In the wake of Joe Biden’s announcement that he plans to forgive some student loan debts for some borrowers, there’s been a lot of talk about so-called unmarketable, “useless”, college degrees. I saw an article yesterday about how some people who have high debt loads “regret” studying subjects that lead to jobs in low paying fields. They wish they’d studied business or a STEM subject– science, technology, engineering, or math. Why? Because they can’t make any money, and they are drowning in debt.
Meanwhile, many Republicans are loudly complaining about people who get degrees in “underwater basket weaving” or “lesbian dance studies”, and then act surprised that they can’t find work and repay their student loans. On the surface, that does sound like a valid complaint. Many conservatives think that a degree in “women’s studies” serves no purpose whatsoever. Ditto to “gender studies”, or any other new-fangled major that explores the issues that affect the disenfranchised. According to them, everyone needs to be studying a field that will lead to MONEY.
A show of hands : WHO took underwater basket weaving ?? WHO https://t.co/JyOzGhoUUo— Henry Winkler (@hwinkler4real) September 2, 2022
Henry Winkler asks… “Who is studying ‘underwater basket weaving’?” And why is a Trump thinking he is qualified to talk about it? It’s not like his father made his own money, right?
It always distresses me to hear people express disrespect for liberal arts education. It also bothers me that so many people seem to be “triggered” or offended that someone would put value in learning about gender theories. Why does going to college only have to be a pathway to a well-paying job? As many people might have realized, that’s not how it worked out for me. But I still see the value in my education. Yes, I have a degree in English, which was very helpful when I went to graduate school and could write coherent papers. More than one professor actually thanked me for being able to write competently and spell properly. I got minors in speech and communications, because I think public speaking is important, and a lot of people are terrible at it and actually fear doing it. Communication is also important, as it helps people effectively share information in a clear way.
I got master’s degrees in more specific fields. One was in social work– macro focus– which means I learned how to manage people, engage in community development, and do research. I have found that most people don’t even know what social work is, and assume it’s a specific job title. It’s not. Social work is a field of study that can be applied very broadly. It’s about helping humans achieve self-determination, and changing environments to suit people’s needs. It’s NOT just about helping poor people, facilitating adoptions, or taking children away from abusive families. And those are not things we learn in social work education, even if those areas are where a lot of social work graduates can be found working. Sadly, a lot of people who studied other fields are also often in those jobs… but they get labeled as “social workers”, when they shouldn’t be. Incidentally, a man who is now gone from my social media used to tell me “you don’t have to have a degree to work with the poor.” Ah… but you DO need a degree to be a social worker. And social workers DON’T just work with poor people. If he had gone to college himself, he might know that.
My other master’s degree might, marginally, be in more of a STEM type area. It’s in public health. I took a health administration focus, because I had to for the dual program I was in. Since I graduated, more dual programs have been developed, and if I had to do it over, I probably would have chosen one of those. But in that program, I learned about management, research, and core public health principles, as well as finance. When I graduated, I felt prepared to work. Then life intervened, and I met and married Bill… and became a globetrotting Army wife. 😉
My point is, though… you can get a good education doing most things, and in almost any field. Too many of us focus on what a person’s major was in college, when we should be focusing on their individual skills as a person. A person who majors in women’s studies can certainly learn transferable skills. I presume women’s studies majors have to write papers, learn how to research, read books, take tests, and work in groups, right? Aren’t those valuable skills? Can’t some of those skills translate to work? Hell, the Peace Corps accepts people with a broad variety of degrees. I learned a hell of a lot in two years of Peace Corps work, even if it didn’t land me a dream job with the State Department or an NGO.
I know that going to college is challenging. Come to think of it, so is working at McDonald’s. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America, just died yesterday. I read her book in 2000, when it first came out. I read it for pleasure, but I think it would have been a great book for anyone in my grad school program. She showed that: 1. there is NO such thing as “unskilled labor” and 2. Nobody can get by in America on “minimum wage”.
In the above video, Beau laments Ted Cruz and his unfortunate and OFFENSIVE comments about “slacker baristas”, who have “worthless” degrees and “wasted” seven years in college studying what he deems useless things and now can’t get a job. But, as Beau points out, the reason why Starbucks makes big bucks is because of the baristas, who make coffee drinks that people want to buy. It’s not because of the bean counters or the managers. And it does take effort and skill to learn how to make good coffee drinks. I know. I’ve done it myself– not at Starbucks, but in a fancy restaurant, where I waited tables (the hardest job I’ve ever had, by the way), and at a chocolatier shop that sold pastries. It’s also a good look when the barista speaks proper English, knows how to behave in a businesslike manner, and is professional.
No, you don’t have to go to college to learn those things, but it is one place where those soft skills are taught. And you can also grow from friendships, experiences, and the opportunities to take courses in other fields. I’m living proof of that one. It was in college where I discovered my ability to sing, a talent that I was able to develop in college. I have used that talent in countries around the world. Does it make me money? Not really, but it makes me a better, more well-rounded, more interesting person, and it improves my life immeasurably.
Another point I’d like to make is this… Not everyone can succeed in business or as a STEM major. I SUCK at math. I don’t have a head for it. I don’t enjoy it. Even if I somehow got through a math major at a university, I would be completely mediocre in the field. And if everyone decided to major in business, the worth of that education would plummet.
I do have master’s degrees in public health and social work, which are technically healthcare related fields, but I would be absolutely awful as a nurse. I don’t think I have the right temperament for it. I’m not good at math. I don’t like the idea of giving people shots or inserting IVs or Foley catheters. However, I probably would be good at writing for a Web site like WebMD, or hospital newsletters. I would be good at writing patient instructions or other literature that provides valuable communication with the public. My English degree helps immensely with achieving that job.
If I had gone to college to study a so-called “in demand” field, it truly would have been a waste of time and money. I don’t think I could succeed in those fields. My talents are in the arts. And God knows, we value the arts, don’t we? We like to be entertained. We like being stimulated to think about things. What would the world be like if everyone studied hard sciences and business? Who would write the scripts for shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, or any of the other famous TV shows that people can’t miss? Who would make the music that helps make life easier to bear? Who would take care of the impoverished who need help, or the children who need to be taught life skills?
I think we all need a collective change in attitude. I think Americans should broaden their perspectives a bit. There is value in almost any field of study. Do people need to be spending six figures for a bachelor’s degree? I don’t think so. But that has a lot to do with what our universities are charging, and a lot of what they are charging cover things like athletics, alumni events, renovated dorms and other facilities, and technology. And also, the fact that people don’t want to pay more taxes to support those institutions.
I do think it’s true that there are a lot people who shouldn’t go to college. Maybe they aren’t intellectually cut out for the work. Maybe they lack discipline or skill. Some people really should go to a trade school, or learn something on the job. But I do think that college has value, and most fields– even the so-called worthless ones– have something to offer. We just don’t value education the way we should, and we don’t want to invest in the community or each other. I see community in Germany. Last night, one of my neighbors told me that she has no student debt, and she looks to be in her 20s or so. But then, not everyone in Germany can go to college. In America, almost anyone can go to college, if they can pay for it or get loans. That mindset probably ought to change… and we ought to get rid of most of the “for profit” colleges.
But really, I think people like any one of the Trumps (except maybe Mary Trump) or Ted Cruz need to get down off their high horses… and people need to stop looking up to them. They certainly don’t understand regular people. And they obviously value those “slacker baristas”, too… who make them their fancy coffee drinks. Those baristas make the money for Starbucks. I hope more of them will vote, too… especially if they are college educated.