The College Conundrum

This is a very long post, so please bear with me. I've been asked by many parents about the relative value of a college education. I met with a former student for forty minutes last week to discuss graduate school options. He was very earnest and very sincere, and he posed some great questions, which got me thinking about the relative value of a college degree in relationship to the cost. 

So, should kids go to college?

For decades, the default answer was frequently delivered in the affirmative. However, with the cost of a college education rising exponentially (and outpacing just about every other service in American life with the exception of fuel costs and healthcare) and a rough job market awaiting many recent (or soon-to-be) college graduates, the answer is a bit more complicated.

My advice to students is to ask a few questions that seem paradoxical. I say that because, on the surface they're pretty simplistic questions, but the logistics of creating a plan and seeing it through are extremely complicated. Life is complicated, and things happen that sometimes put the train off the tracks.

Keeping that in mind, my first set of questions would be:
  • What do you want to do with your life? Where do you want to live? What is your optimal work schedule? What amount of financial remuneration do you need to remain satisfied and productive?
Again, that seems simple, but the answers to those questions can be pretty elusive. I earned a B.S. degree in finance at Linfield College (a degree I'll have fully paid for in about five years, but more on that later). I took a position as a financial services representative with the investment arm of Prudential right out of college. In a recruiting class of six brokers, I was the only one to pass my Series 6, Series 66 and Series 7 brokerage licenses. The others were summarily fired; I was rewarded with an office cubicle and a schedule that included about sixty hours of work a week.

The job was selling stocks and mutual funds. I was okay at it, but I really didn't like the work. The hours were so long that I never saw Jeanne. My health suffered, both physically and spiritually, and I didn't get much of a chance to write (I minored in English at Linfield and began writing fiction during my time there). The job was financially rewarding but, at the end of the day, I didn't feel much in the way of satisfaction or contribution to my community. Prudential paid a nice salary (plus commissions) faithfully ever Friday afternoon, but the job itself inspired nothing in me but dread. 

I wanted to spend more time with writing. Hell, I wanted to write for a living, to be honest. I looked into working for the newspapers, and I applied to the master's degree program in English at Portland State. When I was offered a spot in their fall class, I fled corporate America and went back to school. I took a job as a sportswriter at The Gresham Outlook (for which I received, at various times, both college credit through an internship and then payment as an employee of the sports department) and I spent two more years in the classroom, earning that M.A. degree. I learned more about the craft of writing clear prose at the paper than I ever expected to. And I learned more about myself and my abilities to teach and organize a meaningful learning opportunity for others at Portland State.

I knew then that I wanted to work as a college professor. I liked the atmosphere of the college, and I liked the tangible aspect of building stories and delivering the news. It felt good, and it felt right. 

So of course, I needed the degree. Furthermore, I needed a graduate degree from a regionally accredited institution. And to complete the rest of my career goals, I needed a terminal degree (more on that later as well).

So, for some jobs, in some fields, a college degree is mandatory. For many, many others, it's not. There was a time in America in which people with high school diplomas could have a pretty good life if they wanted to build things. The work was often repetitive and physical. The lack of creative control and autonomy aren't attractive to me personally, but to each his own.

However, for many reasons (with outsourcing and offshoring being the greatest factors, in my opinion), manufacturing is not much of a viable option in 2012. There has been a cultural shift, within both the political and the business spheres, that has severely devalued the contributions (and the economic viability) of the American laborer. For some who earn high school diplomas, but who don't want to pursue the cost of a college degree, joining the military is one of the only options (although even that avenue for employment and/or personal satisfaction is becoming more difficult to pursue) left.

With a decreased emphasis on manufacturing in America, and high school dropout rates of about 75% for the country, I don't think our present economic troubles should come as much of a surprise. We are becoming, as Naomi Klein asserts in her book No Logo, a service-based economy. Inevitably, a large portion of our population will find jobs keeping things clean, cooking food, selling things (lots of kiosks in the mall, folks!) and cutting grass. If folks have a passion for positions in the service sector, then things are looking pretty good right about now. But the truth is, most folks don't want to work in those positions.

I had a friend confide in me the other day at the YMCA that he hates his life. He stocks the shelves at a local grocery store, but he also gets to man the register from time to time--one of the more glamorous aspects of working at Publix. He told me that he dreads checking the schedule, that his chest tightens when he goes to see how his life will be parceled out to him in eight-hour shifts over the next couple of weeks. I told him to drop by the Deerwood Center and I'd put him in contact with an adviser.

"I'm in my forties and I'm too tired to go back to school," he said, shaking his head. "That ship sailed years ago."

