Post Academic


So What Are You Going to Do with That College Degree?

Posted in The Education Industry by Arnold Pan on June 16, 2010
Tags: , , , ,

I am a little late to give pats on backs to our recent college grads, but UC Irvine just had its commencement ceremonies this past weekend.  I guess it’s better late than never to say, “Congratulations”!  Since Post Academic is geared more towards career/journeyman scholars than undergrads, we don’t have much advice to give ’em unless they are heading for grad school or thinking about it.  But of course, there’s plenty of advice and doomsday scenarios for the Class of 2010 (and beyond), so I figured I would compile some of the things we’ve found.

"David Brooks" courtesy of the Library of Congress (public domain)

David Brooks column in The New York Times, “History for Dollars”

Summary: A conservative who proves that liberals aren’t the only ones who complain, Brooks sticks up for humanities majors, despite the odds facing them in the big, bad real world.  Trying to find what’s practical about the humanities, like the ability to read-and-write and the skill of identifying analogies (that’s scraping the barrel a bit?), Brooks boils down the need for lit and history types to understand and interpret what he calls “The Big Shaggy”, which basically describes the messy, inexplicable aspects of behavior and emotion that drive people to achieve the highest highs and lowest lows.  That the well-educated Brooks, who has a bigger bully pulpit for such things than just about anyone, can’t describe what he’s talking about in any more precise way than “The Big Shaggy” doesn’t exactly bode well for future humanists, does it?

More about “The Big Shaggy” and what your college degree might earn you below the fold…

(Non-)Money Quote: “Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.”

Doom Factor: Low, though that’s probably the case for those who can afford to go to college to begin with and vaguely embrace The Big Shaggy aren’t facing the abyss.

The New Yorker, “Learning by Degrees” (by Rebecca Mead)

Summary: This piece picks up on the pitfalls and potholes on the road to a fulfilling career for the Class of 2010.  Mead points out some of the majors with the best job prospects and top salaries: Statistics tops the list, with Business, Engineering, and Econ majors faring relatively well, not surprisingly.  Theology types, also not surprisingly, don’t do as well as their brethren with applied knowledge, making $25,000 less on average than engineers, who start at about $60 thou.  Philosophy majors, though, have not been downsized as one might expect, with a beginning salary of about $40,000.

Beyond the stats, the article mostly stands up for earnest college kids, pointing out the hypocrisy of very well educated pundits (some of whom working in academia) bemoaning the uselessness of even a university education, at least in terms of dollars-and-cents.  A particular target is Ohio U Prof Richard K. Vedder, who’s the founder of the scary sounding Center for College Affordability and Productivity, who points out that 80% of the fastest growing professions don’t require a college degree.  Also, Mead targets American U Prof Robert I. Lerman, who advocates more vocational training in high schools.   As Mead puts it, “It may be news that the academy is making a case for the superfluity of the academy, but skepticism about the value of college, and of collegians, is hardly novel”.  Or, maybe Vedder and Lerman should think about how their salaries are going to be paid if college becomes a vestigial organ in 21st c. society.

Mead falls back on the Brooks argument that higher education should be viewed as an end in itself, for the sake of knowledge and a more “engaged citizenry”.  Can’t really argue with what she says, but, if that’s all that colleges and university are gonna offer, the institution will be more closed and hermetically sealed than ever to a pretty limited and elite social circle, where academic breed with academics to produce academics, maybe.

(Non-)Money Quote: “Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be good for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.”

Doom Factor: Low and surprisingly not too snarky

L.A. Times front-page article, “Is a college degree still worth it?” (by Don Lee)

Summary: Nice headline greeting you on commencement weekend, huh?  But that’s what was on the front-page of last Saturday’s L.A. Times–above the fold even!  Basically, it’s got some of the news of how college degrees aren’t necessary for many of the most popular jobs that I regurgitated from The New Yorker piece above, but makes it sound scarier in the black-white-grey of newsprint.  The article doesn’t, though, indulge in the goo-goo love of education in and of itself, measuring the “worth” of a B.A. according to economic measures.  The gist of the piece seems to be that a bachelor’s degree is either too much for growth sectors like nursing and customer service or not enough for management-level jobs.

(Non-)Money Quote: “But there’s still a lot of angst. Kyle Daley, 23, of Walnut Creek, Calif., graduated from UCLA a year ago with a bachelor’s in political science and is still looking for a job. Recently he put his resume into an old wine bottle and threw it into the Pacific Ocean.

