Right Again: Is A College Education Really the Key to Success in Today's World?

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Earlier I wrote an editorial about the subject of the deteriorating value of college degrees. Recently my conviction on this matter was once again substantiated and reinforced. The feature article in this month's issue of Business 2.0 is "What’s an MBA Really Worth?" (by Andy Raskin ). Therein I found that two recent studies of those who have earned this degree show that even those whom graduated from schools like Stanford, Harvard, and Yale did not have much of an advantage over those who lacked those degrees. And those whom got their diplomas from schools lower in the academic pecking order had virtually wasted their time and money on earning them. The findings show that businesses prefer to hire applicants with practical experience over those with MBA degrees. An interesting quote from Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford Business College is, "I have never found career benefits for the MBA degree. Usually it just makes you a bit older than your peers". Another quote from Scott Gordon director of a technology industry recruiting service goes, “Today, real world experience is far more important. An MBA doesn’t open the doors it once did”. Another observes that when times (the economy) got bad the degree didn’t seem to matter at all. These are also in line with another article from the Wall Street Journal from some years ago which reported that the unemployment rate for PhDs was 50%. The reason for this is that, simply, there are just so many positions in research and teaching and for any other job they are overqualified. I also wonder what the unemployment rate is for people with law degrees as that market is quickly becoming saturated if it already isn't. I return to my original premise which is that for too long we have all been sold a bill of goods about the necessity of a college degree and earning a decent living. I have known too many people with advanced degrees (and even some with undergraduate degrees) who found themselves looking for work and had to downplay or omit mention of the fact that they possessed a degree which would overqualify them and effectively disqualify them from getting the job they sought. The market is now supersaturated with diplomas. It has had the same affect as if someone discovered a way to make diamonds from seawater. If implemented, diamonds would decline in value to that of sand and the market would collapse. The difference is that someone along the way would buy up the patent on the process and hide it to keep the market value of the gemstones from folding up. But with diplomas the process is the opposite; the generators of degrees continue to crank up the volume on the importance of degrees and we continue to fall for it like lemmings over the cliff. There needs to be a publicity campaign to counter this. The word needs to be spread that we need firemen, policemen, mailmen, heavy equipment operators, carpenters, electricians, secretaries, and the whole gamut of blue-collar workers. At what point will we find ourselves top heavy with MBAs and JDs and not enough skilled labor to provide basic services? I say we may already be there as many who have retired from the skilled trades are being begged to come back to work part time due to the lack of available replacements. I further reject the position that people go to college to make themselves a more rounded person. I hear this rationalization all the time and I assert that rationalization is all it amounts to. I dare anyone to prove to me that they willingly and with their eyes wide open started working on a degree for the sole purpose of self-improvement. Anyone who says this might continue to believe it until they start getting the bills for the student loans they have to repay. I guarantee that this will take the luster off any degree until they actually start earning money directly from their educational experience. If they don't then they sink into the mindset that, "Well, I really just wanted to become a more literate person anyway." I am waiting to meet the person who can look me in the eye and tell me that they would spend $50,000 and study their brains out for years just for that privilege, when they could have become more literate at their leisure while armed with nothing more expensive than a library card. Such a person would be dishonest to us all and to themselves. It's all for the money and the only ones still making money from of it are the ones promoting it - let's just be honest about that for a change. For years I have done career days at high schools and throughout most of them I have been exhorting the students that if they are determined to go to college then they should just study engineering or business as they seem to have retained their applicability. It now appears that the changing market has rendered me only half right. There is an even more ominous and insidious spectre under the surface with the prevailing view about the necessity of a college education. Part of what drives this mania toward accumulating degrees is an underlying stigma that if you don't have a degree then you are somehow a less valuable person. Some may try to deny this but there is a stigma attached to it nonetheless. This mentality is incredibly elitist and there's no room for it in our society. Secondly, we must get past this idea that everyone must have a degree - even if they don't put it to good use. And, that only useful and valuable people have degrees. I reiterate, we also need blue collar people. Need I remind the readers that not long ago on that fateful day of 9/11 it was the firemen and the policemen and the paramedics who went to their doom trying to save lives. In the aftermath it was the sanitation workers and the construction workers and the relief workers who managed to stabilize the situation and begin the long route to recovery. Then it was the telephone repairmen and the Con Edison linemen and the other infrastructure repairmen who got the services and communication lines open again. Without them the stock exchange and untold other businesses wouldn't have been able to get themselves going again within days after this catastrophe, which in itself prevented the deepening of the economic impact. While the mess was being cleaned up it was the common foot soldier whom went chasing after the perpetrators and all the ordinary non-commissioned officers and privates behind the scenes who provided them with logistical support who deserve recognition. There may have been MBAs and lawyers involved somewhere along the line but it was the people without manicures getting their hands dirty down in that horrific pit whom did the real work of getting us going again. Where would we be if all we had were the paper pushers and micromanagers (not to mention all the other people in the no heavy-lifting jobs)? In an age where we are force fed the overrated and elitist value of being highly educated as an absolute necessity, we tend to forget that it is always those people who get their hands dirty that really keep things going. Today of all times we shouldn't forget those people and the value of the countless masses who tirelessly and unceremoniously work who lack the Ivy League and Big Ten diplomas. Maybe now a few people will reflect upon the misplaced and distorted value system that is obsessed with going to college that so many mindlessly follow and they will begin to realize that even non-college graduates are useful people - and quickly becoming in short supply of. Maybe it's time to rethink our priorities and begin steering people away from the illustrious white collar careers (which are supersaturated with applicants) and back toward the so-called non-professional careers which are, after all, extremely valuable too. Sure we need doctors - and even lawyers once in a while - but in the frantic and relentless chase for everyone to become a professional, we have lost sight of the need for everyone else, even though they are right here in front of us every day. Isn't it funny how people so visible can be so overlooked? Finally, what would happen if everyone did have and MBA, Ph.D., or a J.D.? If they had reached the top of the professional scale, what careers would they drive their children to strive for? At some point they would be forced to realize that there was no one left to plow the snow, put out the fires or arrest the bad guys. Hey all you professionals out there, it isn't a disgrace if your child doesn't follow in your footsteps. Start encouraging them to pursue other careers. We are seeing that we can find heroes and role models in "ordinary" career paths too. And if they do choose this route on their own, don't make them feel inadequate because they're not making the big bucks like dear old dad. You don't have to live in an exclusive neighborhood to be a good citizen and a happy person. I dare say that a lot of people who only live in condos are happy too. Copyright © 2002 AJS

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