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The Emperor's New College Education


The Emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, The Emperor’s New Suit, parades naked through the street as the court and the people admire his non-existent finery.

“But he has nothing on at all,” said a little child at last. “Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child,” said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. “But he has nothing on at all,” cried at last the whole people. That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought to himself, “Now I must bear up to the end.” And the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train which did not exist.”

Do educator policymakers, like the chamberlains, find themselves too deeply committed to a plan of action and too fearful of being proved unfit for the role of the emperor’s advisors that they will not admit we may all be deluding ourselves? Have we all been part of a collusion that promises our young people an Emperor’s New Education when we insist that success, fulfillment, security and happiness can only be cut and stitched from the fabric of a four-year college degree? And are we, the general public, just like the citizens who are unwilling to acknowledge what we see?

Understand, I am not saying that college is a scam. But have its rewards been misrepresented? In my last entry I asked readers, “Why do we want them to go to college? It's a $100,000 question that all too often begs an answer." Marvin commented, “Perhaps the very rich can be blase about the financial fruits of higher education but for many of my generation, making more money was an urgent and positive driving force.” And Amitra said, “You've articulated something that I've been struggling with for some time now. I was one of those students that went to college because it was "expected" of me, and had no idea what I wanted to do. Now, I am stuck with a very large student loan debt that I'm not sure when I'll be able to pay off, and a job that pays a lot less than some vocational jobs that I wouldn't have had to go into this much debt to get.”

Are there other viable options? I spent hours noodling around the US Department of Labor’s Bureau for Labor Statistics website. In the Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2008-09, all of these jobs offer median incomes above $48,000 and below $60,000.

Registered Nurse
• Medical Sonographer
• Railroad Engineer
• Anthropologist
• Funeral Director
• Surveyor

And now some questions:
1. Which occupations require a four year college degree?
2. Which careers offer the least promising prospects for employment?
3. Which do not require some kind of license or certification?
4. Which has a well defined career ladder to advance in skills, responsibility and income?
5. Can you rank the jobs by median income reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics?

Here are your answers:
1. While undergraduate degrees in nursing and surveying are options, only the anthropologist is locked into a four year degree for an entry level job. The other careers listed may require an associate's degree, an approved technical school program, industry certification, apprenticeship, or on-the-job training.
2. Unfortunately, the emergent anthropologist faces the weakest job market and will have to compete against other job candidates who hold advanced degrees. Health care fields continue to offer more new jobs than any other career strand. Creation of new positions for railroad engineers, funeral directors and surveyors is somewhat flat; but many of these jobs are held by workers who can be expected to retire in the next 10 years creating job openings for existing positions.
3. With the exception of the anthropologist, all of these jobs require either a license or certificate.
4. Registered nurses have the option of a bachelor’s degree, an associate's degree, or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Advanced degrees and specialty nursing certificates allow nurses to move into administration, teaching, and areas such as nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist.
5. You may have figured out that I already ranked the jobs by median income. The median income for registered nurses is the highest and nursing is predicted to have excellent job opportunities.

Did I stack that information a little? Sure, because I wanted to support my position. Yes, the median income for all occupations requiring degrees is higher, but the prospects of landing one of those jobs is lower because there are fewer available. That is why your restaurant server tonight may be a college graduate. And while the median income of college graduates may be higher, the difference between earnings in technical and degreed positions may not be as great many people assume. People do not earn more because they hold a degree. They earn more because they possess specific knowledge and skills that are marketable.

My concern is that a well intended effort to prepare everyone for college may result in limited job preparedness. If most jobs require post-secondary training, but the most common form of post-secondary training is on-the-job, then we have a disconnect.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report on Tomorrow’s Jobs actually projects:

For 12 of the 20 fastest growing occupations, an associate's degree or higher is the most significant level of postsecondary education or training. On-the-job training is the most significant level of postsecondary education or training for another 6 of the 20 fastest growing occupations. In contrast, on-the-job training is the most significant level of postsecondary education or training for 12 of the 20 occupations with the largest numerical increases, while 6 of these 20 occupations have an associate's degree or higher as the most significant level of postsecondary education or training. On-the-job training is the most significant level of postsecondary education or training for 19 of the 20 occupations with the largest numerical decreases.

Our students need post-secondary education. But there are many fields where the necessary knowledge and skills can be acquired with a more modest investment of time and money. We don’t tell our kids that. We tell all of them, "Go to college. In four years you'll get a degree and you'll get a good job and you'll make a lot of money." We rob them of other options by implying that any other path leads to failure.

I always felt kind of sorry for the Emperor. While he may have been a little shallow and gullible, he deserved honest answers and hard truths from trusted advisors. Don't our young people deserve as much from us?


