NBC anchor Tom Brokaw recently opened a segment entitled "The Class of 2001" by asking, "The tuition has been paid, the hard work is done, you've got your college degree. So why can't you find a job?"
NBC reporter Fred Francis went on to report that 6 of 10 students at Oberlin College in Ohio receive aid, "But the aid loads them with debt." To her credit, the president of Oberlin, Nancy Dye, responded that because the average worker changes careers so often, a good, broad liberal arts education is still a good, long-term value. "The best possible preparation for any profession, any career, any job, is learning how to learn."
Mr. Francis concluded, "Yes, but for many, the staggering cost of doing so may be out of reach." The series also included a disgruntled father of a graduate who said, "It appears to me that the seven key words for employment for someone graduating from a liberal arts college are, 'Do you want fries with your hamburger?'"
The reporting was disturbing, riddled with anecdotal information. The Pennsylvania Independent College and University Research Center (PICURC) found enough statistical evidence to challenge the series. After surveying 11,000 baccalaureate graduates from the class of 1990 at 46 independent colleges in Pennsylvania, the group found that 84 percent are employed full-time. Others are enrolled in graduate school, engaged as volunteers, work part-time, or stay at home full-time with children. Less than 2 percent are unemployed and seeking work.
As for NBC's assertion that students are saddled with debt, the PICURC research found the opposite. Based on a 61 percent response rate, young people said their average college loan was $11,000, of which 44 percent was still owed in 1996. Nothing to take lightly, but not as dire as the $30,000-$40,000 range that much of the news media suggests is the average debt loan.
Trying to get the news media to report these positive results has been a Herculean task for those who conducted the survey. They have been told by a number of reputable reporters that the information was "too good." Translation: If the survey had revealed negative trends, it would have been front-page news.
The study also found:
Members of the class of 1990 report earning an average of $38,000 at their full-time employment and exercising significant supervisory responsibility on the job.
Five years after completing their bachelor's degrees, 26 percent had earned a post-baccalaureate degree; another 12 percent were working on one.
86 percent had completed their bachelor's degree in four years.
96 percent reported they were satisfied or very satisfied with their undergraduate education.
More than half reported owning their own home (51 percent) and performing volunteer service (54 percent) in 1995.
While our study didn't include four-year public institutions, clear empirical evidence shows the majority of graduates of private colleges and universities in the state contribute in significant, diverse, productive ways to the work force and tax base of Pennsylvania and the nation.
Does this study, then, ease the legitimate concerns over such issues as rising costs, crowded classrooms, and graduate assistants assuming teaching roles? In many ways, I believe it does. Are there still concerns that need to be addressed? Of course. Higher education in general has its work cut out for itself.
But this latest survey is a strong validation that a college degree remains the No. 1 factor in determining a successful entry into the American middle class.
* Brian C. Mitchell is president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, which represents over 80 private colleges and universities in the state.