ONTD Political

The Dwindling Power of a College Degree

7:48 pm - 11/27/2011
The 2012 presidential election can be seen as offering a choice between two visions of how to return us to this country’s golden age — from roughly 1945 to around 1973 — when working life was most secure for many Americans, particularly white, middle-class men. President Obama said his jobs plan was for people who believed “if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would be rewarded.” Mitt Romney explained his goal was to restore hope for “folks who grew up believing that if they played by the rules . . . they would have the chance to build a good life.” But these days, many workers have lost a near guarantee on a decent wage and benefits — and their careers are likely to have much more volatility (great years; bad years; confusing, mediocre years) than their parents’ ever did. So when did the rules change?

It has been hard to keep track. Over the past four decades, we have experienced the oil embargo, Carter-era malaise and a few recessions. Mixed in were the thrills of the late 1990s and mid-aughts, when it seemed as if you were a sap if you weren't getting rich or at least trying. But these dramas prevented many of us from realizing that the economic logic was changing fundamentally. Starting in the 1970s, labor was upended by a lot more than just formal government work rules. Increased global trade devastated workers in many industries, especially textiles, apparel, toys, furniture and electronics assembly. Computers and other technological innovations had an arguably greater impact. While factories continue to make more stuff in the United States than ever before, employment in them has collapsed.

Computers have hurt workers outside factories too. Picture the advertising agency in "Mad Men," and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.

As a result, the people whose jobs remained valuable in that “Mad Men” office were then freed up to do more valuable things. A talented art director could produce more work more quickly with InDesign. A bright accountant could spend more time thinking of new ways to make and save money, rather than spending endless hours punching numbers into an adding machine. Global trade works much the same way. It’s horrible news for a textile factory worker in North Carolina, but it may be great for a fashion designer in New York.

A general guideline these days is that people are rewarded when they can do things that take trained judgment and skill — things, in other words, that can’t be done by computers or lower-wage workers in other countries. Money now flows around the world so quickly, and technology changes so fast, that people who thought they were in high demand find themselves uprooted. Many newspaper reporters have learned that their work was subsidized, in part, by classified ads and now can’t survive the rise of Craigslist; computer programmers have found out that some smart young guys in India will do their jobs for much less. Meanwhile, China lends so much money to the United States that mortgage brokers and bond traders can become richer than they ever imagined for a few years and then, just as quickly, become broke and unemployed.

One of the greatest changes is that a college degree is no longer the guarantor of a middle-class existence. Until the early 1970s, less than 11 percent of the adult population graduated from college, and most of them could get a decent job. Today nearly a third have college degrees, and a higher percentage of them graduated from nonelite schools. A bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability. To get a good job, you have to have some special skill — charm, by the way, counts — that employers value. But there’s also a pretty good chance that by some point in the next few years, your boss will find that some new technology or some worker overseas can replace you.

Though it’s no guarantee, a B.A. or some kind of technical training is at least a prerequisite for a decent salary. It’s hard to see any great future for high-school dropouts or high-school graduates with no technical skills. They most often get jobs that require little judgment and minimal training, like stocking shelves, cooking burgers and cleaning offices. Employers generally see these unskilled workers as commodities — one is as good as any other — and thus each worker has very little bargaining power, especially now that unions are weaker. There are about 40 million of these low-skilled people in our work force. They’re vying for jobs that are likely to earn near the minimum wage with few or no benefits, and they have a high chance of being laid off many times in a career.

Global trade and technology are significant trends, but they’re not laws and policies. The actual rules have also changed notably since the 1970s. Back then, there were all sorts of stabilizers that pushed working-class wages up and kept rich people’s wages lower. The minimum wage, at its pre-1970s peak, was almost 50 percent higher than it is now (inflation adjusted, naturally). Unions were stronger and had more government support. The United States taxed the rich much higher relative to the working class. (The top bracket was taxed at 70 percent in 1978; now it’s 35 percent.) It’s hard to imagine, but regulations largely limited the profitability of banks and kept bankers’ financial compensation low.

The new rules, combined with the other major changes, have effectively removed both the floor and the ceiling. It’s easier for some to make a lot more money and for others to fall much further behind. That has meant a huge increase in inequality. The top 1 percent of families now makes 26 times the average of the other 99 percent (the ratio was 11 to 1 in 1979). The top 0.1 percent makes 130 times the bottom 99 (up from a 38-to-1 ratio 40 years ago). And the inequality is not just between classes. The average wages of the average American have stayed largely flat for decades, but those averages hide a lot of volatility, as more people find themselves at the extremes of wealth or poverty. A successful plumber who has mastered all the new water-flow sensor technology and pipe-fitting innovations (and is probably in a union) can make more than $100,000 a year, while other plumbers, who just know the basics, could make less than $20,000.