Great topic and insight, Susan! Back in the 60's when I went to college, the choice seemed a no-brainer. In those days college was the door to a good job and divided the professionals from the non-professionals - or so I believed. Now, 3 sons later, I know that's not true - and probably never was. One son has a PhD, a huge college loan, and had trouble finding a job. One has a bachelors degree but is making a living with a incidental skill he picked up along the way.(You might like to know that he turned the "Emperor's New Clothes" into a children's musical and toured it to elementary schools for children who never have a chance to see theatre.) Still another son dropped out of college and went to a technical school. He learned AutoCad and landed a job making more money than I was making as a teacher. He had a set of highly marketable skills. Along the way he went back to college because there were some courses he needed and, at that point, college became useful.

As you so eloquently pointed out, simply going to college doesn't guarantee anything. College is useful if there's a concrete reason to go. The world is full of opportunities that don't involve spending four or more years in college. I'm certainly not against college - I keep going back myself, in fact - but college is not a guarantee of success or money or a job. Does our school curriculum take that fact into account as we prepare our students for their futures?

Great discussion and follow-up, Dr. Graham (smiling)! Coming from a state which just instituted a program--the Michigan Merit Curriculum--which prescribes (in these exact words) college for all, your data provides lots of food for thought.

It might be worth asking ourselves, however, about the assumed purposes of college (which dovetail with the purposes of K-12 schooling). In America, there seems to be an assumption that the reason we go to college is to improve our marketable skills, and thus our fortunes. I do understand that everyone has to pay their bills, but whatever happened to the joy of learning, for learning's sake?

In addition, for many young adults, college provides the intellectual stew that shapes character and perspectives. I realize that may be a WAY too romanticized view of what usually happens in four years at State U, but I worry about abandoning the idea of an educated citizenry in favor of chasing better jobs. There's something to be said for focused studies, building intellectual capital. Isn't there?

Great comments, Susan. I agree with Nancy, though, that as a society we have put way too much emphasis on the college degree as simply a meal ticket and not on the value of the college experience on the minds of our young people. One place where students get both the intellectual and practical benefits of post-secondary education is community college (which is why I love to teach there). Plus, it's the best educational bargain going.

Susan, your comments come at an ideal time. I hope the right people are asking these questions. I am not sure that we as educators really know what skills our students need for today's world. Other than the change from slide rules to calculators and computers, I see very little difference in the subjects (and often the teaching methods) my own children have taken in high school. While my oldest daughter, an honors student in college, waits to be admitted to medical school, her 4 year degree in general biology has only gotten her temporary contract work or an hourly wage not much above the minimum. Her younger brothers have opted to go through the community college system. One of them plans to quit at the end of the year because his part time job has offered him full time employment at an entry salary higher than a beginning teacher. I understand that a 4 year degree is not only about making a living. I wouldn't trade those years for anything and I can't seem to stop going to school in some way, but I think we are irresponsible if we look at a 4 year college degree as the only good possibility after high school graduation.

I agree with Nancy, about creating an educated citizenry, but at what price? I think that in after high school students should work for a year or two in various fields that might interst them -- as a low-level clerk in a law firm, doctor's office, corporation, school, etc., to see what occupations appeal to them and what sort of education and training is needed to get there. At 18 years old, you shouldn't be asked to make decisions to map out your entire life without some sort of information and experience to guide you.

Thank you! As I go about my life, I am often stunned at the incomes of some who never attended college but who are happy and fulfilled in their work. I gained most of my education while working full time and finally completed my M.A. It moved me over on the salary scale a bit but not impressively so. I've met plumbers and landscapers and interior designers who are delighted with both their work and their incomes. Most never had more than two years of formal training. Here in California, all we do is talk about every child attending college. As a 6th grade teacher, I can already see in some of my students that they don't (yet) have the work ethic or the fundamental intellect (sometimes both) that college demands; but that doesn't mean they can't get good training to have a meaningful career. What I worry about is that with all the high-stakes testing, we are losing all the electives and "extras" that help kids discover what they enjoy, what interests them, and what gifts they have. If we don't make the time to start talking about careers (and what it takes to get one), how do they start thinking about their own futures? I swear it's like a dog chasing its tail!

I'm at the point where I've almost finished putting my 3 children through college...and that's been tough as a single mom teacher. Yes, I'm one of those parents who raised them with the expecation that they would all go to college. So I'll admit my personal bias.

But here's what I learned. College clearly is not for everyone. Colleges seem to be struggling (much like the K12 system) to accomodate a society that sends everyone. High schools have not done the best job in counseling students on options apart from college.

I also know that I've helped my children make educational choices where financial considerations were a big part of that decision.

For example, my oldest daughter wanted to go to medical school. It would have put her into debt for over $150,000. How crazy is that? Instead she has gone the PhD route in biochemsitry because there are fellowships that defray the cost of graduate school. Believe me, the option of going to graduate school is never pushed...it's all about getting undergrads into medical school.

