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The one-time ticket to success is more likely to result in a lifetime of debt.


Pay no attention to the wizards behind their curtains.

I’m referring to the data freaks who conjure up statistics showing that college graduates earn far more pay and have greater employment opportunity than non-college grads. For instance, a recently published jobless rate by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows college grads age 25 and older (keep this age factor in mind) have a 3.2% unemployment rate with median pay of $75,300 for men working full-time jobs. That’s a lot better picture than for people without college degrees.

Here’s where sleight of hand comes into play with the data, however:

  • Recent college graduates under the age of 25 had a jobless rate averaging 8.8% in 2013. That compares with 5.4% in 2007, before the Great Recession slammed into us.
  • Among college graduates who do find work, a whole bunch of them are underemployed, meaning they are waiting tables, tending bar, telemarketing or otherwise struggling to earn a living with work that doesn’t require a college degree. According to a study by the New York Federal Reserve Bank, 44% of college graduates between the ages of 22 to 27 were underemployed as of 2012.
  • More than two-thirds of today’s college graduates have to pay off student loans, which average around $29,000 and sometimes soar into six figures. Try doing that on a bartender’s income. No wonder so many twenty-somethings today are living with mom and dad. Some of them will be in debt the rest of their lives. Their default rate is now around 10%.
  • Only 57% of college students obtain degrees within six years. What’s worse than being an unemployed or underemployed college graduate stuck with student loan debt? How about being a college dropout owing tens of thousands of dollars for a stunted education!

The most insidious part of all this is that even as college costs keep rising, the product students are receiving has been devalued thanks to grade inflation and lax standards. One federal study showed that only a quarter of college graduates were deemed proficient in college-level reading comprehension.

Yet, according to the New York Times, an astounding 43% of grades meted out at four-year universities these days are A’s! Softball courses and curricula have proliferated in fields such as gender studies and public relations.

Once upon a time a college degree could genuinely be called a ticket to success. That was when attending college was a privilege accorded only to the rich or exceptionally smart individuals. Back in 1940, less than 5% of Americans 25 and older had bachelor’s degrees. Now, nearly 28% do. Upwards of 60% of our population has attended college to some extent.  

Although some highly specialized degrees are in high demand, for most fields that require a college degree the market is saturated. Your basic liberal arts or business degree buys you a resume that competes with hundreds of people with similar credentials for every entry-level job. Even lawyers are feeling the pinch. Only about half of law school graduates are finding legal profession jobs these days, and last year law school applications were reported to be at a 30-year low.

This reality has not yet sunk in to most of our population. Family and social pressures still compel many young people toward higher education when they have little interest in or aptitude for academic life. High school counselors still think that anyone who doesn’t go to college is a lunkhead.

This stinkin’ thinkin’ needs to change. Stay tuned, for in the weeks ahead I’m going to draw attention to opportunities beyond the ivory towers.