The Value of College

Yahoo! had a recent article titled “1 in 2 New Graduates are Jobless or Underemployed“. From the article:

While there’s strong demand in science, education and health fields, arts and humanities flounder

The article discusses the “plight” of an individual with a college degree who is working as a barista at Starbucks because he cannot find employment in his chosen field (note – is “barista” a masculine or feminine term, or neutral?)

And what was this individuals’ major? CREATIVE WRITING.

I often contemplate what someone with that major thinks their job opportunities really are out there in the world. Let’s see…

– You could use your skills to write something, like this blog, for instance (and cash in all the nickels you will receive, maybe)

– You could go to Hollywood and try to write for a show or screenplay (good luck – the competition is ferocious)

– You could try to write that serious book that is in your head (uh… and there is a 1 in a billion chance that it will sell enough copies, should it be published, to feed you for even one month)

I’m not saying that creative writing isn’t interesting, fun, or could lead to pay that could sustain your life. I just don’t think that you need a DEGREE to do this, and if you are “banking” on this out of the gate, then you are in for some very likely serious hard knocks in the cash flow area.

Also, it isn’t clear to me that “creative writing” as a degree is necessary to be a “creative writer”. I would be interested to hear of a single popular author or even widely read blogger or screenwriter that has a degree called “creative writing”. Since I must admit that I am not sure even what “creative writing” is I looked it up at trusty old wikipedia and here is their definition:

Creative writing is considered to be any writing, fiction, poetry, or non-fiction, that goes outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic, and technical forms of literature. Works which fall into this category include novels, epics, short stories, and poems. Writing for the screen and stage, screenwriting and playwriting respectively, typically have their own programs of study, but fit under the creative writing category as well.

Who would you even send a resume to for “creative writing”? If this definition was true, you aren’t sending it to any newspapers or technical writing firms (there are a lot of computer specifications being written) or even ad agencies; I don’t think that most screenwriters hire underlings and certainly the big film studios don’t hire you out of college and train you.

The article goes on to explain what is likely obvious to most readers:

College graduates who majored in zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities were among the least likely to find jobs appropriate to their education level; those with nursing, teaching, accounting or computer science degrees were among the most likely.

I can’t imagine that these findings are a surprise to anyone. If you don’t have connections, you are better off getting a practical science-based or business-based degree (you can put computer science in whatever bucket you want) to get your foot in the door in business or in government. It IS true that many, many people started out with liberal arts degrees and rose to the top (often becoming lawyers) – but many of those that DID rise (in recent years) already had massive connections and were able to get in to elite graduate schools or careers like investment banking where only the most elite can apply. When you eliminate the liberal arts programs from elite Ivy-league or private universities from the mix (like Northwestern), getting a liberal arts degree from a non-elite school is going to leave you marooned in your job hunt. Probably 90%+ of liberal arts degree holders that are graduating now come from these non-elite schools (just a guess), so those are the ones likely “underemployed” or working as a barista somewhere.

What is surprising to me is that this is a surprise to anyone, at all.

Cross posted at LITGM

18 thoughts on “The Value of College”

  1. I saw something a day or so ago that had Liberal Arts professors’ and administrators’ fundoshi’s in a knot.

    It is only for Texas technical colleges, but there is fear that the concept of even a minimal outcome based link to funding is a precedent that could spread throughout the educational establishment. Add to this another thing that is at least partially out of Texas, the Western Governors University online degrees [accredited 4 year degrees for < $10K] and there are cracks in the Ivory Tower.

    Mind you, there is a place for traditional Liberal Arts courses regardless of purely financial worth; but the total separation of reality from the choice of majors is as bad as a total concentration on financial return.

    Since many of these majors are only useful to become a professor of the subject, obviously much of the Liberal infrastructure would have to find a way to earn a living on our planet if reality were to intrude.

    I offer for consideration the E-book "Worthless" by Aaron Clarey, discussing the choice of college majors. I have no financial interest in the book, other than wanting to not see our poor country go Tango Uniform.

    Subotai Bahadur

  2. Your point is well taken. I’d point out that even in Computer Science, you can become a freelance programmer without a degree if you, you know, can actually program.

    It’s about the skill, not necessarily the degree, although the degree can augment the skill.

    Creative Writing is similar. Since you asked, I’ll note that the popular baseball fan blog Viva El Birdos is lead by a writer named Dan Moore who is currently in an MFA in Creative Writing program. His sportswriting stands out as being informed by a literary and, well, creative mind. I can tell his articles just by reading the first few sentences, and I check the blog only because of his involvement.

    I’d argue that his sportswriting is among the best in the business, amateur or professional. While at the end of the day the degree itself isn’t a prerequisite for his position or his recent book contract, he would probably tell you that the training he’s receiving has been an asset in developing his ability.