Now my son has arrived at the same crossroads. He'd like to go to law school but that's even more of a financial nightmare than medical school.

The cost of education is also the reason I've worked 3 jobs throughout all these years...so that I could help them get through their undergraduate years without incurring staggering debt. Nine years of this and I'm almost ready to work just one job!!!!

You'd be amazed at what my son just asked me over break. Since he can't afford to go to law school he's been trying to figure out what he can do to "live and earn", he thinks he'd like to become some kind of craftsman. He's enjoyed working along side finish carpenters and he's investigating apprenticeships/trade schools.

As a mom, I don't care a lick what they do professionally as long as they are financially independent and happy. I agree with Susan's comment that there are many paths to success. I'm glad there are options. Now I think we have to figure out a system of presenting those options more effectively.

(As a sidebar comment...what will all the high schools do that have pushed so hard to get the maximum number of students enrolled in AP courses do? How will they "save" their rankings that are based on what percent of students are enrolled in these kinds of courses? This is one of those statistics that is widely proclaimed and we see, even in middle schools, a push to get more and more and more kids enrolled in AP coursework.)

I can definitely see a conflict of interest in promoting options while retaining status.)

Dear Susan,
You make very good points about the occupations that may or may not require college for entry and advancement. One question comes to mind...how are students to know about other paths if they are only fed information about going to college? One of the reasons going to college is so stressed, I believe, is that educators know how to go to college, but they don't have any idea how to go to work...meaning...how to go into a field that doesn't require a traditional college degree.
A proven way to give students a chance to explore their options, other than the lockstep path to a 2 or 4 year college is through internships. In most of the reports on reforming high schools the students are reported as wanting more opportunities for hands-on learning and internships, yet in all of the recommendations coming out of these reports, this form of learning is not really stressed and often barely gets a mention. And if it is mentioned, how to accomplish offering students internships is glossed over. If high school students have a chance to explore career options, learn about various paths into career areas without getting locked into one before they've had a chance to explore then perhaps they could make better choices about their future goals and where they want to invest their money, energy and time to prepare.

Thank you Susan for taking up such a timely and critical issue. Whenever I think of this issue, one of the students I taught in college - an institution where current tuition, room, and board tops $46,000 per year! - comes to mind. I had this student for both a required freshman comp class and an elective literature class. She struggled tremendously with basic writing and comprehension skills, and with these strengths and weaknesses, what was her desired professional pursuit? She wanted to be a lawyer. I'm hard-pressed to think of another profession where writing and comprehension are more critical. A high school guidance counselor along with her parents helped her to get her heart set on this goal. In the course of my work with her, I discovered that she was extremely talented and very passionate about graphic design and I discussed with her opening her mind to other potential career paths. She never imagined she could make a living from graphic design! I wonder how many students find themselves in similar situations, some of them after investing 4+ years in college pursuits that are not well suited for their strengths and facing increasingly gargatuan debt loads.

Count me on your side of the fence on this one Sue. If you check "anthropologically" humans taught one another how to make tools. Some wrtie that it contributed to the evolution of speach. It was a pretty important thing for these people. You know what it still is. Please don't tell the newbies that the printed word and academic fill in the blank tests are not the only form of education. I would hate to discourage them on all their hard work over the past 200 years.
John Seeley

I forgot to mention that I am a shop teacher with the audacity of encouraging a hands on engineering/CAD curriculum.

Finally a discussion that is right in line with my thoughts for the last 10 years. At 57, I know many, many people that have college degrees and now work at jobs that do not require a degree. I found I am not alonein my thinking as I read two books. One book is The Currency of the Future, by Brad DeHaven, and the other is Why We Want You to Be Rich, by Robert Kyosaki and Donald Trump. I believe as these people do that JOBS do not work anymore,nor does running your own business. In order to "make it today" you must get to the other side of the quardrant and leverage the efforts of others. The company I am working in embraces these concepts. The free personal development training is
wonderfully uplifting. Teachers do very well in this, as it involves teaching and training others in a system that has
been proven. When time and money are no longer an issue, one could go back to teaching just for the fun of it.

I look forward to working with anyone, young or old, to help get you started on a path that works in 2008.

With time and money courses in areas of interest would be fun too.

Robin Foster
802 371 7456 cell

Interesting and provocative. I teach at an arts high school, and while many of the kids go on to college, some don't. They go to conservatories, dance companies or pursue their art in different ways. Because of this unique setting, college is seen as a spectrum of options. Thanks for asking us to think critically about the college track.

In my contry Sri Lanka only a few percent of the students manage to do the heigher studies (at Governement universities) provided free of charge by the governement. If you have money then you can go to private colleges.

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