Monday, June 29, 2009

Go to College

My mother told me that back in the Depression, the boys who usually quit high school without graduating to go work in the steel mills of Chicago got the word from the mills to stay in school. Their fathers were having a tough enough time holding onto their jobs, and there was no room for newcomers. So a generation of boys who might have ended their education with the 10th grade graduated from high school instead. Thus paving the way, once military service was over, for that same generation of boys to go to college on Uncle Sam’s nickel, and move up in the world to white-collar work. Some of them undoubtedly ended up running the very factories in which their fathers had spent their whole lives laboring.

Today, a lot of people question whether bothering with college is worth the effort, since so many recent graduates are not finding wonderful, high-paying jobs the moment they graduate. (Not that this is unusual. That was the situation when I graduated from college, too. Every job I applied for got thousands of resumes. Still, eventually, I found interesting, well-paid work that related to my degree.) Right now, many more college graduates are being let go from good jobs. Is college a good investment in the future?

My answer is a resounding yes. The U.S. Department of Labor issues statistics on the lifetime earnings of persons who have attained various levels of education, and as you can see the more college a person gets, the higher the person’s income is likely to be. And a person with a college degree earns twice as much over a lifetime as a person with only a high school diploma. Sure, these are averages, and this chart is in ten-year-old dollars. But the nature of these differences holds steady. And, although we still have serious gender and racial differences in earnings, the way people leap over those barriers is through education. The statistics plainly support that fact, too, although I haven’t found that chart on the Bureau of Labor Statistics site this time around.

Nothing is certain in life beyond death and taxes, but education is the gift that keeps on giving. Thousands of manufacturing jobs that required little prior education have been lost to this country and will never return. Education at the college level prepares people to enter a fluid job market. As much as anything can, and that’s a big caveat. We are now supposed to be the CEOs of Me, Inc., and plan our futures ourselves, not expect some paternalistic company to give us lifetime employment. How well is that going? It’s too early to tell, because of the massive displacements of workers from outsourcing and globalization, plus the wretched downturn in the economy. But the basic idea, to navigate your own ship of lifetime work, makes sense. And college can give you the skills to do it. For the rare individual, high school is enough of a launching pad. But statistically, the more schooling you have, the better off you will be financially.

Not everybody should go to the same kind of college or major in the same kinds of subjects, but nothing helps if there are no jobs, which is the general situation right now. America has an abundance of highly educated, versatile workers, and not enough jobs for us. It also has an abundance of highly skilled, non-versatile workers, and not enough jobs for them, either. So what can we do? Stay in school. It’s the only occupation at which it is entirely respectable to be broke, to wear shabby clothes and not have a car and live in a dump. Granted, there are a lot of college students financing an affluent college experience through credit cards, but by and large, being of modest means while a student is the norm. College is a good place to hide out during an economic storm. And, duh, you could learn something that leads to a career.

Unlike the ads you see and hear, college is a not a scam. Paying tuition to a trade school for a "highly-paid job in the computer industry" or for a "highly-paid career in home staging" is a scam. So is being a network marketer or a phone sales person, usually. (See my recent post for why you don’t want to become a network marketer.) Training to be a hairdresser often is a scam; it's a common fallback of indifferent students, and then they discover they're no good at that, even though they love to fool with their own hair. And the jobs aren't out there. And the tuition does not even qualify for the Hope Credit. Training to be a plumber requires pull to even get an apprenticeship; you usually have to be somebody's relative. (I have never met a plumber’s assistant yet who wasn’t somebody’s nephew.) And the world only needs so many plumbers, plus you can get killed doing it. The same goes for electrical work. Or cleaning gutters. It doesn’t take a degree to clean gutters, but one misstep could leave you unable to stand, sit, or walk, let alone work. That’s another reason that people go to college, to aim for employment that will not kill them. Coal mining can kill you. Factory work can kill you. Pushing papers and spending all day on a computer at most can give you paper cuts and wrist trouble. But it will not give you black lung, cancer, or asbestosis. The biggest physical risk at a white-collar job is obesity.

