A Pox on the College Graduates

I wish somebody had told me I couldn’t get a job with a degree in Western Civ.

                   – Travis, American expatriate tour guide in Rome, 2011

A recent article on poor employment prospects of young college graduates in USA Today demonstrates the miserable situation in which the kids are finding themselves.  Fully 53% of the college graduates under 25 are either unemployed or underemployed and there are now more job prospects for retail than engineering and with the majority of graduates laboring under some degree of student debt, people are finally realizing the systemic pox that has been placed upon their house.

This isn’t the first time that the prospects have been dim for college graduates.  I graduated college in the early ’80s and had a drawer full of rejection letters in a fruitless quest for employment; my first real job – which permitted me the financial independence to set up my own household – didn’t come along for more than another year.  But, apart from a starry dream to begin mining asteroids, does our economy have the potential to create sustainable job prospects for all of these youngsters?  With children growing and already aware that some form of higher education is important for their long-term prospects, what should I keep in mind?

  • First, that kids will receive all manner of commentary and advice from the surrounding media – usually with a pricetag attached – so it’s important for me to keep talking.  The italicized comment was made to us by a young American expatriate working in Rome as a tour guide; he’d graduated from a California university about four years ago with a BA degree in Western Civilization and was unemployed here in the states.  He showed considerable courage and creativity by taking his show on the road to what he termed the cradle of western civilization and was building a life for himself.  It’s possible that his parents did tell him about the immediate employability of a Western Civ degree and he was too stubborn or zoned out to pay attention to it but I’ve seen multiple cases first hand in which the parents are saying nothing on the premise that the kid has reached adulthood and has to make his own decisions now.  The kid might now be an adult and responsible for her own decisions, but it’s still imperative that I at least provide some commentary so that it’s an informed decision and fully in her best interest.
  • Second, understand that what works for one child might not work for another.  Eldest’s strengths lend themselves to the academic route and there’s enough scholarship – with savings – to get her through without debt.  Middle has a radically different toolbox and isn’t equipped for that route, so perhaps the advice offered by economist Richard Freeman, If you’re not sure what you’re going to be doing, it probably bodes well to take some job, if you can get one, and get a sense first of what you want from college.  It’s several more years until he’s faced with the decision, but the route that he takes might not be the one taken by his sister.
  • Third, if there is a need to use debt to finance college, be sure that you’re part of the process and walk through the payment obligations with your kid.  As mindful of the college debt as I am, I try to remember that debt is as much of a tool as a hammer or a screwdriver.  One of the non-systemic issues is that with many people, they treat it as the only tool in the box so that they’re hammering when they should be trying a screwdriver instead.  If it truly takes some debt, then at least walk through the repayment obligations so that there’s an understanding of what the future bill is going to be.
  • Fourth, reinforce the lesson that the present system isn’t truly built to service humanity but the other way around.  You truly need an education and we’ll help you get it!  Don’t worry, your job prospects will increase and it won’t be a problem to repay it… The old axiom applies:  if you’re sitting at the table and don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you.

If this were a truly cyclical situation, then my response to Eldest would be to hunker down and it will work out in the end.  But I believe, as do many others, that this isn’t the typical job cycle and it’s incumbent upon my wife and I to pay close attention to her college choices so that she doesn’t wind up an expatriate in Rome or drilling for ores on some asteroid.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *