While the recession is driving record numbers of high-school graduates to higher-education, it is also making it harder for students to afford or receive quality educations, or graduates to secure the jobs or lifestyles they planned. Luckily there are options.
My June 27 blog examined some of the high-level findings of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently released Occupational Outlook Handbook. Among the primary findings—university graduates have much better employment prospects, earn significantly higher weekly and lifetime earnings and suffer much lower unemployment rates than those with without these degrees.
The blog ended with the question: Given the economic advantages of higher education, why would anyone not get a college, or even graduate degree? This blog briefly reviews some of the reasons.
It is sad do say, but some people are simply not up to higher education. A good portion of those that are, are either too turned off by their experiences in primary and secondary schools, or have not received the type of education that will allow them to continue. This is prompting many educators and foundations, including the Gates Foundation, to look to community colleges as the lynchpin to improving higher education.
Although I will specifically discuss community colleges in future blogs, let’s focus on some of the reasons people do not, cannot or should not go to four-year universities.
The Cost Equation
One of the first and most frequently cited arguments against universities is the cost. According to BLS, college tuition and fees have soared 92% since 2000—almost double the pace of healthcare. And the rate of increase has accelerated thanks to the Great Recession, as the value of university endowments and government funding has plummeted. Tuition at some private universities now exceed $40,000 annually and even some state universities now charge more than $10,000. By the time you add in room and board, costs can exceed $50,000 per year for private universities and $20,000 for public universities. And this does not even begin to account for the opportunity costs associated with going to college—much less graduate school—of 4-10 years of earnings that students forgo while in school.
These costs are making it all but impossible for lower-income families to foot the bill, unless their children qualify for very generous scholarships or find particularly remunerative part-time and summer jobs.
Without even getting into the ways in which escalating education costs are likely to exacerbate already high levels of income inequality, these costs are throwing many students into debt, before they even get a chance to begin their careers. Statistics compiled by Credit.com show that students graduate from college with an average of $20,000 in student loan debt, plus an additional $4,100 in credit card debt. And then there’s graduate school. According to the AMA, 87% of medical students graduate carrying educational loans and graduate with an average of $156,456 of debt.
Starting out with high levels of debt is bad enough. But if these students have the misfortune of graduating into a deep recession, they may not be able to find a job that will allow them to pay off the debt. Or if they do find a job, it is likely to be a minimum wage position that has little to do with their chosen field, and may make it difficult to ever get onto a true career ladder. Even the lucky graduates, who do get jobs in their field, often must settle for lower-level positions and lower salaries. A study by Yale of Management economist Lisa Kahn, for example, found that new graduates who join a company during a recession (1981 for her study) not only start at lower wages, but generally continue to earn lower wages and find it difficult to compete with younger, more recent graduates when normal hiring patterns resume.
Education Quality Compromises
That is for those who graduate. The sad fact, according to Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, is that while the U.S. sends a higher percentage of high school graduates to college than any other OECD country, it is second to last—ahead of only Italy—in graduating these students. About half of all students who enroll in four-year universities—and two-thirds of those in two-year colleges—do not graduate at all. They forego income, pay tuition and room and board for 1, 2 or 3 years and never earn a degree. And, according to the William Bowen and Michael MacPhearson book, Crossing the Finish Line, this drop-out rate is even higher for lower-income students. And since college drop-outs typically earn 30% less ($33,000 compared with $47,000) than do grads, they are unlikely to recover much of their investment.
And this does not even consider one of the central premises of the Bowen/MacPhearson book, that many colleges—and especially many of those attended by highly-qualified lower-income students—do a better job in “producing dropouts” than in educating and graduating students. Education quality—not to speak of availability—is likely to further decline as a result of the state funding cuts, college endowment losses and alumni contribution shortfalls engendered by the recession.
University of California budget cuts, for example, are forcing schools to increase tuition by 32%, lay off and cut salary of faculty and staff, cut programs and classes, increase class sizes. California State University, meanwhile, is being forced to stop accepting applications for the 2010 spring term and cut total system-wide enrollment by 40,000 students over the next year. Students who are already enrolled are finding it increasingly difficult to get into oversubscribed classes that are required to meet graduation and major requirements.
Some prospective students, especially those from lower-income families, are being foreclosed from higher education altogether. Those can afford the cost will find it more difficult to get required classes and may have to postpone graduation. Meanwhile, the limited availability of jobs is prompting many who would not otherwise seek higher education to go back to school. Dropout rates can be expected to increase over the next few years and more students will graduate with more debt.
The Education-Job Market Disconnect
What is a new high-school or college graduate to do? With jobs scarce—especially for young adults—graduates are increasingly choosing to go back to school. Schools, however, are cutting back on the number of students they can accept, increasing tuitions and reducing course offerings.
A relative handful of students will get into (and be able to pay for) the best schools, major in the fields most likely to qualify them for attractive, well-paying jobs and graduate into a robust economy that will value and pay for their skills. The vast majority, however, face less attractive options. They can:
- Skip higher education and possibly relegate themselves to a life of less desirable, low-paying, low-security jobs; or
- Go to school (if they can afford it), accumulate more debt and risk graduating into a still slow economy.
Luckily there are more attractive alternatives to each of these fates:
- A number rapidly growing fields, in industries including health care and higher education, still offer attractive, relatively well-paying jobs that do not require bachelor degrees (some registered nurse positions, insurance agents, police, medical assistants, etc.) or to a lesser extent, even associate degrees (cooks, welders, truck drivers, carpenters, etc.). In fact, of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate, only 7 typically require a four-year degree;
- Those who do go to college or graduate school can pursue fields of study, especially in finance, accounting and STEM-related disciplines (science, technology, engineering, math) that lead to jobs which companies currently have trouble filling and are expected to produce large numbers of well-paying jobs in the future (physicians, pharmacists, post-secondary teachers, software engineers, accountants, etc.).
My next blog post will drill down into findings for some of these bachelor-and-above-level jobs, examining categories and specific jobs which offer the best employment opportunities, the highest earnings potential and ideally, good opportunities for intellectual and psychic fulfillment.