My friend's experience is but an anecdote, and just a tiny example of the existential angst that I suspect might permeate those that work in the service sector, but it's compelling to me nevertheless. It makes me thankful for the good fortune that's happened in my life to have a job that I enjoy (and could not have, had I not gone to college) and some relative control over the quality and quantity of the work I do for FSCJ.

A rung above this would be the skilled technician class. I have another friend who is considering embarking upon a job as an electrician's apprentice. Those folks make very good money doing extremely dangerous things (like dealing with high voltages; his job would require working high up on towers, so no thanks for me, but more power to him). But earning the licenses, insurance and certification to do that job can be almost as expensive as earning a degree at FSCJ (where we actually offer courses in things like welding and HVAC repair through our career college arm). You can make a very nice living as a plumber or electrician, but I hope one would have a genuine passion to plumb if that's the road he or she might take.

The second questions, then:
  • How much am I willing to pay? Will I actually do the thing I set out to do? How long should I take?
"Debt," in and of itself, is not a bad word. My wife and I have excellent credit, and we prefer to stay lean and mean in terms of carrying debt from month to month, but we use it all of the time. We run all of our finances through a credit card each month, then pay it off, to bank the travel rewards (the round-trip flight she's finishing up today from Seattle didn't cost us anything out of pocket). We have a good mortgage.

And we pay around $450 dollars each month in student loans (federally subsidized loans). We've done this for six years, and will be doing this for five more to come. Do we wish we had that money as disposable income? Sure. Are we thankful that we earned the four degrees between us to have the jobs we do that provide us with the quality of life we enjoy? You bet your ass. 

My wife is a high school guidance counselor. It's all she's ever wanted to do. She earned a bachelor's degree from PSU and then an M.A. from the University of North Florida. We'll have her loans paid off a bit quicker than mine (probably three years), but that sum isn't crippling to us. In fact, it was wholly necessary for her to make her credentialing happen in her field.

For us to carry the debt that we do, it's a professional and occupational outcome of paying for our own educations. My folks picked up the tab on my sister's degree at Eastern Oregon, but I had to make the financing happen for my education.

Now, this is a hard thing to consider objectively, but an important aspect of this question is whether or not a person can actually complete the degree. Many students begin college, but they never finish. And, because most student loans can't be discharged in bankruptcy, the promissory notes they signed so easily every August haunt them for decades.

So six in ten students finish a four-year college degree within six years. For the four that don't, that's a lot of debt out there that isn't necessarily paying off, which leads many economists to have recently predicted that the next big crisis point in our country's fragile economic plight is our exorbitant amount of student loan debt.

This has led to some innovative thinking in terms of how people are paying for college. You know that silly phrase, "If it's free, it's me"? Well, maybe nowhere is it more applicable than the consideration of going to school or not. I'm beginning a doctoral program at the University of Central Florida in about three weeks, and I'm flattered and thankful that I was able to secure a graduate teaching assistantship. This will give me free tuition in exchange for teaching a few classes each term. It's inexpensive labor for UCF, and it keeps me out of the FAFSA cycle for the terminal degree I need to teach upper division communications courses (that professional goal I mentioned earlier).

And another great benefit of working as a college professor is that my dependents will likely get tuition benefits. Furthermore, our college is willing to pay all full-time employees up to $4500 per year to go back to school in the form of tuition reimbursements.

These things are out there, and I hope our children will take advantage of them one day.

In Florida, there is the Bright Futures scholarship program. We also have extensive dual enrollment programs in Duval County, so many high-achieving high school students are getting free college credits at the same time they are pursuing their diplomas.

But those who take advantage of programs like that are few and far between. Far more local kids simply stop attending school, making the possibility of a rough economic future a pretty realistic outcome.

And then there is always the question of quality. Some folks complain that college degrees, even those from regionally accredited institutions, have suffered in terms of their overall quality and that completion doesn't necessarily signify value. I don't buy that at all. I think rigor is as good as it's ever been. Our faculty at the Deerwood Center has a high terminal-degree ratio, and our educators have been widely recognized for the quality of their instruction. Colleges still teach, among the value in the content of the subjects themselves, things like accountability, time management, multi-tasking, productive collaboration and communication.

And what about choosing the degree? There is a shortage of nurses in Florida right now, so that field certainly isn't hurting for applicants (getting in is another story). Are humanities degrees somehow less valuable than so-called STEM degrees? Depends. There are many jobs that simply require a college degree from a reputable school for employment. If you are pursuing one of those, that art history degree won't hurt you at all. If you want to teach and, in many cases, work in law enforcement, you'll need a college degree (JSO requires a two-year degree, I think, to become a police officer)--though the discipline often doesn't matter. Because they wanted folks with conflict-resolution skills, the Florida Fish and Wildlife was actively looking for recent graduates with psychology degrees.

