My grandfather left Virginia Tech (then known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute, or VPI) in early 1942 after World War II was declared. Like most of his classmates, he left college to volunteer for military service. He was in the Army Air Force until late 1945, when he was demobilized to return to civilian life. Like millions of his fellow servicemen, he benefited tremendously from the GI Bill and was able to afford to complete his university education. He graduated in 1947 and had a long career with the State of Virginia, finally retiring in 1985.
The Greatest Generation, after World War II, revolutionized the field of higher education – it became something attainable even by those without a wealthy pedigree. Men and women of the middle class could go to colleges and universities and earn entry into exclusive fields that had once been the near-exclusive domain of the wealthy – science, engineering, academia, law, medicine.
Today, 65 years after the GI Bill was opening affordable higher education to millions of American war veterans, a dire situation appears to have arisen: Critics allege that a “higher education bubble” exists…and it may be about to burst, with devastating consequences.
During generations past a young person could get a decent job without a college degree and go on to raise a family in middle-class stability. Blue-collar jobs once allowed a person to make a living wage, but no longer. Wages are worth less and less as inflation and instability increase. Blue-collar jobs are increasingly at risk for downsizing and outsourcing. American youth are universally encouraged to seek higher education so they can pursue jobs that “guarantee” more success.
I see a clash between current realities and Boomer-era beliefs: While the older generations saw a college degree as a ticket to middle-class salaries and respectability, the current generation sees a college degree as a second raffle ticket in an increasingly-large lottery…it doubles your chances of getting a “good job,” but how good are doubled chances in a recession-stricken economy?
The guarantee of a good life from a 4-year degree has evaporated.
Simultaneously, the degree costs more and more to attain. The outcome has eroded while the cost has soared. American students are paying higher and higher costs for an increasingly unreliable cost…like paying $70,000 for an AMC Gremlin. Millions of students and their families are carrying serious debt as a result of seeking 4-year degrees, and, with a weaker economy, the chances of paying off those debts in a timely manner has shrunk considerably. Paying off $50,000 in college loans with an hourly job is daunting, to say the least.
And yes, the critics of twentysomething anger and resentment have good points: Too many students major in too many degrees that are not geared toward financial success. What right has a 24-year-old barista to complain that her private university BFA degree has not landed her a steady, lucrative paycheck? What right has a 26-year-old to complain that his $200,000 in student loan debt is unfair…after he switched majors four times and universities thrice? Students and their parents can easily invest poorly in college education.
But the problem is not in unwise investments – it is the fact that not investing in college education is increasingly a guaranteed denial of a good job. More and more often, “good” jobs require a 4-year degree without exception. College education is no longer a bonus but a necessity.
Students cannot not invest in the higher education bubble. If they dislike the high prices they have fewer and fewer options: If a person is medically ineligible for the military and its still-invaluable GI Bill he or she is forced to rely on scholarships, part-time jobs, and loans – an unstable mixture that will likely leave the student debt-heavy upon graduation.
So, sadly, many students are forced to fork over truckloads of money whether they want to or not – there is little choice. If you opt out of college prices you are likely forcing yourself into an unbreakable cycle of low-wage jobs…if you opt in you are likely forcing yourself into debt.
And I have no idea what can be done about it. Who caves first? Do colleges and universities lower their tuition prices? Do companies, businesses, and government agencies lower their education requirements for many jobs? Do enough young people opt out so as to force employers’ hand? Does new government legislation create another GI Bill for military and public service volunteers – sort of an educational “New Deal” for the 2010s?
What do you think?