You need a college education for that.


This makes me sad and angry, and I don’t even know who I’m sad for or angry at. On the one hand, all these people were sold a packet of sweet-smelling bullshit in a very determined fashion all their lives, and it should come as no surprise that a quorum of them bought it. Who’s most at fault? The con artist or his target?

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the aphorism that you can’t con an honest man. When you’re in your late teens/early twenties – as I recall – the prospect of something happening four or six years down the road seems impossibly remote. Even if that something involves the sky falling in on you. And anyway, people are always after you to ‘go to college,’ right? They’re always on about how you won’t be able to get a ‘good job’ if you don’t ‘go to college.’ And college is four to six years of not-unpleasant slacking, occasionally pretending to listen to somebody drone on about trig or the evils of the Patriarchy or something. At the end of it they hand you that degree you need for that good job, and you can get serious about life then. The student loans will go away as soon as you’ve got that good job you’ve been promised. So why not just go with that? Yeah, it’d be easy to buy into the con.

Except the evidence that it’s a con isn’t and has never been all that scarce on the ground.

(Full disclosure: At this point, if my daughter is reading this, she’s probably grinding her teeth. “Wait. Didn’t you tell me I should go to college? Didn’t you make some snide cracks involving the lame joke ‘do you want fries with that?'” No. I said you should have a plan. I said the plan might rationally involve delaying gratification while you go to college to acquire the specific knowledge and credentials necessary to pursue that plan. I never disparaged the concept of post-secondary education. But I also never said “go to college or flip burgers for life,” because how would that sound coming out of my mouth, of all places?)

I come from a family that came from a place where people did not go to college. My father did tell me I should go to college, but he didn’t deny that he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Neither of us had any idea how one goes about going to college. He may as well have said, ‘Escape earth’s gravity, my son, and mine the asteroids. There’s good money in them thar carbonaceous chondrites.’ It would have made as much sense as ‘go to college.’ People like me just didn’t do that.

I did eventually go to a two-year trade school, where I learned the fundamentals of fixing cars. Some years later, when I had truly internalized the knowledge that the only passion I had concerning automotive repair was how much I hated doing it eight hours a day on flat rate, I became a votech teacher and then a tech writer and then a training developer and then a training designer, which is not the same thing. Every step of that way I kept dodging the question, “What’s your degree?”

(True story: In one of the biggest job interviews of my life, my potential boss asked me in passing – in an elevator on our way to a luncheon at a posh restaurant yet – “Where did you do your graduate work?” Thank the gods, he was distracted before I had to come out and say “Tom Rose Motors.”)

I was occasionally made to feel like a fraud, because I had no college degree. At no point in any of this was I actually a fraud, because I never claimed any degree and regularly demonstrated my ability to do the work. But as I grew older and more grizzled – and, it must be admitted, more bitter and beaten and cynical – it got progressively harder to find work until ‘what’s your degree’ finally became a concrete wall I could no longer cross. No matter that at that point I had a twenty-year provable track record of making money for employers. Do you want fries with that?

Part of me wants to track down the 30 year old kids in this photo essay and spit in their faces, then beat them up and take their lunch money. Part of me sadly wishes them well.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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7 Responses to You need a college education for that.

  1. jc2k says:

    Film studies, painting, Asian humanities, biology, history and religion, communications… Someone ought to have told them they might have more real world opportunities with a real degree.

  2. abnormalist says:

    JC2K has it on the nose.

    A pile of useless degrees from coastal private, IVY league, or top tier universities, with poor choice career goals. Really you have 50k in student loans and you want to be a social worker?!? Be a shift manager at that Home Depot and you will make about as much depending on the community.

    You went to RISD and you want to be a cartoonist? Wow, wasted effort.

