I’ve been wanting to write about higher education for a long time. Specifically, I want to push back on the idea that obtaining a college degree is a sure path out of poverty. In the 8th grade, I enrolled in 21st century scholars, a statewide program in Indiana that provides full tuition for low-income and/or first generation college students if they attended an in-state, public four year university. I didn’t fully start thinking about college until the last semester of my junior year, and teachers and staff didn’t provide much assistance in terms of understanding the financial aid process, in particular student loans. The message I received, and I’m sure many other students did too, was that a college degree would guarantee us a good paying job after graduation. Student loans were considered a good investment for our future, “good” debt. So I took out student loans in both undergrad and grad school, fully believing that my degrees would pay off. But that did not happen. As you know, 2007-2008 saw the beginning of the Great Recession; millions were laid off and companies weren’t hiring.
Despite the recession being “over” according to politicians and economists, millions of people are either unemployed or underemployed, with the Black unemployment rate being double that of Whites. The college degrees of many millennials has not resulted in high paying jobs. For Black people with college degrees, it’s even worse; in 2013, 12.4% of Black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed, compared to 5.6% of all college graduates in the same age group. Even Black graduates with highly touted STEM degrees fair only slightly better than graduates with liberal arts degrees; between 2010-2012, 10% of graduates with engineering degrees and 11% with math or computer related degrees were unemployed, compared with 6% of all engineering graduates and 7% all of math and computer related graduates (National Journal). More than 40 million Americans hold student loan debt, which totals $1.2 trillion dollars (Tyler Morning Telegraph) , with the federal government holding $875 billion of that debt (Quartz).
Despite ballooning student loan debt, high unemployment, job growth mostly in low-wage and low-skilled jobs, and labor market racism, the message about education being the great equalizer is still the same. A college degree is still touted as the cure for poverty, racism, crime and any number of structural societal problems. People seem to be ignoring the fact that racism is built into the current structure of secondary and higher education itself; so how can it cure all these ills when it is also infected? It is irresponsible and unethical to forcefully encourage college attendance and the taking of loans with false promises. Let’s start sending the message that career paths that don’t involve college attendance are just as legitimate and valuable. I’m not discounting the value of higher education; college was where I was first taught and encouraged to critically think about the media images being marketed to me. I would actually love if college was seen mostly as an avenue to gain knowledge for simply for the sake of gaining knowledge, not to pump out worker-bees. I’m simply saying that students should be presented with a range of options for furthering their education beyond high school and obtaining careers, not a one-size-fits-all choice.