Friday, December 11, 2015

How to Make Higher Education Work for You, and When Not To

Two weeks ago I wrote about the findings of professor and author Peter Cappelli in his recent book, Will College Pay Off?, on what is happening with American higher education and how it has dealt with students’ twin problems of ever-higher cost and worsening employment prospects.  Cappelli wrote that colleges and universities have reacted to them in two major ways.  To help the first by being more compatible with work, they have offered courses at unconventional times and places.  For the second, especially to address perceptions that their learners might not get hired after graduation, universities have created a variety of majors which sound more like individual courses or even job titles.  Examples from the book, to add to the four I named last time, are “turf and turfgrass management,” “economic crime investigation,” and “fire protection engineering.”  The more flexible teaching offerings have helped, but, according to Cappelli, the hyper-specific majors have not, as demand for such positions often changes dramatically in the years between choosing such a program and finishing it.  In the November 25 post I distilled the book down to these and five other points about how college has changed:  how they, especially community colleges, now provide most vocational training;  that there is no shortage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates;  that people may need to get degrees even when their targeted jobs don’t require them to compete with candidates with these higher qualifications but unemployed;  that it is hardly guaranteed that university degrees boost lifetime earnings;  and that college will not pay for itself for many of its attendees.   

Accordingly, the burden is on those considering college and university attendance to make the most of these new realities.  How can they do that?

First, prospective students should generally minimize borrowing.  That means choosing schools with lower costs net of other forms of financial aid, such as grants, scholarships, and campus work opportunities.  Second, that usually means using community colleges whenever possible, in three main ways:  for the first two years when the learner expects to get a four-year degree; for a two-year program when that is the only thing required to get into the student’s chosen field; and for vocational courses providing preparation for skilled trades and other areas not requiring degrees at all.  People can save a lot of money by starting at community colleges, and as more and more choose that option, the social life at such places, historically weaker than at four-year schools, will improve.  Third, they should avoid overly specialized majors.  A degree in management, including courses in areas of special interest, has potential to help in many directions, whereas one in turf and turfgrass management will limit options without a likely enough advantage.  Fourth, unless their families have the money to cover traditional university tuition, room, and board, first and second-year students should live at home if possible.  Even if their parents need money to cover some or all of their expenses, it is still the cheapest arrangement for all concerned.

Fifth, when considering careers, prospective students should look at how long they will last.  It is a waste of time and money, not to mention demoralizing, for people to prepare for work in fields that will not be available in the future.  The best predictors of career longevity, as I see them, are resistance to three things:  automation, foreign workers, and improved business efficiency.  Other factors may be chosen as more critical, but it is important to at least think about where Americans will actually be hired in 10 or 20 years, as opposed to in the immediate future.  Although I usually do not recommend lists of the best jobs, as they almost always take too short-term a view, one, “10 professions with the best job security,” recently published by Fidelity, is unusually perceptive, and avoids the traps of careers such as pharmacy and information technology which are doing well now but are headed for severe falls before today’s graduates turn 30.  This article is at

Sixth, if someone knows by their mid-teens that they are the kind of person who should be in business for himself or herself – and that was the case for most great entrepreneurs – they should not bother with a college degree program.  That universities would probably be delighted to admit them does not mean that is their best choice – in this case, it probably is not.

Seventh, if people find themselves with a real chance to get a legitimately good job out of high school, but had planned on continuing with school, they should consider taking the position, especially if it is with a company or industry which helps employees with college tuition, as they then may be able to complete their education later at a far lower cost. 
Eighth, when anyone chooses a college for a final degree they should pin schools down on placement rates and other measures of their graduates’ success, and assess them accordingly.  Nothing of substance to say or share on that topic in 2015 is bad news.

Ninth, in all this we should not forget that education is still valuable in itself.  Students should take opportunities to learn about different things, especially in liberal arts courses, which are available even at the great majority of community colleges.  What we learn in the likes of philosophy, sociology, psychology, and other academic areas barely if at all covered in high school may stick with us for life, as will insights from literature.  The rules may be different now, but the greatest of what has been said, written, and thought is still worthy of our attention.     

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