The fact that we have a menacing force of college-educated students who are being passed up for jobs is the social equivalent to the burst of the housing bubble. We had unrealistic, unsustainable expectations tied to college degrees, and now that the economy cannot bear the weight of those myths, we’re beginning to see a more accurate representation of the “value of a college education”.

This is part one of a long discussion on Education in America, and by direct correlation, the overall job market and economic success in America. To be clear – when I say “college education”, I’m referring to a four year degree, not tech schools or community colleges where you can achieve a two year degree. I will focus primarily on how desperately we need reform – not just at the secondary and elementary levels, and not just in terms of “affordable college educations”. I’m going to make a serious effort to explain, in-depth, how I’ve come to my own conclusions. I do not believe that everyone should have a college education; I don’t believe that college should be free or even “cheap”, and I don’t believe that we can achieve a well-educated and productive society by just asking all society’s non-students to pay for college educations.

One of our biggest delusions is that, as a country we believe the quantity of education will improve the quality of our society and repair our major social issues – such as the wage gap, discrimination & hatefulness, wasteful-ness, etc.  Just having more pieces of paper that say “bachelor’s degree” on it, will never make our society more well-educated. It will not make us a global, academic power-house again, and it will not improve the economic and social issues in our society. Churning more kids into the college factory without regard to their abilities/motivations/goals will never make our society smarter, more equal, more efficient, more progressive – whatever. Think for a minute of all the genuinely unmotivated, uninspired students in college today – kids that don’t want to be there, don’t to go to class, party too much, and still eventually graduate, because the threshold for graduation is simply to maintain a cumulative 2.0.  We need to reevaluate the way society views “education” as a social and economic vessel, and, transitively, we need to reassess the way the job-market and social ladder has reflected that view in disparate and artificial ways. An example of the economic ramifications of our collective mindset towards a college education: There is a defined wage gap between college graduates and non-college graduates. That is artificial. Those kids, who have screwed around for 4 years, end up getting paid more to do the same work that a non-college educated person does. That wage disparity does not reflect the actual value of those employees – it reflects the values society has projected onto those employees – and that is not only artificial, but detrimental to the social/economic morale in America.

An example of the social ramifications of our collective mindset towards college education: college grads feel entitled to a good job immediately upon graduation. Non-college educated residents of any college town are generally resentful and moderately hostile towards the students. Our politicians parrot variations of the phrase “accessible college educations for everyone”. Socially we’ve come to see college as not only an entitlement, but also as the only vessel towards becoming an intelligent, successful, financially stable, and most importantly valued citizen. Those with degrees look down on those without degrees, and many parents feel it is a social stigma if their children do not attend some kind of college.

Now – I feel the tides are turning. Of all the jobs posted on the Internet, advertised in the newspaper, mentioned by word of mouth – there are remarkably few for recent college grads with limited (or no) work experience. As a recent college grad working part-time (and lucky to be working at all), I’m simultaneously frustrated with that reality, and enthralled with it. This is the best thing that can happen to the social stigma behind “college educations”. The fact that we have a menacing force of college educated students who are being passed up for jobs is the social equivalent to bursting the housing bubble – we all had these unrealistic, unsustainable expectations, and now that the economy cannot bear the weight of those myths, we’re beginning to see a more accurate representation of the “value of a college education”.

There are hundreds of jobs for OTR drivers, assistant nurses, accountants, store managers – the applicants of which very well may possess a four year college degree, but simultaneously have meaningful skills. There are dozens of jobs for Directors of programs, Executives, Coordinators – all of which require 5-10 years of experience in the field. But there are almost zero jobs which apply to well-educated young people, fresh out of the collegiate mechanism, who have spent the last 4 or 5 years working full time as students – not employees. Even the students who made the most of their summers are out of luck – because four summers still doesn’t add up to “one or more years of relevant work experience”. The current trend (primarily as a result of the recessed economy) is to value work-experience, work-ethic, and practical skills – above abstract knowledge and bachelor’s degrees.

Many students blame the poor prospects for college grads on the fact that the current University system is over-saturated. College degrees are no longer a rarity, and therefore they’re worth less now than they were 10, 30, 50 years ago. Since Ivy League grads and Phoenix.edu grads get the same piece of paper with the same “Bachelor of ____” on it – the former value of that paper has diminished. And as a result, most college graduates think they should up the ante – they should pursue graduate degrees to ensure employment. This is a natural progression – but like the college education bubble – it’s also unsustainable.

The economic recession, the phenomenally high tuition rates, and the general socio-economic-political state of our country, present the opportunity to reform our collective mindset. I do not advocate abolishing college education;  I do not advocate limiting the opportunities for all people of all backgrounds and means to attend college. I believe we should admonish the ridiculous mindset that college = success and I believe we should incentivize other alternatives, like technical school, community college, apprenticeships, etc. Our country is too multi-faceted and diverse to assume that all success must be gotten through college education.