The Nation's Pulse

No College Student Left Behind

The peril of turning colleges into diploma factories.

By 9.22.09

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Despite the audacity of her lawsuit, Trina Thompson is a victim. The Monroe College alumna is famously suing her alma mater because she remains unemployed three months after graduation -- joining nearly 80% of this year's graduating class. The lawsuit claims the underperforming career development department at Monroe is responsible for her present unemployment. Now she wants her tuition back.

Ms. Thompson is probably more a victim of the horrendous job market rather than deliberately bad career advice. But she might consider targeting her outrage at politicians that have recklessly promoted the expansion of post-secondary education without little regard to filling existing and future gaps in the job market.

While most could benefit from some college education, the existing regime encouraging students to "get-a-degree-any-degree" is counterproductive. By turning college into a prerequisite of success we risk producing a generation of Trina Thompsons -- average students disillusioned that a bachelor's does not automatically translate into the types of jobs a four-year degree is supposed to merit. As Ms. Thompson put it: "It doesn't make any sense: They [college graduates] went to school for four years, and then they come out working at McDonald's and Payless. That's not what they planned."

President Obama wants the U.S. to the lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020. This effort will likely continue to produce more sociology majors when -- despite high unemployment -- the U.S. still suffers from a skilled labor shortage, according to the Conference Board. To avoid this fate, the Obama Administration should concentrate more on increase community college enrollment and performance -- institutions that teach practical and needed skills -- rather than enlarging subsidies to four-year institutions that teach neither.

How did we get to a situation where someone with a 2.7 GPA from a mediocre institution feels horror at thought of working at Payless during a near depression? Expanding college enrollment and the growing stigma against those who do not get at least a BA help to explain this phenomenon. From 1997-2008, the Department of Education (DOE) reports the number of full-time students rose 34% and total enrollment (full- and part-time) increased 26%. During the same time period, however, the DOE said the traditional college age population (18 to 24 years-old) only increased 16% reflecting college's increasing popularity.

Government tried to make college more affordable through increasing loan and grant programs. The total volume of federal student loans increased 76% from 1995-2005. Over virtually the same time period, DOE said the number of full-time undergraduates receiving federal aid rose 16% and the average award jumped over 40%.

But colleges and universities refuse to play the affordability game. Most institutions of higher learning simply add the subsidies to the cost of admission. Thus, the price for undergraduate tuition, room, and board at public universities soared 30% over the past decade. The higher rates outstripped the more generous government support leaving the average 2007 graduate almost $23,000 in debt, according to the College Board.

It appears that a burgeoning college-educated class is paying more for degrees that are worth comparatively less -- particularly bachelor's degrees in social sciences. As education scholar Charles Murray writes: "Outside a handful of majors -- engineering and some of the sciences -- a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses." How will employers sift through this army of BAs? By requiring graduate degrees -- saddling students with even more debt.

Meanwhile, skilled trades -- welders, pipefitters, and the like -- still need workers, despite tough economic times. Even as the economy was beginning to implode, The Wall Street Journal reported skilled trades grappling with "overcoming the perception that blue-collar trades offer less status, money and chance for advancement than white-collar jobs, and that college is the best investment for everyone."

Anyone recent graduate of upper-middle class origins can attest the existence and power of this stigma. For us, four-year college was never an option but mandatory; frankly, many of our parents spent unholy sums to avoid the shame of admitting, "Jimmy's not going to school" at dinner parties. Heaven help us if this ridiculous obsession begins to work its way down the socio-economic ladder.

Let us hope President Obama enacts policies that will produce people with real skills to compete in the marketplace -- by focusing on improving community colleges and vocational institutions -- rather than pushing more people into glorified diploma factories.

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About the Author

James Mazol is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.