College As Ritual

I’ve been reading through the “We Are the 99 Percent” and other related web sites. A constant refrain is that young adults went tens of thousands of dollars into debt for degrees and now they can’t find even minimum wage jobs. I don’t think they really understand the purpose of education.

This one complains that, “I have a Magna Cum Laude BA, and not even the grocery store will hire me.” This one says, “I’m over $100k in student loan debt and my career isn’t even in the field I went into copious amounts of debt over.”  This one says, ‘My husband and I both went to college like we were “supposed” to do.’  This one says, “I am 25 yrs old and months away from a master’s degree. My bachelor’s is in literature/9-12 education…Well over $30K in student loan debt.”

Carefully missing from most of the complaints is the type of degree they got, but I think it’s fairly clear that most of these people got liberal-arts degrees. Moreover, there is no evidence that they pursued these degrees with any eye towards practical economic returns for their considerable financial investment.

I really get the sense that many of these people simply don’t understand that an education is supposed to equip you with skills that make you valuable to other people. Instead, I think these kids have somehow got the idea that college is more of a ritual you have to go through, a kind of right of passage, that entitles you to a middle-class or better life-style while pursuing a job you find interesting and emotionally fulfilling.

They’re just shocked and amazed that they’ve gone through all the rituals, got the degrees and the accolades of their professors and nobody out in the real world gives a damn.

We need to think long and hard how so many young people simply don’t understand the purpose of education. Where did they get the idea that a liberal-arts degree automatically entitled them to a middle-class income that could easily pay off tens of thousands in student loans?

I don’t think it was Wall Street.

27 thoughts on “College As Ritual”

  1. Shannon – I don’t know how old you are – but vicariously “knowing” you I would say 30s – early-mid 40s – and I think those of your generation – and younger – have a lot more “together” as a group as to what they should study.

    I went to college in the late 60s – early 70s – then a stint in the Army – during that time a liberal arts degree was an aid to being hired – by a Fortune 500 company – but now of course things have gotten a lot more – ugh, “realistic” as to what you need to know to get hired.

    The company where I work recently hired a UC Santa Cruz graduate in EE – those graduates – many of whom design the computer chips you are using – have little trouble finding work.

    He was saying that the Intels and AMDs will work you to death – but they are working.

    I have picked up more about the current situation here – that the “Occupy” people are mainly about “me” – how stupid can one be to go $100K into debt without learning what the job market is for your course of studies?

    And the student loans have been a main impetus in college tuition inflation.

  2. Liberal Arts degrees aren’t horrible across the board. Many companies look for that sort of thing for their sales and/or marketing forces – engineers and programmers aren’t always the best fit for those jobs. I think a big part of the problem is that many of these people think that they can or should only have a job in their chosen field. I think that if many of them would simply apply themselves a bit they could get jobs, but they may be working for evil corporations instead of for the state or working in sales instead of as a teacher or whatever.

  3. Their guidance counselors and parents (boomers, gen-x, and whatever came between the two) always told them to get a degree in whatever made them happy, and the sheer virtuousness of that undertaking would pay off in some kind of weird underpants-gnome sense. They got that message from virtually everyplace in the culture where the subject of education is even mentioned. They didn’t come up with the idea on their own. Every trusted authority figure they ever knew repeated it. Politicians harp on it. Obama still wants to spend billions cranking out more libarts grads. He wants to dig down even closer to the bottom of the barrel looking for high school kids to sit in remedial reading classes their freshman year at State U.

    Of course they feel betrayed. Everybody lied to them — except, of course, Wall Street. That’s the problem. Which is easier: Admit that everything you’ve been told was a lie and everybody you trusted was a liar? Or cling to the idea that your sense of entitlement is justified, and take it out on the meanies who aren’t giving you the high-paid job that everybody else promised you?

    Which is easier on the ego? Especially when your professors in college painstakingly trained you to have a riot and shout down any dissenting speakers on campus, and consistently rewarded you for parroting back their class bigotry and economic gibberish.

  4. I’ve a niece who got a BA at a private liberal arts college, one with a good reputation.

    She complained over Thanksgiving dinner that she was $100k in debt and the only job she could get was as a medical office clerk.

    I replied that she was half to beooming a Republican.

    She hates me now.

    Snce then, she’s been traveling the world as an “international woman of intrige”, whatever that means.

