Now, many of these students who show up unprepared make crucial adjustments in their lives during their first few semesters that enable them to succeed. Some, however, do not, and I do not see them again. What happens to them? Are they social failures because they could not navigate their way through college?
This week my students are reading an excerpt from Tamara Draut's book Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead. Her basic argument is that the path to adulthood in American society is much more fraught with economic peril than it was a couple generations ago, and as a result, many of us take much longer to achieve the traditional markers of adulthood (career and financial stability, marriage, home-ownership, parenthood), if we ever achieve them at all.
While a college education is generally thought of as a key tool in meeting the challenges of our new economy, Draut shows how, in some ways, college can actually be part of the problem more than a solution. Because many professions require B.A. or graduate degrees "to get out of the entry-level track," more and more young people are realizing that college is usually necessary to make a decent living. But when they try to finance a college education, they are introduced to the "debt-for-diploma" system, as they take on staggering amounts of student loans. Draut claims that the average college graduate hitting the job market is carrying about $20,000 in student-loan debt, plus a couple thousand more in credit-card debt. (I believe the figure for average student-loan debt is closer to $26,000 now.)
The lucky ones will land a good job with their new degree in hand and be able, barely, to make their loan payments and also pay their other bills. But what about the ones who didn't make it to graduation? What about the ones who graduated, but can't find a job when so few employers are hiring? What kinds of jobs are actually being created in our economy? Draut cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics as she makes the following claim:
"The largest job growth, accounting for 58 percent of new jobs, will be those requiring only work-related training. These jobs are primarily in the low-wage retail and food sector, including such jobs as sales associates, food preparation, cashiers, and waitstaff."This prompts me to ask the following questions: Is it right for us to push so many young people into college when most of the jobs being created don't require a degree? A degree may give you a chance to compete for a better job, but it doesn't guarantee you'll get that better job. Wouldn't it better for us to advocate for higher wages and benefits for people who work the low-wage jobs described above? Shouldn't a waitress, a cashier, or someone who works in the mall be able to earn a decent living--to have access to quality healthcare, childcare, and housing?
People who really want to go to college should absolutely have that chance--and it shouldn't require taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to accomplish it. But college shouldn't be a requirement for anyone who wants to make a living wage. This is why I think raising the minimum wage is just as important for us, as a society, as lowering the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities.