March 11

I recently attended a meeting of a book club to which my Human Bean belongs. It was held in a book store, and the small group of members assembled to discuss a book by John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany. All of these ladies have college degrees, and some taught literature and writing at the university level, like my Bean. The discussion was lively, thoughtful, and intelligent.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a movement encouraging college drop-outs to complete degrees and adults who never attended college to enroll in a degree program designed specifically for adult learners. Many former students left school years before to pursue careers or start families, and some simply lost interest. The rumor is that these returning adults place a higher value on their educations and that they may be more appreciative of the opportunity to do so. So they get a degree…and then what?

These days, it seems as if everyone has a college education. Society has risen to a higher level, and so fewer people exist who have reached adulthood without also attaining a higher level of education. We used to think that those who went to college were privileged to be pursuing a college degree, privileged to go for a dream. But college loans and scholarships place a degree within the reach of almost anyone who truly wants the degree badly enough and works hard enough to get it. So now everyone can have a college degree, and college has become the old high school.

What does this mean in terms of the economy? There are more overqualified people for available jobs. The number of people qualified for a position requiring a college education has become greater than the number of jobs available to them. At the university where my Bean works, there are 200+ applicants for every teaching position. What do those who don’t get the jobs they applied for do? They look for another job…and another. But it is the same story everywhere, and at some point, they have to stop looking and settle for “a” job, no matter what it is. After all, they now have college loans to pay. And that’s why someone with a college degree might end up as waitresses, cashiers, janitors, or secretaries. But those didn’t sound like nice jobs, so we decided to call those who perform them servers, associates, custodians, and administrative assistants. These days, your coffee shop barista might have a higher education than you do.

Sure, you still have to go to law school to be a lawyer, and you still need medical school training to qualify as a doctor. But the majority of jobs haven’t really changed; we simply upped their qualifications to include a 2-year or 4-year degree and gave the positions new, more exotic names. Now these positions are being filled by people who paid a bunch of money (and are likely still paying their student loans) for four or more additional years of education, only to end up holding the same old jobs that they might have had without degrees.

It makes me wonder: Is the average college education truly worth the price we pay for it?

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