The increasingly vicious battle between left and right is, at the most basic level, a dispute over how to respond to these new rules. Republicans largely claim that the new rules will make the country richer and, in the long run, will be beneficial to everyone willing to put in the hard work. Few Democrats call for a return to record high taxes and trade barriers — after all, the free flow of cheap goods has helped many, particularly the poor. But many do want a return to the spirit of the old rules, when the government sought to make life more equal, more stable and, for some, less rewarding. The rest of us, meanwhile, should go to school, learn some skills and prepare for a rocky road.

Source: NYTimes
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hinoema 27th-Nov-2011 08:10 pm (UTC)
As soon as I read the title, my eyes auto-rolled. I'm tired of people whining about a degree being worthless if it doesn't meet their often unrealistic expectations. This song has been playing for what, a few decades now? Easily.

Meh. Whatever. I've got a degree to work on.
hinoema PS...27th-Nov-2011 08:14 pm (UTC)
One of the greatest changes is that a college degree is no longer the guarantor of a middle-class existence.

A lot of people need to take a good hard look at the bullshit standard we've been fed about what this 'middle class' existence is supposed to be and stop trying to live their lives according to a market demographic.
devilstay 27th-Nov-2011 08:13 pm (UTC)
omg! OP your icon! Flawless goddess Seohyun. <3
fate_otaku 27th-Nov-2011 08:20 pm (UTC)
You have good taste. ;)
romp 27th-Nov-2011 08:52 pm (UTC)
The cultural myth of degree=success is a powerful one.

Degrees do result in higher pay when averaged over a few million people but that doesn't help individuals who are trying to pay the rent. Judging by my FB, those of us who went to uni in the '80s finds this unsurprising but those who went before and later (to a lesser degree, I'd guess) find this to be new information. What's most significant in this is how much the price of a degree has risen. The UC system has doubled the price since I was there.

Which is why I want my kids to be passionate about whatever field they go to uni for. Otherwise, they get any degree at 21 and then another that they care about 15 years later. Maybe they want to be farmers instead.
roseofjuly 28th-Nov-2011 01:23 am (UTC)
I joke that college is wasted on the young, but it's kind of true. I, like most college students, went to college when I was 18. I graduated right before the recession started, so I went during the period in which they were telling everyone to just major in what you loved and the jobs would come after. I majored in psychology. It just so happened that I fell in love with research and decided to get a PhD.

But about halfway through the program I had a severe depressive episode and I wanted to leave...except I realized that it would be quite difficult for me to get a well-paying job with a BA in psychology and an MA in sociomedical sciences. What helps is that I have a decent mathematical background with a strength in statistics, so I could've done data analysis. But inevitably, I would've had to go back and get a professional master's degree if I wanted to advance. And I already HAD a master's degree, albeit non-terminal, that I earned in my PhD program.

If I could go back age 18 knowing what I know now, I would've done things very differently. I love psychology but I wouldn't have majored in it. I probably would've gotten a nursing degree or one in civil engineering. I might still have come to get my PhD in public health, but either from the perspective of doing some practice + research (which I'm still considering - doing a BSN/MSN) or in doing urban planning from a public health perspective. But it would've been with the knowledge that if I wanted to leave, or the academic market was horrible (it is), or even if I just wanted to work a few years before getting the PhD - I could do those things with a reasonable expectation of finding a job.
violetrose 27th-Nov-2011 08:55 pm (UTC)
I just wish I'd had the money and adequate schooling for a University education, tbh. :/
fate_otaku 27th-Nov-2011 09:16 pm (UTC)
In my family's case, my parents know that a degree doesn't have much weight anymore for getting a non-government job but they still stress that I need it nonetheless.
roseofjuly 28th-Nov-2011 01:24 am (UTC)
Do you live in the U.S.? I don't think "a degree is useless" means that it doesn't have weight; what it means here (at least in my experience) is that you are increasingly "needing" a degree to get even the most menial of jobs.
lone_concertina 27th-Nov-2011 09:30 pm (UTC)
My friend has years of experience in her field but didn't finish her degree. She's been lying about graduating for years and no one ever checks it. I'm proud of her for doing that because the debt wasn't worth it for her, and she's kicking ass at what she does.
livetuned 27th-Nov-2011 09:50 pm (UTC)
Not that I don't believe there is no legitimacy to it, there definately is some, I can't help but feel there is a little bit of fearmongering with the whole "technology is replacing us!" statement.
livetuned 27th-Nov-2011 09:51 pm (UTC)
*Not that I believe there is no legitimacy
mariechan 28th-Nov-2011 12:05 am (UTC)
I kinda wish degrees were more worth it, but I also wish that college was free. This is mostly because I found college to be fun. It was like going to high school without the drama, and I really like classes and the atmosphere of a community college.

