The Rewards of a College Degree

According to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary. Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

It’s that time of year again when students across the country are preparing to graduate from high school and college, so media outlets begin asking that perennial question: Is college worth it? 

New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni brings up that question, as well as that persistent argument that not enough American students are studying math and science—fields where they can acquire the technical skills companies are looking for. We’re constantly giving visas to kids from China and India who are acquiring those skills, while American kids delude themselves into thinking that they can find a job with a liberal arts degree because they have so much passion for it.

As a child who disappointed his Tiger Mom by rejecting science, engineering, and other Tiger Mom-approved fields of study for degrees in English and journalism, I feel for those kids graduating with liberal arts degrees who are having a difficult time finding a job. Is college worth it? Yes. But you have to hustle. You have to figure out which college will allow you to get the education you need without burdening you with so much debt. You need to figure out how you’re going to get a job while you’re in school, and not wait until after you graduate. You need to network with people who have the job you want, and your peers who are pursuing similar career goals. I would say 80 percent of the jobs I’ve had since graduating from college were gotten because I knew someone, or someone I knew was able to put me in direct contact with the person interviewing applicants for the job. You can go to college, and follow your dreams, but you have to do it in a smart way. Also, you don’t have to go to college if that’s not the right path for you. Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl, did not go to college. And he’s doing just fine.

Photo: Sean MacEntee

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11 Comments / Post A Comment

jfruh (#161)

The “53.6 percent of under-25s unemployed or underemployed” number sounds horrifying, but it’s worth noting that same the figures for 2000 — at the height for the dot-com froth, when all the Youngs with liberal arts degrees where happily taking jobs at oddly-named startups and such — were still around 40 percent! Not that a 13 percent point increase is good, but it makes 53% sound less apocalyptic. Maybe it just takes young people a while to find their footing in the job market?

DrFeelGood (#401)

@jfruh I think that’s true. It took me about a year to find a “real” job after college… I was an Anthropology major.

melis (#42)

@DrFeelGood So you’re not a medical Dr. Feelgood, then.

jfruh (#161)

Also anecodtal data points re: not getting a college degree. When I was a young working for a dot-com startup in the late ’90s, several of my co-workers didn’t have college degrees — including my boss, a baby boomer, who went to UC Berkeley for a semester before quitting because she thought the only job a woman could get then was a secretary anyway, so why spend the money? She ended up getting secretarial work in the publishing industry and from there became an editor — she was a managing editor by the time she was my boss. When we got laid off in ’01 (as was the style at the time), I was kind of shocked by the number of potential employers who told her that her lack of a college degree counted against her. She was someone who had 20+ years of editorial experience and actually taught a copy editing class at the UC Berkeley extension, but still they cared about this credential from when she was 21. Maybe it was just because it was a recession and they could cut through the piles of applications by setting arbitrary barriers, but it struck me as kind of insane.

Mike Dang (#2)

@jfruh Oh, that does sound insane. Especially since there’s no better education than actually doing the job you want for your career. Although I will say that I also once got a job because of my journalism degree. I didn’t interview. They were like, “Oh, you have a journalism degree from Columbia? Okay, you’re hired.” The first and last time that will ever happen.

@Mike Dang Seconding the “experience is probably better than education” sentiment. I miraculously just landed a job in my field in my town, which is pretty wild given that it’s not a big field and it’s not a big place. I know that a huge reason I got this job is because of the internship I’m currently finishing. If I was just relying on my degree I doubt I would have gotten it.

Sidebar: my brother is graduating from undergrad in June and I’m finishing up graduate school this week. I’m in the more liberal arts type field, he’s in science. I got a job and he’s still hunting. So STEM fields are definitely not a guarantee of immediate employment.

@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher The ability to read and write are valuable and marketable skills! I know so many nurses, teachers, even engineers who can’t find work. The amount of un/under-employed recent graduates is about the same number of older workers who want to retire but can’t afford to. The solution isn’t to have everyone go into math and science fields. We’ll just have a glut of un/under-employed math and science people

Also, I’m pretty sure everyone’s asshole uncle has been saying what the article says since the beginning of time.

allreb (#502)

@Mike Dang My dad’s theory was that I should study whatever the hell I wanted, because it would only ever get me, at most, my first job. After that, everything would be based on connections and work experience anyway.

DrFeelGood (#401)

@WaffleSauce@twitter Plastics.

I just graduated myself with a degree in Public Policy. Whether or not it is technically useful like science and math is a different question, but I definitely developed analytical and communication skills that are also valuable to organizations. (…I hope.)

Reading this post just made me think about how I hate group projects in class… but if more college classes effectively used collaboration in the curriculum, it might facilitate some of the networking skills you mentioned above.

sea ermine (#122)

I think it’s also important to consider that not all jobs that require a college degree require a specific degree. Most of the jobs I’ve been applying to (I graduate in May) don’t have anything to do with my major (despite being jobs that I really want and would be happy in). And most of them require college degrees but not anything specific so majoring in math or science or engineering wouldn’t better prepare me for them so while I did need to go to college to be considered competitive for these jobs there was no reason why I couldn’t have studied whatever I wanted.

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