The Single Biggest Problem With College in America

Students from Virginia Tech's College of Engineering attend their graduation ceremony - Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Why do we push young people to go to pursue a college degree? The most obvious answer is to increase their utility, skill set, and chances at landing a well-paying job after graduation. It really doesn’t get much more simple than that. People go to college because it is, in the words of the Brookings Institution’s Fred Dews, “almost always” worth it.

What that inevitably leads to is that young people grow up with the idea that a degree and matching college education are not only the keys to getting a good job, but that upon graduation, they deserve a good job. That may not hold true for everyone out there, but it does explain why so many people go to college. Enrollment numbers have swollen over the past several decades, with many students chasing degrees with the underlying assumption that it will lead to something.

And that’s the problem. While a college education does help improve economic standing in most cases, it’s not a guarantee of any kind. But that’s how many college-bound Americans tend to think of it.

We’ve gotten to a place where that line of thinking is so pervasive that the average student is willing to throw down hundreds of thousands of dollars for a degree before even entering the workforce. The second part of the problem is that many degrees clearly are not worth what is being paid for them, and provide little economic advantage to graduates who expected to use them to find a job. In those instances, putting down thousands upon thousands for a college degree can become little more than a huge gamble.

Sure, the ultimate responsibility lies with the student to choose a viable major and make something of it. But for many students, growing up with advisers and family members telling them to follow their passion — whether economically viable or not — takes precedent over what skills can land a job.

Not only that, but America also gave birth to for-profit colleges, which have grown to monstrous proportions by feeding off of the mistaken idea that a degree leads to guaranteed employment. To give a real-life example, take the story of Michael Adorno, recently chronicled by Business Insider. Adorno went to Everest College — a for-profit institution — and paid $37,000 for an associate’s degree in computer science, assuming that it would open up doors previously shut to him and land him a better job.

But Adorno was hoodwinked, and has been unable to get a job even at a local Best Buy. In effect, his degree isn’t worth what he paid for it, and he’s decided to cease paying back his student loans as a result. Adorno is part of a larger group of students who have decided to stop making payments, as they all feel that they were misled by the college as to their prospective job prospects.

Is Adorno justified, or should he be on the hook for paying for that degree? It’s a tricky question, but one that takes us back to the center of the shrubbery maze. Students like Adorno chose, and continue to make the choice of spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on an education for one simple reason: to get a job, or a better job.

What we’re seeing is an obvious disconnect between these students’ ability to see that a degree is not a guarantee, and the universities and for-profit colleges’ willingness to make that clear to them. Would an art history major still take on $100,000 worth of debt to earn a degree that doesn’t offer much utility at all? Probably not. But colleges have no incentive to tell them otherwise, and it’s apparent that many students don’t have a proper understanding of what they’re signing up for.

With student debt levels continuing to climb, it’s anyone’s guess as to where things will eventually lead. It’s not sustainable to have students graduating with an average of $30,000 in student loan debt, followed by as many as 60% of them unable to find work in their field.

Remember, students, there are no guarantees in life. And that includes what you get in return for all those tuition payments.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger

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