    There are guys out there with engineering degrees who slid through with a 2.5 GPA after 5 or 6 years. They can’t actually do any engineering, and they struggle to find employment as well.

    The key that people miss is that they need ot be able to do something, not merely possess the credential. While a creative writing degree can help, to think the credential will get you hired is the sort of insane thinking that can lead to frustrating jobs where people consider themselves “underemployed”. I would expect the competent and serious writers to know this and to be using the degree to refine their voice while basing job opportunities on their actual writing portfolio.

  3. Who would you even send a resume to for “creative writing”? If this definition was true, you aren’t sending it to any newspapers or technical writing firms (there are a lot of computer specifications being written) or even ad agencies; I don’t think that most screenwriters hire underlings and certainly the big film studios don’t hire you out of college and train you.

    Wouldn’t you think they’d judge you on how entertaining your resume is? ;-)

    Baristas – my guess is feminine since it ends with an “a”

    I have a good friend who is not a college graduate – was self-taught in computer programming from the 70s – and is, IMO, one of tghe top 1% of programmers.

    He can pretty much pick and choose what he wants.

    It is easy to see what one could have done – looking back – I would think for a young person just out of high school – the military teaches some trades that are transferable and in demand in the civilian market – and their parents don[‘t have to go into huge debt getting them though.

    Creative writing?

    I would think that holder is one of the “Occupy [fill in blank] members – protesting on how unfair everything is.

  4. Honestly, I think I got most of my post-service jobs (usually office management, executive secretary, marketing, data-entry and customer service) more on the basis of being a military veteran than I did for my degree in English. Which I got from a State uni so long ago that it pretty much did guarantee that I could spell, write a grammatical sentance and was actually pretty conversant with classical English literature. But I never for a split second assumed that degree would assure me a job … much less as a writer.
    I did take a creative writing class, once – but honestly, I think I learned more about the craft from being a broadcaster, and having to write all sorts of stuff within a day of work.

  5. I did take English classes in college as an elective. I enjoyed them and learned a lot. I remember when people were stunned that I wasn’t an English major because I actually seemed to care about what was going on and didn’t mind reading the assigned work. Of course, my school wasn’t exactly the top English school although a well respected state university.

    The advent of email caused me to work to improve my writing skills even further because it is more effective to try to get your point across as succinctly as possible.

    Blogging has also helped a great deal although I often don’t have time to go back and re-read my work which is bothersome but can’t be helped. Sometimes, something is better than nothing because my time is very limited.

    Maybe if you were already writing for a profession (like the blogger mentioned in the comments) it would be helpful to participate in creative writing classes. But I can’t see just getting a degree in it and stumbling out in the world and expecting doors to open…

  6. I didn’t think people actualy got degrees in creative writing (and I’ve spent most of my life after high school vaguely or specifically associated with English departments). Of course, I’ve known creative writing teachers at all the schools I’ve been around.

    This has been coming for a long time – my employees racked up tens of thousands loans getting anthro grad degrees- in the eighties; now, an on-line student says “I can afford the F so just don’t drop me, I need the money.” You don’t have to be very serious about school to think you can’t afford an F. I believe in open admissions; freshmen need writing, rhetoric classes and some sense of how to examine literature. These are tools they can use. Americans as citizens can get much from a chronological survey source – a sense of cause and effect, for instance. We drill down into the ideas the history courses move across.

    Still, many are not ready and a few never will be. They sit in front of me, dozing off, coming in late, not handing in papers. But I’m afraid for a certain number of them sitting in my class is what they do, they think, to get the loan money that they call a loan but consider in their mind a salary for time spent on campus.

    And then, academics are not unlike the GSA employees. Many don’t believe in what they do – but they are somewhat contemptuous of the people who pay them to do it. A strain of anti-intellectualism linked with elitism (they know the secret – the boobs think the intellectual is important, they know better) is pretty close to the surface in colleges; stronger in the teacher’s colleges, of course, but only a bit less strong in the administration. Many accept that the approaches to academic subjects of the last twenty years have heen nihilistic. The idolatry of Shakespeare and Dante that marked American 19th century thinking was sentimental, but seeing them through the myopic and vicious lens of post-colonialism is cheaper; the older way at least encouraged research and humility. Teaching second rate works because they have appropriate political views makes for an eventual cynicism.

    This country only needs a thin layer of people who have done graduate work in literature; administrators who only gave tenure and raises to those who published meant faculty could not teach comp courses and produce as much (not that they wanted to – who wants to grade freshmen papers when you can be asserting your own observations in witty language and receive respect from your peers rather than boredom from your students?)

