As one of his last acts as interim president, Bill Wagner announced that the cost of a Williams education next year will be $52,340. Quite a hefty price tag, isn’t it? If you ask most students who have graduated from Williams if the education was worth the cost, however, they will overwhelmingly respond that it was. The career opportunities that a Williams degree can offer more than make up for its high cost. But what about students at state schools or lower tier private schools? Are their degrees always worth what they have paid for them? Unlike students at Williams, the majority of these other students are often required to take out loans reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars. Worse yet, they have no guarantee that when they graduate they will be able to enter a career where they will make enough to pay it back. Their degrees are simply not worth what they once were.
The devaluation of the college degree is one of the most serious problems facing young adults trying to enter the workforce. Nearly any job that requires some amount of skill requires a college degree, even if that job comes nowhere close to paying for that degree. Going to college is no longer a choice made by those who wish to pursue highly specialized jobs – it is mandatory if one wishes to succeed. Why is this the case? Different people will give different answers. One explanation is that entering college during the Vietnam War allowed people to avoid the draft. Millions of Americans who ordinarily would not have gone to college found themselves doing so just to survive. Hundreds of new colleges were built to accommodate this influx of students. Those who did not try to go to college were not necessarily seen as failures, they were simply giving themselves up to the draft.
Once Vietnam was over, avoiding the draft was no longer a concern, but the colleges did not disappear. It was in this environment that the idea that everyone needed to go to college began to develop. If you didn’t, you were doomed to spend the rest of your life working in McDonald’s or at a gas station. This attitude was further supported by the rapid loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector and the decline of unions in other industries, eliminating many high-paying jobs that could be done without a college degree. The only opportunities remaining were low-paying service sector jobs.
These changes would not have been too problematic if the number of jobs which legitimately require a college level education had gone up. However, relative to the size of our population, that number has not increased significantly. We are left with millions of Americans with college degrees who are forced to enter careers in which they will not make enough money to pay for those degrees. The economic consequences of this are obvious, and it is no surprise that educational loans are not far behind healthcare costs as a cause of bankruptcy and other serious financial problems.
What are we, as a country, supposed to do about this situation? It would be great if we could simply create more jobs that required a college-level education, but we cannot forget that we need millions of people to work in low-paying jobs. While nobody denies the importance of doctors, our society would be quite dysfunctional if we had nobody to work in grocery stores, cut lawns or answer phones. Rather than trying to tell everyone that they must become doctors or lawyers and that if they don’t, they are worthless failures, we need to show more respect towards these less glamorous jobs. Giving greater pay and benefits to those people and acknowledging their jobs as legitimate career choices would go a long way towards doing this.
Only those people who are genuinely interested in a career that required a college degree should need to get one. Going to college shouldn’t be a marker for success; it should serve its original purpose: to provide extra education for those wishing to enter specialized careers that do pay for the cost of a degree.
Such changes won’t really affect institutions like Williams, but that does not mean there is nothing we should do about it. It means not pressuring other family members, whether siblings or future children, into getting a college education if they aren’t interested. It means those of us in positions of power doing a better job trying to create good jobs that don’t require college. And it means all of us understanding what the value of a college education really is.