Editorial: The value of college in a cash-strapped economy

Last week, a study conducted at UCLA revealed that more students than ever are attending college for the express purpose of attaining a job after they graduate.  When asked to list their primary reason for enrolling at the university, 85.9 percent of the student body answered that they were chiefly interested in using college as a foundation for their future careers.

The study’s findings, while disconcerting, are not at all surprising.  The American economy has been in doldrums for about four years now, and the unemployment rate, though it has dropped in recent months, is still over 8 percent.  Good jobs are hard to come by, and while a college degree may not guarantee as much job security as it did 20 years ago, it still helps a great deal.

According to a recent report from the US Census Bureau, it is estimated that the average college grad will earn $900,000 more than the average high school grad over the course of his or her life. In addition, a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that unemployment amongst college graduates is 4 percent lower than it is amongst the general population.  More and more often, students are coming to see college as a safeguard from the turbulence of America’s troubled economy.  For many, getting a job has subsequently become the primary focus of a college education.

As sensible as the results of UCLA’s study may be, they are also somewhat troubling.  College is, after all, about much more than just making money; or at least it once was.  The university is also traditionally a site of tremendous academic and personal growth.

College is supposed to be a place where young people come to broaden their critical perspectives on the world, to cultivate their minds and become engaged members of society at large.  The time one spends in college is historically one of the most important epochs of one’s life.

It would seem that students today, however, are much less motivated by the value of college as an experience in and of itself than they are by the potential salaries that their degrees will garner them after graduation.  UCLA’s study reveals that many students have come to view college primarily as a means to an end – one enrolls because doing otherwise would mean putting oneself at a disadvantage in the job market.  Any interest a student takes in the education he or she receives along the way is, at best, secondary.

It is also important to note that an increase in the perception of potential earnings as the defining drive of one’s education means a decrease in the perceived importance of the humanities.  According to Time Magazine, humanities majors earn an average of $47,000 a year after graduation – that’s $30,000 a year less than the average income of top engineering and science grads.  If college students are motivated by the income of potential careers, it stands to reason that they would tend to undervalue the humanities.

But the worth of studying humanities transcends the prospect of future earnings.  As a field, the humanities perform the invaluable service of monitoring the progress of society – how far we have come and how and why we should proceed in the future in a particular way.  They play a vital role in college as well as modern society: teaching the value of critical engagement with the world in which we live.

College students are right to be concerned about the state of the economy, and there is nothing wrong with pursuing a course of action during one’s time in college that will secure one’s financial future.  But we must remember that college is much more than job training alone, and that its value far exceeds that of the piece of paper we are awarded after we leave it.

Facebook Comments