  5. Again and again, we hear phrases like “we did what we were SUPPOSED to do” and “we did what we were TOLD to do.” People who do only what they are told to do and supposed to do are, basically, clerks. Those who add more value to the economy and are compensated accordingly need to focus on thinking about needs and performing useful actions. I think excessive emphasis on educational seat-time and credentials has produced too many people with the souls of DMV clerks.

    That said, I do have a little bit of sympathy. The propaganda has been utterly overwhelming–from the media, parents, teachers, guidance counselors, peers, etc etc. Unfortunately, not many people can be contrarian enough to resist all that.

  6. Most of it has already been said, but my version:

    No, not Wall Street, but darn near everybody else. Shannon, you and I are pretty much the same age, so I’m not talking about a current situation, but here’s how it was for me.

    I didn’t come from a background where “personal fulfillment” or “self-actualization” would have been taken seriously as a reason to spend 4 years and (in those days) $50,000. It was all about getting a job. EVERYBODY, and I mean *everybody* I talked to without exception from the time I was 16 until I was 23 told me a 4 year degree was a certain job ticket and money maker. A few people warned me that some degrees paid off a little quicker than others, particularly engineering, but also that those degrees tended to “peak early” in earning power.

    My parents didn’t go to college, so they didn’t know. My friends parents did and they told me the same thing, guidance counselors, teachers, “career day” adults, friends of my parents, and — most culpably — college admissions folks.

    To all of these people, the idea of a college graduate, with any major, being out of work or working in fast food was inconceivable. Most of them didn’t lie, they believed.

    I found out how it really was not long after graduation when I spent the first two years out of school looking for a job and delivering pizzas. Fortunately for me I was allergic to debt and had very little of it. I think things have gotten much worse since then.

    Furthermore, there is an aspect of human nature which causes people to defend expensive decisions. I am willing to admit I made a very expensive mistake. Most people are not. I have had many people even try to tell me that *I* didn’t make a mistake. College degrees are an American secular religion.

    I do, therefore, have some sympathy for these OWS folks, but I think it is tragic that they’re lashing out at the wrong people and complaining about the wrong things, and basically acting like they have no responsibility for their own situation.

    To my mind the schools are the most to blame. As recently as two years or so ago I talked to a school about entering a graduate program. I asked about employability and placement rates and the department head had the audacity to act like I’d insulted him and then insist that their 90 day employment rate for graduates was the same 100% as their undergraduate program and to chastise me for unreasonable doubts (or maybe he said 99% details a little fuzzy now). Fortunately I’m not 16 anymore and I wasn’t foolish enough to throw good money after bad. I think these kids are learning a similar lesson, and as they’ve already observed tuition is expensive.

    If they’d file a class action suit for fraud against the universities and then go deliver some pizzas I’d have a lot more sympathy.

  7. Also let’s remember that not all Liberal Arts colleges and programs are created equal.

    The fact that a college has requirements called “Literature” or “Mathematics” does not necessarily mean that students will actually study those subjects. “Distribution requirements” on most campuses permit students to pick from a wide range of courses that often are overly-specialized or even outside the stated field altogether. To determine whether institutions have a solid core curriculum, we defined success in each of the seven subject areas as follows:

    Composition. An introductory college writing class focusing on grammar, clarity, argument, and appropriate expository style. Remedial courses and SAT/ACT scores may not be used to satisfy a composition requirement. University-administered exams or portfolios are acceptable only when they are used to determine exceptional pre-college preparation for students. Writing-intensive courses, “writing across the curriculum” seminars, and writing for a discipline are not acceptable unless there is an indication of clear provisions for multiple writing assignments, instructor feedback, revision and resubmission of student writing, and explicit language concerning the mechanics of formal writing, including such elements as grammar, sentence structure, coherence, and documentation.

    Literature. A comprehensive literature survey or a selection of courses of which a clear majority are surveys and the remainder are literary in nature, although single-author or theme-based in structure. Freshman seminars, humanities sequences, or other specialized courses that include a substantial literature survey component count.

    Foreign Language. Competency at the intermediate level, defined as at least three semesters of college-level study in any foreign language. No distinction is made between B.A. and B.S. degrees, or individual majors within these degrees, when applying the Foreign Language criteria. Credit is also awarded to schools that require two semesters of college-level study in two different languages.