But yes, it's important to picture where you want to live and how you want to live in order to conceptually make your own luck. You want to work in high tech? You  might have to live in the research triangle in North Carolina, or in the Silicon Valley (Bay Area) or Silicon Forest (Portland to Seattle).

You want to process chicken parts? Arkansas is your best bet.

It's all about envisioning what the future looks like. But don't forget what I said about making your own luck. You still need to distinguish yourself in school with things like grades and citizenship and ancillaries (publications and internships). You'll need to be agile, both personally and mentally, and take initiative. I love my job here in Florida, and I like Jacksonville very much, but I'm an Oregonian at heart. The labor market in higher education is fantastically tight (we often screen over one hundred applicants, probably half of them with PhDs, for one opening at FSCJ), and in Oregon, there simply wasn't a market. Some jobs are coming open now, but if you wanted a job with some security and benefits seven years ago, you had to move. I did, and I'm happy to have done so.

My job, by the way, affords me the time I want to write and spend time with my family. I swapped financial compensations that I made at Prudential for time considerations that I now have at FSCJ. I teach a variety of courses, at different times every semester, and that variety keeps me fresh and dedicated. I like the time I can take off, and that's when I pursue the bulk of my writing (which provides a little more income for the family). These are all important considerations one should take into account as they consider whether college is worth it.

And finally, what about for-profit schools?


Watch this, then draw your own conclusions, but I'd steer well clear of those institutions.

Look, life isn't fair and nothing is every promised to any of us. If you want a decent standard of living and a job with autonomy and control, and one that might have other benefits like a flexible schedule, then you'll likely need a college degree. Many of you will need multiple degrees. If you know you can commit to a budget and see the degree all the way through to its conclusion, and if you do so in a quality fashion, then I think earning a college degree is a wise investment in one's self. 

But taking out the loans and getting nothing much of value in return could be a mistake that might cripple a person into the future. It's a tough debate, but certainly one worth having.

Whew. That got long, and it's just one man's opinion (and the tip of the iceberg on the discussion, really). If any reader has a question, e-mail me or drop a note in the comments section and I'll try to address it in full...       


GatorGirl said...

Professor Powell,
I don't know if you'll remember me, but I took your Creative Writing course about two, two and a half years ago. I'm about to graduate from UF with my Bachelor's and am constantly (it seems) struggling with the idea of Graduate school. Both my near and dear friends as well as my Professors now have told me to take some time and decide. A year off is nothing, they say. I'm honestly not sure what I want to do, and don't want to "waste" both time and money on a MA of English for no reason. I am fairly positive I want to write (something I credit to your class- a class I took as a fluke to be honest and didn't expect to enjoy quite as much as I did). I'm hoping to work in Publishing, maybe for a Newspaper or Magazine... hell, even an online journal would be nice. I landed an internship interview with Clay Today for a week from Monday which is GREAT! So, in your knowledgeable opinion, should I attempt to pursue a MA right now? With the way the job market is and the research I've done, all signs are pointing to a big NO. In fact, I've read that many people who have a Masters or even a PhD end up on food stamps because of the scarcity of jobs. That's scary. I don't necessarily need it for the job I hope to land, nor to be a writer or even a teacher (which seems to be the backup plan for all English majors), but I would if I want to do higher education. I'm torn... Any advice would be great!!
Thanks in advance,
Ashley Williams

Daniel W. Powell said...

Hi Ashley,

I do recall our work together. Thanks for contacting me.

I think you hit the nail on the head in that last senitment in your post: if you want to work in higher education, which gives you a very solid conduit to the world of publishing (I write fiction, but many of my colleagues at UCF and FSCJ write research essays, textbooks, grant proposals, citizen journalism, etc.), then you'll have to go back to school.

I find teaching very rewarding, and I like the scheduling and complexity of topics I engage with in higher education.

If you want to work for a few years for a magazine or a journal, I would say do that without giving an MA another thought. You'll learn a lot about yourself as a writer (I did when I wrote for The Gresham Outlook), and that might give you the time to really decide on heading back for the advanced degree. No need to take on extra debt if you don't plan on teaching in higher education.

The labor market is tight in higher education, but there are lots of opportunities. However, you'll have to be open to moving. That's just the reality of the situation. You could wait twenty years for a viable opportunity in NE Florida to work out.

Stay in touch (dpowell@fscj.edu) and shoot me a note with any other questions or news you might have.

And I hope things went well with the interview!


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