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More Reasons to Question Going to College

Every year about this time, the media report about job prospects for new college graduates. It comes as no surprise that the news is dismal this spring because of the battered economy. Not only have employment rates fallen sharply in the last two years but only half of the jobs require a college degree ("Jobs Outlook Is Bleak Even for College Graduates," The New York Times, May 19).

Campus Progress maintains that the situation is even worse for high school graduates who have not gone to college ("Graduating Seniors Are About to Leap Out Into the Great Recession's Job Abyss," May 18). But it does not differentiate between high school graduates who end their education there and those who go on to
community college for training.

If going into debt and spending four years on campus are evaluated solely by how they immediately translate into a well-paying job, then it's becoming increasingly clear that the investment is not worth it. Attending a community college and learning a marketable skill in any number of training programs have a far greater instant payoff. For example, CareerBuilder.com recently posted seven jobs paying six-figures: air traffic controller, fashion designer, fire chief, network systems analysts, police supervisor, and radiation therapists. (The seventh field, chief executive, is too vague to be useful.) Granted, no one fresh out of college becomes a fire chief or police supervisor. But beginning firefighters and police officers still receive good salaries, with solid benefits.

The larger point, however, is whether the worth of a college degree should be measured solely by what it commands in the marketplace. What about its intellectual payoff and how this enriches one's life? Shouldn't they be considerations? This unavoidably leads to the distinction between education and training. While they overlap, they are not synonymous. A person can be well trained but poorly educated. The converse is true as well.

The humanities are not exempt. Take art, which is considered one of the most academic subjects. Teaching art is now also a business. According to The Wall Street Journal, professional training is a top priority of both non-profit and for-profit colleges ("The Business of Teaching Art," May 19). That's because the "art" in these colleges refers not to traditional fine arts, which are strictly academic, but to fields such as advertising, fashion, animation and photography, which are not.

However humbling the job market for college graduates is now, it is expected to get worse in the next decade as offshoring expands. The only jobs that will be secure will be those unable to be sent abroad electronically. This means that thousands of degree holders will find themselves strapped with heavy debt, without much chance to repay it.

So what advice should we give to high school seniors? Some students know themselves well enough to choose wisely. But most students possess little insight into their strengths and weaknesses. When the cost of attending college was not a major consideration, the worst that could happen was that students lost a year after they graduated from high school. Now, however, there is the matter of assuming substantial debt.

For students who are conflicted, I think the best counsel is to attend a community college. They can take both academic and vocational courses to help them make a realistic decision about their future, and do so at a bargain price. That's a good deal, in my opinion.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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