    U.S. Government or History. A survey course in either U.S. government or history with enough chronological and topical breadth to expose students to the sweep of American history and institutions. Narrow, niche courses do not count for the requirement, nor do courses that only focus on a limited chronological period or a specific state or region. State- or university-administered, and/or state-mandated, exams are accepted for credit on a case-by-case basis dependent upon the rigor required.

    Economics. A course covering basic economic principles, preferably an introductory micro- or macroeconomics course taught by faculty from the economics or business department.
    Mathematics. A college-level course in mathematics. Specific topics may vary, but must involve study beyond the level of intermediate algebra and cover topics beyond those typical of a college-preparatory high school curriculum. Remedial courses or SAT/ACT scores may not be used as substitutes. Courses in formal or symbolic logic, computer science with programming, and linguistics involving formal analysis count.

    Natural or Physical Science. A course in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physical geography, physics, or environmental science, preferably with a laboratory component. Overly narrow courses, courses with weak scientific content, and courses taught by faculty outside of the science departments do not count. Psychology courses count if they are focused on the biological, chemical, or neuroscientific aspects of the field.
    Half-Credit. If a requirement exists from which students choose between otherwise qualifying courses within two What Will They LearnTM subject areas (e.g., math or science; history or economics, etc.), one-half credit is given for both subjects.

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  8. The basic liberal arts curriculum evolved several hundred years ago when only a small fraction of the population had anything more than the most rudimentary literacy and numeracy, if that. The student was expected to learn enough Latin to read the core classical literature and correspond if need be; a modern language, usually French, so as to be able to converse with foreigners (modern languages were usually learned from a private tutor and were not taught at university); enough drawing to produce a useful representation of a landscape or a human figure, given that there was no photography; enough music and dancing to be able to participate in an evening’s entertainment; swordsmanship, horsemanship, and shooting for self-defense and sport (again, from private tutors or instructors); and some philosophy, which included such science as existed then. The ability to write poetry in the various common forms, and to have memorized a substantial body of the classic poems was also taken as a given. Specialized knowledge consisted or law, medicine, and theology, which were taught as separate curricula — law not at university at all. Upper-class women might receive selected parts of this curriculum, usually with the swordplay excluded.

    All these were intended to produce an individual capable of running pretty much any unit of society not requiring specialized knowledge, who could be sent into a strange situation, analyze it, and come back with a literate and observant report containing maps and illustrations as needed, and a proposed plan of action, or a report on the actions they had already taken on their own initiative. This person could be asked to manage an estate, represent a trading business, conduct diplomatic negotiations, and in a pinch command an impromptu military or naval action, such as fighting off highwaymen or pirates. The stories of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century exploration, business, and warfare are full of stories of such people who did just that without having been considered unusual.

    All the themes of self-realization and self-discovery and character development came later, with nineteenth-century romanticism and twentieth-century psychiatry. Prior to that, self-development was considered to be merely a by-product of having done stuff. Understanding that, we can see how a liberal-arts education was once useful, and gradually turned into the thumb-sucking extended kindergarten it is today. One by one all the really useful parts of the education stopped being required. At a big state university today, it is probably possible to assemble a course load that actually approximates the original idea of a liberal education, but one would be thought eccentric for having done so.

    A liberal-arts education would still be a useful preparation for a good job today if it produced a person who was literate and expressed themselves clearly and well in speech and writing; had a good general knowledge of the world, its peoples, and cultures; understood analytical thinking and the scientific method; had enough math to at least follow what the engineers were talking about even if they couldn’t do the work themselves (at least know what a mean and a median were); and spoke an important world language with reasonable fluency. Any four-year college should be able to produce this. Yet it seems as if such people are in short supply.

  9. “A liberal-arts education would still be a useful preparation for a good job today if it produced a person who was literate and expressed themselves clearly and well in speech and writing; had a good general knowledge of the world, its peoples, and cultures; understood analytical thinking and the scientific method; had enough math to at least follow what the engineers were talking about even if they couldn’t do the work themselves (at least know what a mean and a median were); and spoke an important world language with reasonable fluency. Any four-year college should be able to produce this. Yet it seems as if such people are in short supply.”


    This is what I was after I left the U of I in 1990. To get my four year history degree we had math, literature, econ, writing, three or four semesters of a foreign language (I chose French) and other requirements. Including calculus, accounting and other business classes. I was marketable. I had job offers from several companies but chose to enter my family business. My parents to this day feel that we got our money’s worth out of the education. They always retell the story of my first day on the job working in the warehouse (everybody starts there) they brought me up front to help with an accounting issue which was fairly advanced and I helped the company through it quickly and easily.