There will always be more workers than managers in any organization, but the most skilled navigate to the top. For white-collar workers, the risk of not proceeding to a managerial job is chiefly to income. And that can be remedied through job change, more education, career change, etc. College gives people the opportunity to gain the basic and some of the advanced skills to become a boss instead of just a worker. Of course the reality is that few will become bosses. But it's still better to aim for the top than for the bottom. And college is also the stepping stone to a wealth of interesting careers. The fact that none of them appear to have any vacancies at the moment should not deter anyone from entering or completing college. There always are times when the supply of educated workers in any field is higher than the demand. But everyone does eventually get absorbed into the economy. And having a college education simply gives you better odds for a better level of integration. Not to mention many networking opportunities.

What about majoring in fields that have few job prospects? Like medieval literature, or archeology, or philosophy? Is that wasted time? No, because college is not trade school. An education is more than a collection of specific job skills. It is the basis for lifelong learning. And there will be a few people who do follow their interest in philosophy, say, into a lifelong career. Will you be one of them? First you have to go to college.

Sick of school? Plan to take a year off. The gap year is an established tradition in other countries. Young people explore volunteer opportunities, work on farms, travel, or whatever. And then, having tasted a bit of the world, they go to college to get ready to take a place in it. Been out of school for decades? Go back. We all know people who have returned to college in middle age. By then, your focus may have sharpened and you’ll have a good grasp of what you want college to do for you, and how much effort you’re willing to put in. As we get older, many people allow their lives to narrow. Education can expand your horizons just at a time when you think there is nothing new to be learned.

You might well ask where the money comes from to finance a college education. We have all heard of people stuck with enormous college loans who could never find work that would pay the loans off. But plenty of people finance college without that issue, often by picking schools with modest tuition, or by getting creative about financing. There are grants and scholarships that some students obtain, and work study programs, and employer funding of career-related courses, plus part-time, evening, and weekend classes specifically aimed at adults who already have jobs. The possibilities are endless.

And that’s really the bottom line on education: the possibilities are endless. So what are you waiting for? Look around you and sign up for a class today.


Anonymous said...

NIce advertising copy. Unfortunately it misses the point. You make the same flawed assumption as George Bush. i.e., Everyone is the same, and we are the result of our training. That old Tabula Rasa paradigm again. That someone might rather have their eyes scooped out then spend ten more minutes listening to some myopic frog croak on about who cares what isn't considered valid. They are WRONG to feel this way. We must save them from themselves and have them achieve salvation.

Granted there is hyperbole here, but we need a better solution, not cheering on one aspect of the one that has already failed.

Hopeful Lily said...

No, my point is that right now, staying in school is a smart move. And for the future, it also pays off in dollars and cents. And there are statistics to prove it.

Will every college program suit every person? Of course not. Is every person meant to have an advanced degree? The NYTimes has been debating that very issue at

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the reply and link. In reference to being the CEO of Me inc, isn't that a great way to fail? New evidence is implying that multitasking isn't a way to success. The level of expertise required to even review what is being done for us lies outside most of our abilities. Even if I stand there and watch I have no idea what most people are doing.

Hopeful Lily said...

Don't be so darned hopeless.

Being the CEO of Me really means asking yourself what you want, and then going after it despite any other distractions. It does not necessarily mean multitasking or changing careers every three years. Not that being agile isn't useful.

But that's a lot more than many people ever ask themselves. Too many have been content to take the first decent job they were offered. And then they wake up years later, having spent a lot of time on something that is personally meaningless. It's okay to take a meaningless job as long as you know it, mind you. Because, as the CEO of Me, you have a plan.

Anonymous said...

Reading the passage "in reference to being the CEO of Me inc, isn't that a great way to fail" was terribly depressing, Mr. Anonymous, whoever you are, because what that essentially translates to, is "When I am me, I fail. Why even bother to do anything? I'm screwed from the start!"

I think you need to rewrite the scripts in your head. Let me recommend some.

Go reread the poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley. Back when I was in high school, I used to have it memorized, and it ends with this:

"It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul."

Sort of like being the CEO, eh?

I would also memorize the Rudyard Kipling poem "If," which includes the lines --

"If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;
If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim"

Back then, I also -- rather strange for a teen during the '60s -- memorized the Frank Sinatra song "My Way." And the Sammy Davis, Jr. song "I Gotta Be Me," too!

I don't know why I was lucky enough to be so taken by these, but they are all much better scripts to carry around in your head than that "being the CEO of Me inc, isn't that a great way to fail."