Many rack up debt for degrees they will never use or need

Oct 29th, 2009 | By | Category: Blogs, Opinions

by Mike Courson

Often, reactions tell me more than the event that inspired the reaction. The event in question this time is Newsweek’s cover story about the three-year degree. Lamar Alexander wrote the story for last week’s edition, and readers have responded.

Alexander relates college to automobile manufacturers: not adapting to the present could mean failure in the future. For example, since the American Revolution, universities have closed for the summer so students may return home to work in the fields. That is no longer the case for most students, yet colleges go vacant for months at a time, racking up utility and maintenance costs with no students around to use or pay for such.

As a three-year graduate myself, I was glad to see someone supporting the cause. In the following pages, however, presidents of several universities seemed to fudge on the idea of the three-year degree. Reader mail supports these officials. The thinking from both seems to be that students need four years or more to do two things: learn and find themselves.

This arouses what I’ve long felt as myth in the American education system: that schools are all about learning. In their world, maybe most learning is done in schools. Students attend class with the sole intention of learning and take education seriously. Maybe they picture students lying out in the sun next to some rustic creek, pondering the ways of the world and the future.

I’ve observed the opposite. First, there is the myth that the students who do the best in class are the most intelligent. I just had this conversation today, debating with a coworker whether National Honor Society is a true marker of intelligence. While it is not a marker of stupidity, I argue it is more an indicator of ambition than true intelligence.

Obviously, I was never in NHS, just missing the boat. Had I qualified, I probably would not have joined. Robes and candles just seemed kind of…creepy. That said, I thought certain classmates in NHS were smarter than myself, and I knew some to be not-so-smart. That they had high GPAs and wanted to join an organization, however, probably meant they were more ambitious than me.

Take the classroom: in high school, I asked a fair amount of questions, but nothing to the degree of the ambitious kids. I knew it impossible to memorize every trivial fact I would never need to recall again. Blessed with a good memory, I was able to take notes, not ask questions, not study, and get good grades. Had I been ambitious, I have no doubt I could have scored higher on tests. My theory: the kids who asked the questions about the minutia back then were quite ambitious and at least intelligent. Those are the two ingredients to get places in life. For myself and others without the ambition, we struggle to amount to anything, but we’re solid, and arguably more intelligent, people.

In college, the tables turned for me. High school was mandatory and I never really paid the bill. College was expensive, and society told me I needed a degree to succeed. All things considered, it was not enough for me to sit idly by and listen to someone’s theory, or to take notes without question. When something did not make sense or seemed incorrect, I challenged the professor. Most teachers seemed to enjoy the discourse, and I think most would agree I made good points. The student response: a big sigh to let me know my questions were keeping them from more important things, namely sleep, alcohol or girlfriends.

I also took control of my courses. In high school, I refused to take college-level classes because I disagreed with the material or the concept. I was a non-fiction reader at the time. Why read fiction and analyze it to death? Why make a diorama or similarly childish product about a book I could not like? Beyond that, why is society pushing me to be a college student when I’m still in high school? Even then, I thought it cheapened the idea of the college degree.

In college, I became my own advisor. I picked all of my classes. At one point when I signed up for 29 hours in one semester, my advisor did step in. He said if I began to falter, he would pull me from some of the classes. I never faltered, and I graduated with honors in three years.

Am I using my degree? Absolutely not. I have a BS in justice studies with a minor in psychology. Presently, I’m employed as a sports writer. I have worked in my field of study, but it only proved one thing: college was essentially unnecessary. Two years on the job and 14 weeks at a mandatory academy would have been more than sufficient.Degree

I am not alone here. One argument for the four-year or longer degree is that high school students cannot know what they want to do in three years. Maybe they can’t, but when will they know? Many of my friends have made careers outside their fields of study. Like me, many of those friends were gung-ho about what they wanted to do. Unfortunately, college cannot teach real-life. The graduate often learns that a desired career is not all it was supposed to be. Maybe no one is hiring, and a short-term gig becomes long-term.

To argue the four-year degree is necessary for students to learn what they want to do is just nonsense. Interests are born in childhood and sustained with experience. The student who goes to college wanting to be an artist, but learning to be a school teacher because he knows of a job is hardly a story of desire. In this case, the university may actually impede, or even kill off completely, the dreams of a young student.

Then there is the degree itself. I once had a job driving a truck and carrying books. My employer told me I might not have landed the job without my degree. Really, I needed college for that? More likely, my college degree was an indication that I played the game. For at least a while, I dressed probably like an adult, interacted with other people, and showed some degree of intelligence. On top of that, my employer must know that I ended up thousands of dollars in debt. Can an employee with bills to pay really raise a stink a work?

This raises the question of the bachelor’s degree in 2010. 20 years ago, one needed a high school diploma to get a job. A degree was a plus. The degree is now something anyone can obtain with a little money. Therefore, we are now led to believe a degree is okay, but we need a post-graduate degree to get the good job. Why? Maybe it’s online courses. Maybe it’s open admission.

The online class seems farcical to me. Really, I can sit at home, never talk face to face with anyone, never even get dressed, and graduate with honors? How, exactly, does that prepare me for the world? Some of the online professors are not even university professors. I took a few online classes and had community college professors with whom I had little contact. That’s hardly how I expected to earn a degree.

As for open admissions, this could mean a few things. To me, it just means a college will take on anyone as long as it stands to profit. So you attended half your classes in high school and show no real motivation to learn? Oh, you have a government loan. Welcome to college!

As with most traditionalists, it seems that some still hold the romanticized view of college: a place where kids go to grow up and become responsible workers. Undoubtedly, some students do. Many others merely party for four years. Do or don’t, it’s hard to deny: young adults are inheriting bigger and bigger debts for degrees they probably don’t need and/or will never use. If society wanted to emphasize education, trade schools would be much bigger than they are today. Instead, society has emphasized the game. For those of us who are too smart or too apathetic to play the game, we get a really expensive piece of paper that tells us how smart we are. I’m glad I got mine in three years and saved thousands of dollars doing so.

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