    It’s the end of the semester and about the end of my professional life. I don’t have the answers. I do know a couple of things: 1) Majoring in English was the best choice I could have made – taking those classes puzzled and enlarged me, gave me joy. I entered in 63 & got my Ph.D. in 77 (time out for having my first baby, for spending a year hitchiking around Europe, spending 1968-6 9 working in the reserve room at Chicago). Nebraska and U.T-Austin gave me much and I will always be grateful. 2) I never thought they were a means to an end. My parents loved their time at Nebraska; they returned to our village after WWII and didn’t see any jobs in their fields – so, what? They set about their lives of work & childraising, but constantly reading, thinking, talking abut ideas – and Lincoln had given them a frame for those ideas. That’s what education was and could be.

    Nor did I ever think it was the best way to earn money. One of my brothers didn’t go to college. He’s the one with the money now. And that’s okay; he didn’t get the pleasures I got in those classrooms and I don’t get the pleasures that building factories that employed many people and having more disposable income gave him. Neither of us was short changed in this life.

    The problem with the barista is not only the somewhat insane idea of nesting creative writers in universities and then expecting them to teach creative writing. It’s that he/she apparently thought it was a union card. I heard that from friends forty years ago when we got Ph.D.’s – sometimes I’d argue with them and sometimes I just wouldn’t say anything. But I thought at the time that exactly how did they think that the world owed them a job in whatever eccentric area they’d chosen for their dissertations. (Of course, since I used the major arcana of the Tarot deck to structure part of my introductory chapter, I was well aware that I had been indulged – but also had said what I wanted to say.) Hell, the only guy I knew in grad school who was sure of a job was Sterling Holmes Morrison, who (it was rumored, I barely knew him) had a Longshoreman’s card. He also was a tugboat captain, a medievalist, and in the Velvet Underground. I always suspected if we wanted to be sure of a job we needed credentials more like his – well, maybe not exactly like his.

    this is a rant – I’m going to post it. But try over the summer to come up with a better reasoned discussion.

  7. I think some of this same stuff came up a while back surrounding the Occupy people.

    It is easy to claim after the fact that people should have known better, but that’s 20/20 hindsight. Middle-class American pop-culture of at least the 70s through the 90s insisted that a college degree was a necessary and sufficient condition for employment outside menial service work, and an absolute necessity to work in any area which would be socially acceptable.

    I can remember very clearly how insulted I was when a friend’s mother suggested I become a welder. Then as now, I didn’t feel there was anything wrong with being a welder, but it was, nevertheless, an insult. She would never have remotely considered one of her own children doing such a thing, it was a recommendation for people of my sort.

    Unlike Ginny, I hated college with a passion. I worked long hours at crap jobs, studied when I could, slept little, ate the cheapest awful food I could, and went into debt on top of it all to pay for it. There was no time for real learning, no time to get an in depth understanding of anything, professors, with very few exceptions, ranged from indifferent to arrogantly hostile. Fellow students were either in the same boat, spoiled brats, or dangerously insane. When I finally graduated and had under-employment and huge student loans crash down on me, I was relieved. No more classes wasting my time, and for the first time in years I had time to read a book and actually learn something.

    If I hated it so much, why did I do it? See above. I had been told by *everyone* who advised me that a college degree was the ticket to the upper middle class, and I believed them. Even now, the idea that some majors are more equal than others is being kicked around, but it is not really believed. After the fact, people still try to tell me, “Oh, your degree helped you, you wouldn’t have gotten a job without it you know.”

    If you really want to put the thing to the test, ask a parent how they would feel about their kid not going to college. 90% of them will think you’re a dangerous lunatic.

    I firmly believe that not only Creative Writing, but nearly all college degrees cost more than they are worth.

    When people do the calculations they never factor in opportunity costs: how much could you have earned and what could you have learned during those 4+ years? Also they make the mistake of averaging a few very high paying degrees in with lots of useless ones, and a few highly paid graduates with a lot of baristas.

    In the end though the reason college is not properly examined for cost effectiveness is rooted in two deep seated aspects of human nature:

    1. Justification of costs to save face… no one wants to admit they made a mistake. Let me be among the first to get over this. I made a mistake.

    2. Loss aversion in social standing. Sure it is OK for people to not go to college. What about your kid? What about the guys who don’t go to college, sure they’re alright, but would you want your daughter to marry one?

    Those last two are the reason to go… but what a waste.

  8. The main problem is how colleges are funded: college administrations receive money directly from state and federal governments. There is thus no real customer to please, and no accountability. Student to teacher ratios have not significantly decreased, and yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, from the mid 1970’s until now, college tuition has increased by a factor of 11. Housing in that same period only increased by a factor of 4, and the overall Consumer Price Index by a factor of 3.5

    Make college tax go in voucher form to the parents or guardians of undergraduate students. Not only will the 4-year party be moderated somewhat, but the schools that will get the voucher money will be the schools that really help graduates get jobs. The U.S. shortage of home-born engineers and technical specialists will disappear in about ten years.

    Better still, eliminate tax funding for all colleges. Then administrators, faculties and students will get much more serious.

