case of my manager, a Bachelors, more on that later). I’ll be keeping you, dear readers, in the loop.
Happy Tax Day!