Rethink the value of college

In a world where a degree no longer means a job, we need to prepare students for challenges ahead.

Today's economic downturn has blindsided a generation of young people around the globe brought up to believe that a college degree guaranteed them financial prosperity. Whether in the US, China, or in countries in between, graduates from even marquee-name schools are feeling the crunch, prompting many rightly to rethink the value of their education.

In the US, where higher education is increasingly seen as a right, the unemployment rate among workers with a bachelor's degree or higher reached 3.1 percent in November. While that figure is modest compared with the nation's current overall unemployment rate of about 7.2 percent, it ranks near an all-time high. Analysts predict that the college-educated unemployment rate will exceed 4 percent, which would be the highest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking unemployment by education level in 1970.

The picture in China is also gloomy. The government reported in late January that the growth rate for the final quarter of last year fell to 6.8 percent, bringing the rate for the full year down to 9 percent – the slowest pace in at least six years. In 2007, for example, China's economy expanded at a robust 13 percent clip. Analysts say growth could drop to 5 or 6 percent this year, the slowest in more than a decade.

As in the US, students at even China's elite schools are not immune. At Peking University, for example, students preparing to graduate might have received three job offers close to graduation in the past. This year many have been offered none. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an estimated 27 percent of the country's 5.59 million college graduates in 2008 were unable to find jobs. The plight of students is expected to worsen because Chinese universities are increasing enrollment.

Graduates in Spain and England face a similarly bleak picture. Both countries have a record number of degree holders, making for cutthroat competition for jobs. When those with degrees manage to find work, it is too often in fields for which they are overqualified.

Spain hit a 12-year high unemployment rate of 3 million people in 2008, and England is expected to have 3 million idle by the end of this year. More than 1 million of them are likely to be under 25. In fact, the latest labor market survey found unemployment growing fastest among 18- to 24-year-olds – precisely the group containing the largest percentage of recently minted degree holders.

In light of the pervasive grim data, some are beginning to ask whether a college degree has been oversold.

Surprisingly, as far back as 1963 that precise question was raised by John Keats in a little noticed book with the apt title of "The Sheepskin Psychosis." The author concluded that college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn. It is not an absolute determinant by any means.

The most recent exponent of this view is Charles Murray. In "Real Education," which came out last year, he argues that a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that an applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance.

Instead of a system based on the possession of a degree as a requirement for jobs, Mr. Murray proposes vocational training for students who lack the necessary inclination to pursue academic studies. They would receive certification for specific skills needed in the workplace. Anything else, he says, is educational romanticism.

What should we make of these arguments in today's economic meltdown?

There is a distinct difference between learning as an end in itself and learning relevant to earn a living. College is not intended to be a trade school. Its purpose is to develop the skills necessary to be lifelong learners who are capable of finding new information, evaluating it, and applying it to the real world.

No matter how marketable majors may seem, there is no assurance graduates will practice only one trade throughout their entire careers. That's particularly the case in the new global economy, where the only thing that's certain is change.

What's clear from the evidence in countries around the world is that we're entering a new era in which old assumptions about education and prosperity no longer apply.

In order to avoid further disillusionment, we must be willing to take an unflinching look at the way we prepare students for the challenges ahead.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.

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