  9. College can be a great value for the money if (1) you get job skills that help you launch the career you want or (2) you simply personally get a lot out of the experience.

    Just like anything, you should be careful about going in debt to acquire a degree. This is not so different, though, than being careful about debt for a vehicle, boat, or other purchase.

    The issue is 90% personal approach to the loss of freedom debt entails and only 10% the government-funding issues that distort various aspects of college costs and priorities.

    If people were more serious and personally accountable for their lives, they would, even at 18, think twice about getting into HOW MUCH? debt to get a degree. ANY DEGREE. Even that chemical engineering or accounting degree, which seems like it would pay off the debt in 5 years, isn’t a good idea beause (1) you may not finish or (2) at 23 you may have different goals than at 18.

    The issue is mostly one of people, not of (even an enabling) government.

  10. I entered college in 1956. I was an engineering major, and had originally planned to go to Cal Tech but I didn’t get the scholarship I was anticipating. As a result, I went to USC. They offered me a scholarship and eventually, after ten years, including several years in night school and several years working as an engineer at Douglas Aircraft, I graduated from USC medical school.

    I took a series of English classes as I could get a student loan as an English Major but not a pre-med major. I thoroughly enjoyed them.

    Two of my kids graduated from USC and went on to law school. One is a partner in a national law firm and the other is a senior FBI agent.

    Another one is a PhD student on a five year fellowship at USC. Two of those years are to be spent in Europe. Her stipend is good and she loves USC. Her undergrad degree was at UCLA and she likes USC much better. Much better morale, among other things.

    My youngest is at U of Arizona and is majoring in French. One of my medical students a few years ago was French major and I think it is a sign of better academic rigor than many other degrees. Anyway, Annie loves France and wants to live there. She is working full time as a waitress and is also a full time student. She has a line on an internship with the French aerospace firm her uncle works for. She’s been there several times and has a good work ethic, plus is beautiful.

    My other son is a fireman and has a wife who is a ball of fire in her area of marketing. She works from home and has clients all over the country.

    Kids still make their own luck, even in this economy.

  11. >>> What we need is about 50% fewer college graduates.

    I vote we kill all the lawyers.

    Well… it’s a start, anyway.

    [igotbupkis, please stick to one pseudonym, thx. J]

  12. I’d point out the interesting side bits in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which Persig discusses teaching at a teaching college and so forth, including his ideas for why not everyone should go to college, and why many who are in college really have no reason for being there.

    Anyone who is even vaguely intellectual and has not read ZAMM should do so, IMNSHO. Also if your IQ is over about 110, it’s highly recommended, for providing insight on a number of levels.

    If you get past the first dozen pages you’ll probably find it tough to put down.

  13. I think I’ve recently commented here or elsewhere on my own idea of how it is that college prices have increased much faster than inflation — I argue it ties strongly to the means of justifying tuition increases.

    Look at the rhetoric that gets bandied about with regards to tuition at any state university prior to a tuition hike, and one key factor is always expressed:

    “The tuition in this state rankes ‘x’ lowest out of all 50 states. This puts us well below the median. We should raise our tuition.”

    Right. Nothing about the cost, nothing about the expense. No, it’s “where we rank”. So state ‘x’ jacks its tuition to put it well above the median… State ‘y’, noting similarly, jacks its up, placing it slightly above the median.

    Now two states, m and n, which formerly were lower down, are now 4% lower than they were before. THEY decide to jack their tuition, which makes states g and h 8% lower than they were before all this started. THEY jack theirs…. and so on, and so on, until everyone has 2x the tuition while doing jack and (expletive) in regards to providing better a better college program, and at the same time inflation has only risen 4%

    And this is clearly a ratchet thing — no state ever seems to go “You know, we want to get more students here at our universities! Let’s lower tuition, and increase the number of out-of-state waivers we give out!” THAT never happens.

  14. [igotbupkis, please stick to one pseudonym, thx. J]

    I usually use two, one for relatively serious comments, one for snarky/joke ones (pretty obvious which is which).

    I promise I never, EVER use one to set the other up, or make it appear as though they are two people responding to one another.

    Hopefully, that won’t be an issue as long as I behave myself in that manner, as I believe that’s the main objection to using two of them, abusing the ability.

    Clearly, I could use a different e-mail and hide the fact that I’m using two, but i use the same one so YOU can see I’m not doing that without having to actually notice IP addresses.

    [IGB, I appreciate that you mean well. The reason I ask you to stick to one ID is that it makes it easier for everybody here to follow discussion threads. Not every reader follows every comment thread closely and if you use two names it’s going to cause some confusion, particularly for new readers. It’s obvious that you’re a skilled writer and I’m sure you can find a way to distinguish your funnier comments from the more serious ones without resorting to name gimmicks. Many thanks for your consideration. J]

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