Now I can only afford online college and sure, it's flexible, but it doesn't feel so much like going to school. :c
serendipity_15 28th-Nov-2011 12:18 am (UTC)
OMG THIS

I enjoyed college a lot. I would one day love to go back and get my BS is biology degree, the major I started out with. I left with a BS in psychology and while I do love psychology i still did love bio, I just screwed up too badly to actually be able to finish that major with a semi-decent GPA.
fashionbabylon 28th-Nov-2011 12:10 am (UTC)
I've paid over $250k for my education so far, and although I think college is a total racket, it was money well spent. if I went into a non-science field though or couldn't get into a top university, I wouldn't have paid the money since it's just not worth it.
____jonas 28th-Nov-2011 01:56 am (UTC)
I would be careful even in the sciences. There are quite a few people with bio/chem bachelors working in labs for 35-40k/yr, which would not make an investment of 250k in the degree worth it.

Engineering is an exception, although I've started to hear a lot of grumbling from those people as well.
___closetome 28th-Nov-2011 02:11 am (UTC)
same except I live with my dad and hopefully getting a 9-5 tomorrow. College freaks me out too. I'm still paying back my cc.
___closetome 28th-Nov-2011 02:17 am (UTC)
but cameron though, i mean you're all still way better off than us but cameron worships at the altar of fearmongering about socialism aka america aka the gospel of st. bastard.
erunamiryene 28th-Nov-2011 02:17 am (UTC)
Honestly, I've become completely disillusioned with the GO GET A DEGREE RIGHT NAO routine, and i'm not even going to have to pay for mine (thank you, GI Bill). I'm sorry, but a degree in IT is not worth more than 10+ years experience, period. Yet, I'm no longer considered for IT jobs because I don't have a MASTER'S degree.

And then, for some fucking reason unknown to me, postings here for what I've been doing are requiring a master's *and* at least FIVE years' experience, for ENTRY LEVEL wages. Those requirements are not entry level, dude. And even if I get a bachelor's, I'm still going to get turned down? Fuck that.

Between a college degree here seeming to never pay for itself (I'm sorry, but engineering and science stuff should not be the only degrees that ever pay for themselves), college being **horrendously** overpriced, and then employers checking your goddamn credit score before even considering you, my cynicism about this whole "being an adult" thing and my level of "fuck it"-itis has gone through the roof.
___closetome 28th-Nov-2011 02:18 am (UTC)
lol @ your last sentence ia
escherzo 28th-Nov-2011 03:12 am (UTC)
I always hate posts like these :| not because I think they make invalid points, but because I'm a freshman finishing up my first quarter of college right now and this all gets translated to "DOOM DOOM DOOM YOU'RE DOOMED." But what can you do? You don't finish college, you end up working a terrible job with no prospects for advancement, you do finish college, you end up working a terrible job with the prospect of maybe, down the road, getting a slightly less terrible job if you're lucky and the economy ever picks up and if they don't decide to require a higher degree while you're finishing the lower one. I continue to have no idea if it's worth it in the long run.
etherealtsuki 28th-Nov-2011 03:42 am (UTC)
All I have to say is to create a lot of contacts and network your ass off. That's more important than what you're studying rn, tbh. If I knew that before senior year and not in a rage cloud of being in a major that I fucking hated, yeah.
24_24_1_1526 28th-Nov-2011 03:22 am (UTC)
Graduated with a B.A. in Sociology in 2005. Unemployed 10 months now. Need I say more? I also get tired of people asking me why I didn't major in computer science or some other technical field so I can make money and always be employable. Firstly, I do not have the aptitude to go after such a degree. Secondly, why does having a B.S. vs. B.A mean that I was lazy or that my worth is less than?

Every time someone mentions this to me, I have the overwhelming urge to slap them in the face.
etherealtsuki 28th-Nov-2011 03:37 am (UTC)
Secondly, why does having a B.S. vs. B.A mean that I was lazy or that my worth is less than?

