Essays on Technology and Culture

Why Bother With College?

According to the Center for College Affordability (PDF), “The number of college graduates is expected to grow by 19 million, while the number of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree is expected to grow by fewer than 7 million.” This means that “We are expected to create nearly three new college graduates for every new job requiring such an education.” This leads to massive amounts of underemployment, outstanding student loans, and a waste of a generation.

Typically, when articles like these get thrown around, there’s wags who pop up and say “Well, what did you expect if you went to school for Underwater Basketweaving, with a minor in Gender Studies! If you wanted a job after college, you should have majored in STEM.” Never mind that a STEM degree is no guarantee of success either. As someone who studied Computer Science, yet has a degree in English, lines like that make my eye twitch. Not all of us are cut out to be programmers, mathematicians, engineers, or the like. Higher mathematics makes my brain shit itself, as I learned the hard way. I found the study of literature and writing to be a much more rewarding experience, and I studied it knowing full well the difficulties that would come with having a BA instead of a BS.

Still, the implicit question in these reports and the retorts, is if college is valuable at all. The STEM-types think that college is valuable for learning hard skills, and that’s true to a point. When you’re learning electrical engineering or studying the hard sciences, college has distinct advantages over learning by yourself including access to equipment. Outside of those fields, the value of college becomes more abstract.

Plenty has been written about the death of Liberal Arts, and I’m not going to repeat it. However, I will point out that the practical benefit of any good Liberal Arts program is teaching a student how to communicate—especially in writing. A good Liberal Arts program also teaches a student how to think critically, to formulate an argument and defend that argument with facts—or at least with citations. I’ve joked to friends that getting a degree in English is learning to write papers about books you never finished reading. This is an exaggeration, but the point of literature classes is typically more than appreciating the book—it’s using the book as a tool to teach writing and argumentative skills.

Of course, writing and argumentative skills are not going to get you a job. My advice for anyone who wants to consider studying anything in Liberal Arts is to also learn some hard skills, preferably technology skills, as well. I taught myself how to build websites, how to make WordPress themes, and how to do some basic audio editing. More importantly, I used these skills as part of my hobbies, building a small portfolio of things I could point to and say “Although my work experience and education don’t reflect this, I know how to do these things, and here’s proof.” Even in the world of technology and programming Github is becoming the new résumé. A stamped piece of paper doesn’t say you know how to do x, a body of work says it.

Here’s the thing: college was never a guarantee to begin with. The idea that college is simply getting your ticket punch is no longer true, and I doubt it ever was. Putting in four years (or more) only shows two things to a prospective employer: that you can apply yourself to something, and that you can finish something. Having that to your name is a benefit, but it’s not—and never has been—enough. College can punch your ticket, but increasingly, you’ll still have to pay your dues working something unrelated to your major, or even area of interest, while you build up experience, skills, and maturity.

Yes, it’s hard to even get a job these days, I admit it. I’ve lived it. But, they do exist, even if it means taking something below your level. After college, I worked a full-time telemarketing job, and later a clerical job with the local government. Neither used the skills I learned in college, and the latter only required a high school education. I’m not saying to flip burgers, unless that’s all you can find, but something is better than nothing while you teach yourself something practical.

There’s still a value to college, but that value has changed. College is either the place you go to learn hard, practical skills, or the place you go to get soft skills while teaching yourself another skill. It is not for everyone. A college education is not a requirement if you want to become an iron worker, an artist, or a programmer. You can go to school, you can apprentice, or you can teach yourself. If you feel like college is the best option, however, do yourself a favor, and do it on the cheap. Get scholarships, go to a state school or a community college, stay local, and live at home. Student loan debt will cripple your aspirations far more effectively than a terrible job market.