Ending the Great College Ripoff

He may have phrased it inartfully but Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is on to something when he talks about how college isn't the panacea that the media is always touting it as. While college can be useful for getting a job in fields which require professional certification, in many cases, students are being sold a bill of goods by universities who care more about making money than helping people get a decent-paying job. That's particularly true for certain majors and graduate degree programs.

In 2008-09, America's college and universities graduated 78,009 people with journalism degrees. For those graduates who could find a job in that field, they could expect a median starting salary of $35,800.

But most won't find a job in journalism -- the number of journalism jobs is projected to shrink by more than 6 percent from 2008 to 2018, a decline of 4,400 available job positions. That data lead The Daily Beast to put journalism at the top the list of the 20 Most Useless College Degrees (a list based on crunching numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Center for Education Statistics and Payscale).

The disconnect between job-market trends and the annual output of our colleges and universities is the subject of an important article today by Steven Malanga at Real Clear Politics. Malanga writes:

"Lately the efforts of a trio of advocates to sue law schools on behalf of unemployed graduates have gained much media attention," Malanga writes. "Eager, but out-of-work graduates make compelling figures on the evening news, especially when they are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and have passed the bar but are working in bars because they can't even get a job interview with a law firm.

"The lawsuits, alleging that the schools have been misleading students about their postgraduate employment prospects, have helped stoke a certain amount of indignation because job prospects for lawyers have been declining for years, yet law schools have continued expanding enrollments. Some schools have apparently lured students by advertising job placement rates for graduates of 90 percent or better, even though there is currently only one job for every two law school graduates in the country. If consumer advocates and government watchdogs can go after so-called for-profit and technical schools for misleading students about their job prospects, why not traditional law schools, too?"

Malanga roots for the law suits to result in schools deciding to "provide more detailed information about how their graduates perform in the job market," and says "the next target could well be university graduate programs that for years have been producing Master's and PhD grads for whom there is little or no gainful employment."

Schools marketing degrees that are near-worthless in the job market is a real problem -- and one that traditional colleges are wrongly trying to blame only on for-profit schools.

From one perspective, actually, traditional schools are doing worse by their students -- because, monetarily speaking, grad school at a traditional university is far more expensive than associate degree or night classes at a for-profit school like the University of Phoenix.

To be sure, college students - who are, after all, young adults - bear some responsibility to research future job prospects before settling on a major. But not to the institutional Left, which sees the reality of tens or hundreds of thousands of former students with massive student loan debt and bleak job prospects in their chosen field, and is pushing for student loan forgiveness as a solution.

Except that won't solve the problem. We would still have thousands of graduates whose education is basically worthless in the job market. And we will still have too many schools churning out too many people with degrees for occupational fields where the number of jobs is shrinking or growing too slowly to absorb all those graduates. Additionally, "forgiving" the student loans isn't really possible for the many banks which were counting on the money to be repaid when they lent it out in the first place.

The better answer is to require all colleges -- traditional and for-profit, private and public -- to be more transparent about the job market to prospective students, and to be more honest about what constitutes a "job placement" as many schools current count part-time or temporary positions as equivalent to real careers.

Then, if a student still chooses to pursue a degree in African lesbian studies or some other field where the job prospects are bleak, said student will have no one to blame when he or she is struggling to pay off student loans with a McDonald's paycheck.

Higher Education Education
Matthew Sheffield's picture