For real, I graduated with a BA in Psych the same year... and been unemployed for 10 months as well. Yes, I hate that condescending look/tone when I say I graduated with a BA because I struggled enough with high school chemistry that I rather not with college-level and biology is boring as balls to go beyond the requirement.
warmsound 28th-Nov-2011 03:38 am (UTC)
Articles/posts like this just make me have so many feelings that I genuinely don't know how to reply. I had to drop out of college after nearly driving myself head-first into a breakdown because I got caught up in pressuring myself to fit the Full Time Student™ mold. I have chronic anxiety that really went into high gear after I started college, but it's something I've only begun to understand much about how it affects me in the past few years. I didn't even really know what was wrong with me when things got so bad. I floated through obscure/inaccurate notions of what I was dealing with and kept telling myself that I had to push it all aside and keep a full time course load because that's what you're 'supposed' to do. It's what you're pushed to do by the college, by advisors, it's what I know my parents expected, etc. My anxiety just kept getting worse and worse, and spun out into a major depressive spell to boot, and everything just utterly fell apart for me.

I finally allowed myself to admit that it was okay to drop out and focus on taking care of myself, and now I'm facing the question of how to go about finishing college, if I do. And I'm so fucking scared and confused. Things like this just make me despair even more; I get angry at myself for taking so long to realize what was going on and what I really needed to do, and I'm terrified about whether I can even manage to go back successfully, if it would even be worth it, so on and so forth. I don't even know how to fully articulate everything that articles like this make me feel. It's like an emotional avalanche, and the clearest thing I can make out is just that I'm so goddamn scared that I already fucked everything up too much. I don't know what to do. I'm already twenty-eight. There's so much about this subject that makes it far too easy to feel like it's already set in stone that I'm just a total failure. :-\
phoenix_san 28th-Nov-2011 03:48 am (UTC)
I definitely understand how you feel, especially in regard to the "total failure" aspect. I dropped out of college years ago because I couldn't afford it and was finally able to go back a year ago. I'm going to be twenty-seven in a few months and am lucky if I finish my BA/BS by the time I'm thirty. I don't want to be condescending and tell you not to feel upset or worried, but I honestly would try not to beat yourself up over the situation. It's really hard not to be anxious about it, but I try to keep in mind that people do things at different rates and that nothing really is set in stone. If you decide to go back, you'll do it at your own pace after all.

I wish you much luck in whatever you decide to do in the future.
kyra_neko_rei 28th-Nov-2011 03:49 am (UTC)
Computers have hurt workers outside factories too. Picture the advertising agency in "Mad Men," and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.

And what should've happened is that the lessened amount of remaining work be split among the workers and the cheapened costs be passed along to consumers, so that if 25% of the jobs had been replaced by technology, people become able to support themselves and their families on a 30-hour workweek which becomes the new standard.

Of course, that didn't happen.
hinoema 28th-Nov-2011 05:09 am (UTC)
They also conveniently forget to mention the part where anything remotely skilled was outsourced by many companies so they wouldn't have to hire anyone domestically that wasn't at minimum wage.
one_hoopy_frood 28th-Nov-2011 03:49 am (UTC)
The other day the 70-something year old custodian where I work told me my degree was a waste of time and money because ~it's a technological world. Even when I said I had planned on being a teacher he said it didn't matter because kids don't need to read anymore, they just need math and science. And I feel like that is everyone's reaction to me. Oh, you majored in English and Medieval Studies? Have fun in that minimum wage retail job for the rest of your life. I was only planning on taking one year off before my masters, now I don't think I'll get one at all. Right now if I keep living with my parents without a car I can afford to make my minimum student loan payments when they start. Hooray.
lilenth 28th-Nov-2011 01:01 pm (UTC)

He's wrong, children need English especially those who are disabled, who have English as a second language or who otherwise are disadvantaged. A good English teacher can make or break a child's life, it sucks that so few people realise how important it can be.
karrixftw 28th-Nov-2011 04:02 am (UTC)
LOL slightly OT but I just submitted my application to the University of Washington today. :)

Aaaaaand I'm still terrified that even if I get into college, get a degree, etc. I'm not gonna be able to make a future for myself.

Ugh. Like someone else above said, I have a lot of feelings about this stuff, and it's what I think about pretty much 24/7. It sucks.
comalies 28th-Nov-2011 03:21 pm (UTC)
Oh, gurl...they are turning down more and more Washington students in favor of out of state residents who have to pay more in tuition. Students who would have easily gotten in two years ago were getting rejected.

Also tuition keeps increasing and they keep spending money on stupid shit like stadium renovations and new buildings we don't need. And to do so they're cutting a lot of smaller programs. It might not matter if you're going into a popular program that obviously won't get cut, but it will be more competitive.

...other than that, UW is lovely! ;)
nemi_chan 28th-Nov-2011 04:03 am (UTC)
I have an associates degree in massage, I'm starting my own business.

