College in the ’90s: USELESS U?

by Jacob Weisberg

The first job Roger Labrador, a 1992 graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, landed after graduation was working as a short-order cook for US $4.25 an hour. Things have improved slightly since then. He’s now making US $5.00 an hour at a health-food store.

Pragmatists might be inclined to say that’s what Labrador deserves for majoring in studio art. But consider the case of his classmate and girlfriend, 22-year-old Kimberly Brewer. She majored in biology, thinking she’d be able to get an entry-level job with a biotech firm or veterinarian. But the biotech firms told her she needed a graduate degree, and the veterinarians told her they wanted someone with “hands-on experience.” She is now working at a rubber-stamp factory for US $6.25 an hour.

“Out of all the people I went to school with,” says Labrador, “I only know one person who got a real, high paying job. Nowadays, people don’t care if you have a degree.”

Statistics bear out the pair’s experience. A recent survey of Californians who returned to community college for job training after getting a bachelor’s degree showed that almost 10 percent have incomes of less than US $8,000, a figure slightly below the poverty line. But it’s not just California graduates who are wondering about the real value of their diplomas. According to a 1991 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 40 percent of all 1990 graduates felt the work they did in their jobs did not require a college degree.

In the U.S., a great many of us go to college with the naive assumption that a diploma will bring us economic success. While it’s true that college graduates make more money in the long run, it’s also true that four years at a university is no longer the best path to making a lot of money, nor is it even a guarantee of a secure middle class existence.

For those who are so intensely focused at age 18that they know how they plan to make money, four or more years doing something other than making it is likely to be a waste of time. With four years of college now costing as much as US $100,000, a US $139 yearly subscription the Wall Street Journal is probably a better investment. As Robert Wallach, president and CEO of Robert Plan, an urban auto insurance agency, proudly told that newspaper, “We have the lowest proportionate number of college graduates on staff in the industry. I don’t want the valedictorian, I want the kid who sold cigarettes in the bathroom.”

Indeed, a look at the Forbes 400 shows little correlation between the accumulation of degrees and the accumulation of wealth. First on the list is software whiz kid Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard in 1975 to start Microsoft, from which he has earned a cool US $6.3 billion. Another example is Michael Dell, one of whose computers I’m writing this on. Dell dropped out of the University of Texas after starting his own company, which later became Dell Computers. He is now 28 years old and worth US $300 million.

It’s not just cyberpunks who can make it without a sheepskin. Being booted from Brown didn’t do much harm to Ted Turner’s career. Nor did dropping out of the University of California at Los Angeles hurt show-business tycoon David Geffen, who was a multimillionaire at 25 and is now, at 49, worth a billion dollars. After a few semesters at college, Geffen left to get some real training in the mailroom of the William Morris talent agency. Of course, the Morris agency, like most employers, did not hire people without college degrees. When Geffen’s transcript arrived in the mail, he intercepted it and substituted a forged letter. Even the talent agency was more interested in the credentials than the talent.

The ranks of college dropouts include a lot of highly literate people as well, even a few intellectuals: poet Maya Angelou, Vanity Fair editor E. Graydon Carter and National Public Radio legal-affairs correspondent Nina Tolenberg. The highly motivated usually manage to educate themselves. It is an American tradition as old as Ben Franklin.

Even if college isn’t a reliable passport to an upper middle-class existence, you could still argue it’s a good place to get an education, to broaden your mind and learn about the world. But intellectually and academically, college is in a bad way. Consider the titles of some recent about articles about the American university: Killing the Spirit, Liberal Education, The Closing of the American Mind, Prof Scam, The Hollow Men … The list goes on.

Things are looking grim even at the highly selective Ivy League schools. It was big news last spring when a survey of 3,119 Ivy League undergraduates reported by the magazine U.S. News and World Report found that only half the respondents could name the two senators, from their home state, and only 41 percent could name at least four members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Ivy League, though, represents only seven schools. There are now thousands of colleges in America, partly as a result of the GI Bill passed by Congress in 1944. The bill made it possible for millions of World War II veterans to go to college. As a result, colleges swelled into universities, and a lot of new colleges sprang into being. But in looking for ways to finance their existence, many of these institutions have become little more than corporate subsidiaries, centers for “research” that have little to do with opening the minds of the young.

The professors at these schools are often more focused on securing tenure by publishing their own work–a crucible known in academics as “publish or perish”–than on teaching, and leave the actual work to TA’s (teaching assistants), graduate students with little more training than undergraduates. At the University of California at Berkley, there are 1,742 of these teaching assistants, and at Harvard University–the school ranked number one academically in the survey published by U.S. News and World Report–there are about 850 of them.

The wars over political correctness have also turned many campuses into battlefields, where there’s more debates about what students should be studying than there is actual studying of anything. As critic Robert Hughes points out in his new book, The Culture of Complaint, the current controversy over multicultural versus traditional curricula assumes that what people read in school is so important because everyone knows few graduates will read anything other than the occasional best seller once they graduate. This is proof, if any were needed, of the failure of the system. What are colleges doing if not fostering the curiosity that will make their graduates into lifelong readers?

If college is so dismal, why are we more intent than ever on the idea that everyone must go? This year, more than a million people will graduate from college; in 1960, fewer than 400,000 received degrees. Part of the reason is the social function that the university has come to play in American life. For most of us, college is our first chance to live away from home; to learn about drinking, drugs and sex. And it affords us the chance to do it in a sheltered, protective setting. It introduces us to kinds of people we’ve never met and creates avenues of social mobility. The belief in college also stems from a kind of misplaced egalitarianism that says if everyone has the same credential, credentials will somehow cease to matter.

The result is almost precisely the opposite. Today, paradoxically, a college diploma is considered both essential and nearly meaningless. Since employers can no longer rely n a college diploma, per se, to have much value, they rely more and more on specialized graduate-school programs to train prospective employees. Hence, the recent boom in MBAs. Roger Labrador and Kim Brewer, the two UC Santa Cruz graduates who couldn’t find good jobs, are both planning to continue their studies–he’s thinking about graduate school; she’s taking animal health technology courses at a community college. The problem with this is that four years to get your ticket punched before moving on to real training isn’t a very efficient use of time.

Some efforts are under way to reconsider what the experience of college is all about. S. Fredrick Starr, the president of Oberlin College in Ohio, and Gerhard Casper, the new president of California’s Stanford University, have both suggested making college three years instead of four. This has drawn a hostile reaction from other university presidents, who consider the four-year plan eternally locked. In fact, it’s a historical accident. Harvard took the four-year scheme from Cambridge in 1636. Soon afterward, Cambridge switched to three years. Casper argues that dropping the fourth year would force colleges to think harder about what it is they want to teach students.

In many ways, the problem lies not with colleges themselves, but with what our society expects from them. We need to get away from the idea that a BA or BS is the single necessary credential for any sort of advancement–or even an automatic hallmark of academic achievement. People graduating from high school should be encouraged to take the time to consider their options, and to try different things before they go off to spend four years at a college. Had Labrador and Brewer worked in the real world before going to college, they might have spent those four years differently and been better prepared for the realities of the job market.

We need to recognize that a great many people don’t want, can’t afford and won’t benefit much from such a diversion. The cure is not to cut off opportunities for going to college; it’s to think more seriously about who goes and why they go. Instead of moving toward a system where everybody goes to college, we should think about creating a situation where everybody who wants to can, but no one feels her life will be ruined if she doesn’t. College should be a choice–but not an automatic one.

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