We know that, in order to attract viewers and bolster ratings, the “news” is always looking for ways to alarm us, to find imminent dangers we hadn’t considered that might, in fact, do us considerable, immediate harm. Bloody, dramatic stories that used to lead “newscasts” are no longer enough to capture our attention. Now the stories must be about impending personal threat. You are in danger. You are under significant, looming threat from drinking water, kidnappers, bicycle thieves, fast food, Halloween candy, parking lot stalkers, falling trees, irritated restaurant employees, and much more.
One more news report of the be-very-afraid variety is the frequently re-told story about how worthless a college education is these days. There seems to be no shortage of these cautionary, slightly compassionate tales of woe: Spend $100k on your education, and you, too, can look forward to a disappointing future as a dog-walker.
These stories appeal to contemporary newscrafters because they fulfill the mission—i.e., keeping viewers and readers on edge and always ready to tune in. The audience for this particular scare tactic are parents investing in their children’s higher education who are likely to pay attention to a story that asks “Are you wasting tens of thousands on college when the future holds no lucrative promise for college grads?”
Kevin Carey, the policy director at Education Sector—a non-partisan think tank that challenges conventional thinking about education—says such stories “…are really missing a lot of long-term trends.” In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Mr. Carey said that examining wage data reveals that “People with college degrees are making more and more and more money, and basically everyone else is either staying the same or falling back.” Not only that, but as the economy tries to regain its balance, “college graduates … are the only segment of the economy where employment has actually gotten better during the first five months of this year,” he says.
Stories about recent graduates entering the job market who question the practical worth of their degree, or take on work they think is beneath them, are nothing new. I’d love to know just how many recent grads in the last few decades have sold shoes, parked cars, waited table or unloaded freight. I bet it’s a lot. Then they move on to better jobs, maybe in a year, maybe longer.
My own first post-college mind-numbing job was working as an administrative assistant in a university library. I entered and reconciled monthly library expenditures across departments. I collected and counted change from change machines (back when libraries had change machines). I maintained inventory records, which meant I climbed around under dusty library tables to find serial numbers and determine whether the tables were on a list. Fascinating work. To complete this bit of employment paradise, my supervisor at the library was a fussy, overly energetic control freak. I learned many valuable lessons from her, among them how not to manage employees.
While the library job was a miserable experience, friends of mine—also humanities grads—thought they had it worse, and maybe they did. One sold used Volkswagens. Another worked as a receptionist at a nursing home. Another solicited credit card applications outside grocery stores. But we didn’t stay in those jobs. What enabled us to move out on to better employment adventures was our education, and the same will prove true for today’s recent grads who are pet sitting, collecting and re-selling junk on Craigslist or doing other work they think they’re too good for.
I wish the news media would stop re-telling the story that college is a waste of money. In their continuing quest to get attention, they’re doing some real damage, like contributing shallow observations to the groundless argument that the liberal arts should be discontinued because they’re not narrow vocational training. And they’re taking attention away from real educational concerns, like the dastardly effects of letting human resources recruiters dictate what’s important in a college curriculum, or the high portion of tuition at state schools that students now have to pay since corporate taxes no longer fund state coffers at levels that actually sustain education.
Well, at least the next time you hear another one of those “college isn’t worth it” stories, you’ll know better.