    A plan is a only part of what is lacking, critical decision making, would be a good start for these people

    (FWIW, 35, 18 years in my career of choice no school debt, public university, and left with marketable skills)

  3. GoneWithTheWind says:

    Because I worked for a college I have a slightly different take on this. Specifically that students will, against good advice, borrow the maximum that they can each year. They do this because they feel it is “free” money, as you said the payback seems remote and teens don’t think ahead. But the money is used to live the good life. Rent an apartment so they can party rather then live with mom or dad. Buy a car, after all who at this age wants to be without a car. Buy booze and other mind altering delights. Trips to the coast. Vacations in Mazatlan. New clothes, eating out, hanging at the bar on Friday and Saturday nights, etc. You think I’m kidding? More then half of most student loan money goes to bacchanalia pleasures. SO yes, tuitions are up and yes college professors are overpaid but the students are generally at fault if they come out of college with crippling debt. By the way it was often the asian women who would work a part time job and live like a nun so they could afford college. There was of course a sprinkling of people like this from every race and both genders but not as significant as the young Asian women.

  4. Ben says:

    “I don’t even know who I’m sad for or angry at.” Exactly Joel. At first, you seem to say that many college educations are wasted, and perhaps you don’t even need a diploma to make a good living. I agree.

    But your personal example, where you had difficulty competing in your chosen profession because of a lack of a diploma, seems to argue against that thesis. So what are you saying here?

    Do “counselors” in university admissions offices sometimes sell prospective students a terribly expensive, yet worthless, bag of sunshine? You’re damn right they do! Many of these people are more sales staff than educators. They have classrooms to fill and sales targets to meet, so they act accordingly.

    But the bigger problem is that kids must make terribly important and almost irreversible life decisions years before they have either the data or the maturity to do so. That article is filled with sad examples of folks who seem to have made unfortunate decisions. How to fix that? Probably you can’t. But it can help to delay a choice of major until after two years of (relatively cheap) community college education. Then those life-decisions can be made with 2 years more data and (hopefully) 2 years more maturity.

  5. -s says:

    I don’t claim to know how it is these days.

    FWIW, I did the loans. To the max. About $15k by the time I finished, o so long ago.

    But there were no parties, no vacations, no cars. The money went for tuition. I thought that was what it was for.

    I didn’t have much trouble paying it back. It took 10 years. I paid as slow as possible because the interest rate was less than inflation + taxes, and math was one of the courses I passed.

    I didn’t move back home. I left at 18 and never came back. I lived in some sketchy places.

    I’m not saying that kids these days don’t have it rough. I think they do. Tuition costs are well into stupid. The economy sux, and has for a long time.

    I’m saying it wasn’t always this way. Back in the day, some of those loads helped some poor kids pay for school.

  6. TM says:

    What’s most striking to me in that article is the number of people who’s degree choice has little to no bearing on their career goal. And beyond that, even those that have degree oriented career goals, the number who’s goals honestly shouldn’t require a degree (seriously, why would you need a degree to be a librarian? Seems to me that job requires lots of on the job training and a well read individual.)

    Way back when I was first going to college, I recall hearing a number of times how some percentage of people (usually greater than 50%) ended up in careers unrelated to their major. Rather than seeing this as the sign of systematic sickness that it is, it was portrayed (and I believed) it to be an indicator that everything would work out fine in the end, even if you weren’t 100% sure what you wanted to do in college (but you did have to go, because that’s what you do).

  7. abnormalist says:

    Honestly TM, to become a librarian, most of the time you need an MLS (Masters in Library Sciences I fhit you not). Why? Because all of the other applicants for the job have an MLS.

    Its sort of a club at this point, if you dont have the MLS, you can be a part time assistant, or a volunteer (both of which are required to become a REAL librarian in most areas)

    I totally agree with you on the “I recall hearing a number of times how some percentage of people (usually greater than 50%) ended up in careers unrelated to their major” being pushed as a good thing, not as the “So pick a career now that you would actually enjoy, can do, and can live with so you dont waste your time and money here” line it should be but as the “So it doesnt really matter, its all going ot be good if you have that degree in Womyns (intentional) studies” line its interpreted as.

To the stake with the heretic!