    I get the feeling I may have been one of the last to get this sort of education under the LA banner. I wonder if they require the history majors to even take math or business classes any more.

  10. What is largely missing here is a respect for entry level jobs. What is wrong with delivering Pizzas or working third shift at a motel? Work is something that feeds the human spirit with accomplishment and pride.

    These are by in large transitional positions, and opportunities abound for the ambitious.

    That pizza delivery job can lead to so many opportunities they cannot be even imagined.

    I personally cleaned toilets in a Bank’s data center from midnite to two – it paid a lot of bills. My finance degree did me little good, by the way. But you can imagine the rest – because I showed up on time and was reliable, I got a shot at a better position. Now, every month after I chair the Board Meeting at the bank, I make certain the toilets are as well done as when I cleaned them.

    These folks need to embrace work in any form and see where it may lead.

  11. A liberal-arts education would still be a useful preparation for a good job today if

    I agree with this in the sense that it would be useful to the graduate in day to day life on the job. However, I doubt *very* much if it would be / is useful in *getting* the job.

    The trouble is that employers don’t see a connection between a person having useful general skills like that and being a good candidate. Employers are overwhelmingly concerned with overly specific combinations of credentials and experience.

    Perhaps the trouble isn’t too few people with those skills but too many? Maybe it has become “standard equipment”? That’s not what I’ve observed, but possible I guess.

    Similarly the problem with a pizza job (or similar) isn’t intrinsic, it is social. Many (most) employers are not pleased to see it. I was repeatedly advised way back when to keep it off my resume and out of conversations because it characterized me as blue-collar, lacking in resources, or desperate. Someone being promoted from cleaning toilets to a position of greater responsibility is something entirely foreign to my experience. Most employees are very rapidly “type-cast” and are only seen by an organization as fitting into one role. I see this as a social problem rather than an educational one in which the US has begun to embrace class distinctions in a way unheard of in the past and to over-identify people with their present employment.

    The whole job search / matching process is also profoundly broken but that’s another discussion.

  12. I was going to write something similar to what John said, but he did it much more eloquently.
    Try to scan job advertisements for professional jobs: they list particular combinations, sometimes unrealistic, sometimes irrelevant, but always on a side exceeding actual duties required on the position advertised. And education level requirement usually is way over what is reasonable.
    I was passed over for Intermediate Designer position because I don’t have a Master Degree in Architecture – no, the HR did not say it out straight in their rejection letter, but I have a former coworker now working in the Co (who gave me a reference), and this is what they told him unofficially.

    On the other hand, to get a job on entry or junior level, in your own profession where you have had 15 years of practice is impossible, too: they will label you “overqualified” immediately.

    Besides, HRs are often staffed with graduates of liberal arts colleges; those with English literature and sociology degrees are employed as hiring managers, business development associates, operations or marketing “specialists”.

  13. My son is getting ready to enter a trade school to earn a welding certification, because if you can’t find a job as a welder (or mechanic, or short order cook, etc.) it’s because you aren’t trying. He saved the money working two part time jobs (and a little help from dad). Paying cash, no loans.

    With that, he’ll get a decent paying job and complete his first two years of general education requirements at a community college. Paying cash, no loans.

    His next step is to finish a B.A. or B.S. part time, at a local school, rated “B” on the site from pointed to by Jason in LA. Paying cash, no loans.

    I taught him, from age 5, to set goals, plan what he does to achieve them, and think about consequences and likely outcomes. Sometimes the kids turn out right.

    Yes, a lot of these Occupiers are in bad situations, and, yes, they got there making bad decisions. But their parents helped set up the train wreck.

  14. Yes, credentialism has gotten way out of hand. Partly this has been a consequence of employment discrimination law, which treats any hiring decision not based on a rigid definition of qualifications as suspect. The use of web-based applications and screening of resumes has also been a big factor; this allows the employer to ignore anybody not meeting the rigid set of requirements. Previously, there would be some sort of telephone or in-person conversation with somebody who might be impressed by actual human qualities.

    Starting a company, or being in on the early growth stages of a start-up may be the last refuge of a liberally-educated generalist. And SARBOX and Dodd-Frank have made it harder and harder to finance startups.

