Q: I'm currently studying to be a teacher, but my studies and recent events such as the Occupy Wall Street movement have raised a lot of questions for me about education. It has become abundantly clear that high school+university≠job, except perhaps for flipping burgers. Yet the entire structure of the education system still perpetuates The Race To University. So my question: Without becoming King Of Education, what can teachers do as individuals to approach the emerging problems with the sustainability of the education system?
A: It’s true, a college degree is no longer a ticket to employment. The terrible economy combined with years of outsourcing labor and offshoring companies has left America with a dearth of available jobs, such that even “flipping burgers” is no longer a sure thing. Seriously, back in April, McDonald’s held a job fair, planning to hire 50,000 people nationwide. They ended up surpassing that, hiring 62,000, but they received over one million applications. 938,000 people turned away from jobs flipping burgers.
The job market for Middle America is kind of terrible right now. Middle class Americans have more debt than ever, an unemployment (and under-employment) rate approaching Depression-era levels, and the inflation-adjusted average pay for wage-earners hasn’t increased in fifty years. What has increased is college tuition, something that’s been a focal point of Occupy protests at college campuses nationwide. The economic crisis has left the States in dire straits, and one common way to cut costs is to reduce state funding for colleges and universities. Those costs have to be made up someplace, and that place is usually the students’ pockets—or more accurately, the pockets of the lending institutions that the students make long-term deals with.
So the equation works out like this: more people with college education plus fewer jobs plus higher tuition costs equals a college degree that has less value and a ton of student loan debt.
Why, then, would teachers push students to go on to college? It has to do with that first part of the equation: more people with college degrees plus fewer jobs. One other thing that adds up to is choosier employers. If two people are vying for an open position (and in this job market, it’s more like twelve), some with college degrees and some with only high school education, the employers can make an easy cut of the less-well-educated ones. Unless they decide that the more well-educated ones are overqualified. It’s a bit of a Catch-22.
The bottom line is that a college degree is no longer (if it ever was) a guarantee of employment. What it is now is more like a ticket to get into the job fair. Without it, you’re less likely to even have a seat at the table, let alone a good chance at getting a position. And with it, your opportunities are a somewhat broader, more widely varied slice of the narrow, small, kind of awful job market.
There are less tangible benefits than the degree, as well. College gives you an opportunity to try new things, work odd jobs, develop interpersonal skills, and build connections, all of which can help you when you’re looking for work off-campus. In this market, every little edge you can give yourself will help.
As for what we can do about sustainability, I think a lot of that is instilling students with the will and skills necessary to succeed. We have to help students recognize that, at least for the time being, they’re not going to get anywhere by coasting along. If they want anything positive out of their adult lives, then they’re not just going to have to work hard for it, they’re going to have to work harder than the next person in line. They’re going to have to commit to constant self-improvement just to stay in the game. And they’re going to have to become involved. If they want a better life, if they want the next generation to have the opportunities that their grandparents had, if they want the classic American Dream to be an attainable thing, then they’re going to have to stand up and fight against the corrupt, unfair system. They should be educating themselves, voting, calling their Representatives and Senators, writing letters and organizing campaigns. Apathy and ignorance only benefit the people who are already on top. The young and unemployed or under-employed are the ones with the greatest ability to get involved with volunteering, protesting, and doing the sort of community work that will facilitate change. Plus, that stuff looks good on a résumé, and is a good way to build skills that would be useful in the future.
Students are certainly going to have trouble getting jobs, but the way to fix that might be to find an Occupation.
Mr. Foss is a high school science teacher in Illinois. If you start himtalkingabout comic books, there's a good chance he won't stop.
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