‘I’m trying to try every avenue I can,’ Daley said.”

Doom Factor: High–geez, did you see the title?

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9 Responses to 'So What Are You Going to Do with That College Degree?'

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  1. Mackie Blanton said,

    And then there’s this recent NPR clip:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127246882

    • Arnold Pan said,

      Thanks, Mackie, for your great comments and contributions. That NPR story you linked to is hard to stomach.


    • Thank you so much for that link! That was dismaying. Where was the Brandeis Career Center? There are many options for English majors, not just the publishing industry. Do Career Centers even exist any more at universities? I wound up going into grad school right after undergrad, but, through my undergrad’s career center, I had several interviews with consulting firms, and my advisor told me to take the LSAT and to apply to law school as a backup. My alma mater did a lot of work to make sure I had two backup plans!

      • Arnold Pan said,

        Not to pile on, but, if being a writer is your backup plan, you might need to find a better source of advice. Then again, grad school was my *backup* for trying to be a full-time freelancer after I left college, so I’m probably disqualified from being that source of advice.

  2. dhume said,

    That NPR article is both hard to stomach and completely wrong, especially what she says about memos. As someone who’s taught professional writing, I’d say never underestimate the importance of being able to write an effective memo. You’d be amazed how many “practical” business majors are totally incapable of doing that. Yet they have the nerve to say they have more “job skills” than English majors. Since when has being semi-literate been a job skill? I mean, maybe for a medieval peasant, but today…?

    • Mackie Blanton said,

      Yes, that NPR coverage is hard to stomach. i was completely surprised by the apparent conclusion this young woman reached. I wonder who her advisers were during her student years. For years on end, the American Medical Association has suggested that English majors often make for better medical school students, because they are people people and have a pragmatic sense of language and broad communication skills. It’s the ability to look at a patient and to see that patient and to communicate with patients that make better doctors. Some years ago, the American Accounting Association suggested that all universities should eliminate the undergraduate degree in Accounting and make Accounting a graduate school discipline only, into which could matriculate Liberal Arts majors after graduating. Of course, no single university will accept this recommendation if all universities do not. There’s the money factor again. I am convinced that tragedies like The Three Mile Island incident and the recent oil spill in the Gulf results from poor written communication. Very few white collar and blue collar supervisors will express themselves in deliberately unambiguous language. Slant wins.

      • dhume said,

        Mackie, I agree completely that the low quality of written communication is a serious problem for our society. I think concern over it is a big motivating factor for articles like Brooks’. Ineffective communication is becoming a civilizational threat, as you pointed out.

        However, I think liberal arts majors face a double bind in the present economic system: if you’re able to use language effectively, you’re also able to realize how much of the language used in our society–in politics, advertising, even education itself–is truly complete, content-free, buzzwordy bullshit. If you’re able to realize the latter, you might start asking questions the powers that be would rather you not ask. This, I think, is the true root of the hostility of many administrative types (not just academic admins, but all those people who “manage” things) towards the liberal arts, and maybe English in particular. Sure, some enlightened leaders in the private sector and the professions value our skills; but a lot of mediocre people are threatened by them too. Their solution is to deny that our skills actually are skills. Thus has the traditional core of a university education become useless fluff.

      • Arnold Pan said,

        Thanks for the discussion, both of you! If I’m reading you right, dhume, here’s another way to put the double bind to being trained as a good writer and thinker: either 1) you adapt yourself to and master the bureaucratic languages of bullshit (to put it bluntly) or 2) you pursue a more critical approach to language and ideology, but get phased out of relevancy. I wonder if there is a way to work through this double bind so that you don’t become completely complicit (that is, if you can even get that sort of job!) or you’re not rendered completely irrelevant?

  3. Len said,

    One simple point about graduates from humanities majors is sometimes forgotten: employers are willing to provide on-the-job training in just about everything except writing. Much of the rest is technical expertise and acquired knowledge, which can be acquired in an apprenticeship or internship. Writing can’t be.

    So while I see what dhume is saying about the fear of critical thinking, I also think there’s enough employers out there that want candidates with these skills, even if they are perceived to be questioning. Edginess has itself become marketable, at least in advertising. Ad writers are now willing to use genres that used to be critical (the viral campaign, the rant, the “indie” video now posted on YouTube) to push product…At least in that industry, the bureaucratic language of bullshit isn’t that valuable anymore!


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