Despite the precipitous rise in tuition — according to a report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, it has risen 487 percent since 1982 — the payoffs of a college degree have only grown slimmer.
Yet paradoxically, the public drive to obtain a bachelor’s degree has been stronger than ever, as the number of college applications has skyrocketed. Even President Obama has jumped on the bandwagon, setting a lofty goal to raise our country’s college graduation rate to 60 percent within a decade in hopes of expanding our skilled labor force.
Unfortunately, his strategy will do little to fix our economic woes because colleges are no longer institutions of higher learning; instead, for the majority at least, college has come to be four years of partying.
The modern college experience now ascribes to a philosophy of more play and less work. According to a study conducted by Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the number of hours dedicated to studying has decreased by half since the 1960s, leading to almost no improvement in critical thinking, communication or complex reasoning skills for 36 percent of graduates.
Indeed, there has been a dramatic shift in the priorities of the college student. What once was intended to be an opportunity to acquire skills that could be applied to a future career has become four years — the best ones in life, at that — with the intent of socializing and fornicating, albeit with a few hours of studying squeezed in between for some. The expectations of studying in the quiet corners of a library have been replaced by images abound of debauchery and alcohol.
Just take a glimpse at the modern college culture portrayed in the media throughout recent years: Asher Roth certainly did not love college because of his penchant for textbooks and scholarship. Yes, the learning process now takes place in the fraternity house instead of the library or classroom. By increasing our nation’s college graduates, Obama will see a labor force more likely skilled at beer pong than manufacturing. We’re studying less yet paying more.
But we still doggedly pursue the bachelor’s degree and employers still gladly hire the few lucky ones, setting off a trend of academic inflation. As more people pursue bachelor’s degrees and fewer employers offer them positions, job seekers will soon realize that their $200,000 investment may not been the most economical decision because it is no longer an honest indication of erudition.
The college degree is now the new high school degree; and in order to differentiate yourself from the sea of jobless graduates, you must resort to spending another few years and thousands of dollars on a master’s degree.
Paying $50,000 a year to attend college, students — and the poor parents obligated to finance their educations — got the bad end of the transaction. Unfortunately, the guarantee that a college degree can lead to a stable career has become a remnant of the past. While students study less and party more devoid of any post-graduation certainty, universities can continue to stoke their billion dollar endowments — Wall Street would be proud.
A bachelor’s degree holds few guarantees other than debilitating student loans. That is why we see even the most menial of tasks — fast food workers, retail store clerks, unpaid interns — are now being done by college graduates, and the competition for even volunteer positions like Teach for America has grown in fervor.
The reality is that for most, a college education is no longer a necessity. In fact, it shows in the choices of recent graduates. The average graduate will have seven different jobs before finally settling upon a final career — an indecisiveness that should be corrected by a college education during which students decide on their majors and passions. But the opposite is true: A college education has little relevance to career choice, as only 55 percent of students find jobs that match their majors. History majors end up on Wall Street and French majors become consultants — assuming they are fortunate enough to find employment, of course.
So what are they paying for if not the lectures and knowledge? The parties, cheap booze and one-night stands? Whether we like it or not, that appears to be what’s happening.
It is becoming clearer that the typical college education is not worth the cost. According to M.I.T. professor David Autor in a recent New York Times article, the demand for middle-tier jobs is slowly weaning because of outsourcing and technology. That means the skills we learn in college are being replaced by automation, and instead, the new jobs are being produced at the bottom of the employment hierarchy — where a four-year degree is unnecessary and the required labor skills can be quickly learned.
When students and parents finally realize that the high valuation of a college degree does not match its return on investment, the education bubble will burst. Until then, however, recent college graduates can only hope that they will soon see a surge in demand for their newly honed skills in beer pong.
Steven Zhang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.