  15. ” Partly this (credentialism) has been a consequence of employment discrimination law, which treats any hiring decision not based on a rigid definition of qualifications as suspect”….yet the original Griggs vs Duke Power decision ALSO held that it was unlawful to use high school graduation requirements are a screen for a job for which such graduation had no clear relevance. Either this part of the decision has been watered down by subsequent court decisions and/or legislation, or many employers are focusing on one possible legal risk area while ignoring another.

    It is not unheard of for various corporate bureaucrats to use an overly-stringent interpretation of some piece of legislation or some court decision to do what they want to do anyhow.

  16. John Wolfsberger Jr. – your son will be able to live anywhere he wants and will always have a job and will eventually command a premium for his services (assuming he is good). I am on the front lines of an HVAC wholesaler and our clientele is old and getting older. No kids it seems are remotely interested in the trades.

  17. “A liberal-arts education would still be a useful preparation for a good job today if it produced a person who was literate and expressed themselves clearly and well in speech and writing…”

    Too true … I seriously only ever worked at one place where they were deeply impressed by my BA in English. (Korea Broadcasting, never mind how I wound up with that part-time job!) On the whole, though, when it came to post-active duty jobs, I found that most employers were very much more impressed that I had been twenty years in the Air Force and the skill-set I had gotten there, than four years in college.

  18. You will still see job notices that list a long string of academic qualifications and then say “or equivalent experience” which I believe is a sop to that doctrine. However the automated websites seem to be programmed to automatically filter out applications that don’t have the qualifications. You never see a box to check or a pull-down item that says, in effect, “I don’t have the credential you list but I do have the equivalent experience.”

  19. The absolute flood of resumes that any open position generates really does create a real problem for employers. Even when resumes were paper-based, I’ve often seen hundreds of resumes for a single job, of which 70-80% might have backgrounds which were pretty irrelevant. So it really is tempting to use automated filters…or programmed junior-level HR people acting as human filters…to do the screening. In either case, automated or pseudo-automated rules are likely to miss good talent.

    But despite all the anti-HR sentiment which is being expressed these days, I think a good HR person…and yes, they do exist…who has even a vague understanding of what you are looking for is better than an automated screen.

  20. David Foster,

    The absolute flood of resumes that any open position generates really does create a real problem for employers.

    I think the trouble is that no one really has a true identity any more. Society is just to big. You’re trying to guess what someone is like by what they wrote in a stilted resume. You’re trying to guess from a education/work history that you can’t cheaply check and even if you do, they might not tell the truth anyway. Hiring is often a crap shoot.

    Hiring can be tricky. In the computer field is very common to find genius programmers who have low social intelligence. These people can bang out the code but they can’t pass an interview to save their lives. I am convinced that one of the driving forces of the open source movement is the need of coders to develop a public body of code that they can point to on the resume and say, “look, I wrote this.”

    Not sure what the long term solution is. However, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve convincing 18 year olds to go tens of thousands of dollars in debt to learn something of purely subjective value.

  21. no one really has a true identity any more

    Now there is an interesting point/insight. Isn’t it interesting that in a time when privacy is seen as an old fashioned idea without relevance and many people’s lives have become a kind of performance art, we still can’t get a good enough read on who someone really is to know whether we should take a chance on hiring them.

    I feel that our culture has not caught up with our transparency and while the transparency is increasing daily the culture is kind of static. Every potential employee has a home, a family, a sex life, a political viewpoint, a history of having said something stupid, a financial mistake, maybe a speeding ticket…. Once upon a time, other than malfeasance and criminal activity these things were considered outside the realm of business, the public and private life were divided, but as the distinction between the two has broken down our business culture has not matured enough to handle it, so people have to “keep up appearances”.

    This isn’t simply a matter of making a public fool of yourself on the internet, it can be something like having that pizza job in your past. Or, some of the background checking that goes on. My college diploma lists a Major that school no longer awards. Anyone background checking me will find very quickly that there is no such degree…. I’ve often wondered how many jobs I’ve missed out on that way.

  22. As someone who once was hired by a grocery store I’d like to address a comment aimed at Ms. Magna Cum Laude: grocery stores don’t care about you paperwork. They need people who can work.

    Nothing from your whiny little rant makes me suspect you have any willingness or capability to actually do anything as rough and blue-collarish as that. However, since you are now supported by a man, courtesy of your own utter incapacity, you just might stumble across an old-fashioned way by which women once made a living.

    As a wife and- perhaps- mother.

    That is, if you can keep the man who pays your bills interested enough.

    Good luck with that.

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