The sad thing is you could easily apply this to most of academia, given the extent of degrees that aren't worth the paper they're printed on. We tell children, in what should be pure mythology, that college is the answer to everything. We've even convinced ourselves that it is as a society. I certainly bought it when I went off to school.
Meanwhile, there's untold millions of people graduating college today who have job prospects that are little better than if they hadn't gone to school at all, particularly for graduate programs and certain BAs. I can't count the number of friends who have graduated from college and can't find a meaningful job that makes use of their skills -- and these are all perfectly smart people, most finishing in the top 10-20% of their class. Some have been forced to take jobs that they certainly could've had right out of high school; others were forced to take jobs where they're lucky to be able to afford the rent. Finally, some have been forced to consider what should be the unthinkable: Grad school.
For the latter, they'd say at least they'd be doing something fun with their time -- less hopeful that the grad degree would provide them an edge for a job as they are hopeful a two year pause would provide enough time for the market to sort itself out. Yes, I've actually heard that argument -- from sane and rational people who are very desperate and know it's easier today to get into a decent grad program than it is to get a decent job. Of course, they'd be sorely mistaken, particularly given the millions of others who share the same thoughts -- and would be competing for the same jobs. The only group of people making out here is academia -- and the sad thing is, deep down inside, they probably know it.
But college graduates looking into grad school at least have some foresight and understanding of what all that debt will do. Teenagers graduating high school don't -- and they should be pitied most of all. We just throw students out there, with little time for them to understand what they even want to do or what their options will truly cost -- and without that kind of a plan ahead of time, four years can go by and a student can realize they just wasted all that time and money. Case in point: My college friend who learned he really wanted to study English after nearly getting enough credits for a degree in Biochemistry. Every teen thinks they know what they're doing and it's so hard to argue to them that they don't, but given the enormity of a possible mistake in this day and age, no responsible adult should let them before they have some idea of what the consequences would be -- and what those consequences would mean.
In Massachusetts, we're worse off than most states, because we suffer from HarvaBuMit-tus, where students are caught with the bug that makes them think it's somehow unseemly to go to public college, as if public schools were tainted or something. In a day and age when UMASS is ranked in the top 100 schools across the Globe, you'd think we could make some headway on this -- but alas. This, of course, goes doubly for community colleges -- which induced laughter amongst many of the snobbier types at my high school back in the day.
Those ignorant enough to choose private schools without the means to pay for their debt (aka those without wealthy parents) should be pitied, because they really have no idea and they won't want to be dissuaded -- until it's too late. Private schools will cost twice as much or more in almost all cases, but they certainly won't make you twice as likely to get a job or even get into grad school. No where close. Your experience and, most importantly of all, contacts, are far more likely to help in that department -- and your GPA and field-appropriate grad-school test scores are the tickets into that town, should you be foolish enough to choose it.
Thinking back on how stupid we all were at 17 and 18, picking where we'd go to school, I'm utterly shocked our society lets us do it as easily as we do. The NYT makes a great case that law school admissions, or at least rankings, need a great deal of reform -- but the truth of the matter is our entire system does. Far from empowering students to do what they want, our system of endless and easy college loans in this country is a system of neo-indentured service -- and the only people it empowers is colleges and universities to grossly inflate the cost of a college education. For students, those who graduate or not, they get giant loan payments that force them to sacrifice what they want to do for what they have to do -- killing entrepreneurship, creativity and even happiness.
As a simple matter of protecting students who don't understand what the real world is like and making sure we get as much bang for our buck in terms of government investments, any student who takes a government loan to go to college should first have to go to a two years at a community school before going onto a bachelor's program. Would it really hurt anyone doing that? For students, they'd still get all the same opportunities, as well as
- Two more years to learn what they really want to do, so they can avoid disastrous mistakes (like my friend who spent 2+ years studying Biology before he realized his passion was English),
- A greater likelihood of obtaining at least some kind of degree, rank or training in a specialized field requiring a two-year course,
- Get the first two years of their education at a greatly reduced cost, saving millions from a crushing debt some may never truly be able to afford.
When I was looking at schools at 17 or 18, I'm glad I had the sense (at the last minute) to avoid all the private schools I desperately wanted to go to -- but had someone told me what even UMASS would cost, I'd have run to North Shore Community College for two years first. Back then, I seriously thought my loans would be pocket change -- something like $50 or $100 a month -- instead I have a $500 monthly albatross, binding me to my childhood home.
Update: Great blog on a WSJ story about how wages are declining across the country and probably won't rise for a very long time; the blog ties it into the greater (failed) strategy of the past 20 years that very much relates to what I wrote above.