When I save up enough money I'm going back to college in education and becoming a teacher. Hopefully.

But I should be able to make a living as a massage therapist, and possibly a physical therapist. Who knows.

There needs to be more vocational work, and it needs to be better accepted.
romp 28th-Nov-2011 08:20 am (UTC)
There needs to be more vocational work, and it needs to be better accepted.

THIS

I think ideally no one would graduate high school without having basic life skills *and* a trade skill of some sort.
fauxdistressed 28th-Nov-2011 04:21 am (UTC)
I just want to stay in academia foreeeeeever
rinygrin Possibly OT but mainly a shout out into the dark for advice28th-Nov-2011 04:37 am (UTC)
This just makes me feel like a going into a hopeless state feeling that I can't go anywhere with working towards a degree to get a career that will get me off my feet to be independent. I have the resources to do it through a college fund but I worry about what's the best strategy for someone who has a severe anxiety/mood disorder. Is anyone else in their early 20s and haven't gone taken college course or applied to universities? One of my best friends is too scared to take out a loan to go off to college because she doesn't want to go into massive debt which she's already struggling with. :( I just don't know what to do for myself and how to help her out too. Sorry for venting but I'm curious if others could share their experiences.
rex_dart Re: Possibly OT but mainly a shout out into the dark for advice28th-Nov-2011 05:09 am (UTC)
I went to college at eighteen, but my mood disorder made getting through school a living hell. I had MDD throughout my childhood, but my first semester at uni I had a break and became bipolar II. I almost flunked out. In the end I made it through and graduated with departmental and school honors, but it took over five years.

So my advice would be not to let your anxiety or mood disorder frighten you out of going to college, but make sure when you start that you are as ready as you can be. Talk to a therapist about plans, if you don't have meds and are considering them find the right one before starting, etc. And if you can start off at a community college or a local branch of your university first to ease the transition and test the waters, by all means do it.
vanillakokakola 28th-Nov-2011 05:16 am (UTC)
i'm having a really hard time with school in general right now. even though i'm a semester away from graduation after spending 7 years doing my BA, i'm in the midst of the worst depressive episode i've ever had. i'm doing an honors thesis and i can't even muster up one single fuck to give about actually conducting the next phase of my experiment. i'm so behind that i should do research over winter break, but i think i'm going to stay away from school for my entire break to see if a prolonged break helps me recharge my batteries. it'll put me behind on my research, but i have a feeling that it'll be good for my health.

it's just hard because i've been in school for 7 years, and i'll be in school for 7 more (2 year postbac, 1 year break, 4 years of med school), and i'm worn the fuck out.
moonlightblack 28th-Nov-2011 05:36 am (UTC)
Take a mental health break for sure. It sucks to plow on with long-term projects when your motivation is completely gone and you have no drive left.

Also, I thought you were going into clinical psychology a while back?
psychesky 28th-Nov-2011 06:19 am (UTC)
I have three degrees and I've been applying to jobs since July, and I haven't even gotten an interview, much less a callback. I'm in a humanities field. My boyfriend only finished high school, and he got a job within 2 weeks of moving to NYC because he can code and design (something he taught himself.) I'm really happy for him, but sometimes I wish the arts, humanities and social sciences were still valued as much.
snarksnarklaugh 28th-Nov-2011 07:12 am (UTC)
I loved my humanities class in college. So yeah that's at least me. I can't be the only one who appreciated it and found it interesting. I feel like people do value such things it's just poorly reflected in dollars. I think the problem is it's hard to see the value of such things because there held in common( museums,theories etc). It's doesn't help that not everyone has the intelligence, knowledge,access,and/or time to follow or appreciate them.
lilenth 28th-Nov-2011 01:04 pm (UTC)

It's worse if you're disabled in some ways, you can have literally no chance of getting a degree full stop.

I have no degrees, and my qualifications are minimal (hooray for bullying and school's that think punishing the victim to protect the bullies is acceptable). But most schools won't take me on so I can refine one of my skills to trade level, I get guff about "insurance" even though I'm extremely talented and came top of my classes when I was allowed to study trades.
violetrose 28th-Nov-2011 01:20 pm (UTC)
Can I join you in having a shitty school experience, lack of monies and the like which all contributed to my lack of ability to obtain higher education?

Ngl this is what somewhat bothered me about the student protests - the idea that people are going to find it even harder to get a higher education. That's true, but it seems to ignore the people who currently don't have a higher education for reasons beyond just not wanting one.
xochitl 28th-Nov-2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
"charm, by the way, counts"

well there's my problem
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