What is spring without the torment of folding chairs and long-winded platitudes involving the future and all the glories it holds? I’ve been to two college commencements in the last few weeks – one where my nephew received his degree in computer networking, and one at which I was given an honorary degree in “humane letters” – and I’ve seen the happy, uplifted young faces as well as those slightly blurred by drink. At UConn-Storrs, where I was honored, graduates enlivened the proceedings by bouncing large blow-up balls around the bleachers, to the consternation of college president, who whispered to me, “This is the problem with having the commencement in the afternoon. Some of these people have been partying for hours.”
There are reasons, whether the graduates know them or not, to want to greet one’s entrance into the work world with an excess of Bud. At one point, back when I got my own real, non-honorary, BA in the sixties, a college degree was a more or less guaranteed ticket to the middle or upper middle class. With that diploma in hand, I could kiss my waitressing days goodbye. Today, no one even thinks of a college grad as being overqualified for tray-carrying. In some urban restaurants, a degree almost seems to be required, if only so you can pronounce the day’s specials.
According to my economics guru, Jared Bernstein at the Economic Policy Institute, there are about 7 million college graduates working in jobs that do not require college degrees (this is a very preliminary figure, more data coming soon), and you can bet that most of them are not in high-end non-degree-requiring occupations like rap star or NFL quarterback. Furthermore, Bernstein says, the wage gap between the college-educated and non-college-educated is beginning to narrow, and this not because the wages of the latter are rising.
Take my nephew, for example, who maintained a nearly 4.0 GPA and graduated with “highest distinction.” He’s seen a lot of job possibilities in the weeks since his graduation, but they all pay in the $8-9/hour range, which is far less than he used to earn as a delivery truck driver. His brother-in-law, who is single and also college-educated, has a weekday computer-related job which he supplements by working at a gas station on weekends. Similarly, my son followed up his Ivy League education with years of phone-answering and fact-checking before joining me as one of the tiny number of self-supporting freelance writers who do not have the advantage of a trust fund.
It’s too soon to call college a scam, and as long as they teach a few truly enlightening things, like history and number theory, I won’t. But with tuition up between $10,000 and $40,000, the “return on investment” isn’t looking that good. In fact, a BA may be worth about as much as my new “honorary doctorate:” With these degrees and about $2, you can get a ride on a bus.
Looking at the thousands of happy – and in many cases, soon to be disappointed – young faces at the UConn graduation, I couldn’t help wondering whether the real economic function of higher education isn’t to keep the unemployment figures low. About 30 percent of young people in the 18-23 year old age group are in college; imagine what the unemployment rate would look like if they were all dumped into the workforce overnight. Maybe students are beginning to notice that college is becoming less of a stepping stone and more of a holding pen, and maybe that accounts for the rise of binge drinking and the alleged decline of intellectual curiosity. I don’t know, but party on, class of ’06 – this may be your last opportunity!