The market isn’t ready to absorb them. Specifically,
According to government projections released last month, only three of the 30 occupations with the largest projected number of job openings by 2020 will require a bachelor's degree or higher to fill the position — teachers, college professors and accountants. Most job openings are in professions such as retail sales, fast food and truck driving, jobs which aren't easily replaced by computers.
I had to smile at “college professors” making the list. When I entered graduate school during the first Bush administration, we were told that a great wave of faculty retirements was on the horizon, and that we’d be in high demand be the time we got out. We all know how that played out. It’s entirely possible that college professor positions will open in great numbers, but only if you fail to differentiate between adjunct and full-time positions. And having adjunct positions available hardly gets around the “underemployment” issue.
At the associate’s level, similar dynamics are playing out. For students who don’t intend to transfer for the four year degree, the market isn’t what it used to be. (The one partial exception is allied health, such as nursing. And even that isn’t a sure thing.) Many of the skilled trades took a beating when the construction market collapsed in 2008, and they’re yet to recover. (We’re pretty sure that’s why so many of the “green jobs” have yet to materialize: they’re based on construction.) Generic “business” degrees don’t do much, and generic liberal arts degrees don’t, either, unless you transfer.
In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder if the root of the problem with public higher education in America is that it was designed to create and support a massive middle class. And we’ve tacitly decided as a society that a massive middle class is not a priority. We’re trying to fulfill a mission that the country has largely abandoned. When the goal of a prosperous middle class was tacitly dismissed, dominos started to fall.
The meme making the rounds last week was the announcement that outstanding student loan debt in America reached a trillion dollars. That’s not a function of community college tuition, obviously, but it indicates that what we’re preparing students for, and what the economy wants them for, don’t align.
Although that’s presented as a failing of colleges, it mostly isn’t. (One could argue about the wisdom of getting a terminal bachelor’s degree in English at Nothing Special Private College, but that’s ultimately marginal.) It’s mostly a failing of the larger economy, of our politics, and of our priorities. The “starve the beast” strategy has been so effective that it’s easy to forget that as recently as 2000, we were actually paying down the national debt. Austerity is a choice.
None of which is terribly helpful if you’re twenty-two and graduating with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and no immediate prospects for a job that will make enough to pay both rent and loan payments.
The new economy is sometimes presented as an issue of intergenerational justice, with the outsize poverty of the young subsidizing the outsize wealth of the old. That’s true as far as it goes, but it ignores a larger issue. As the boomers retire and X’ers and Y’s fill the workforce, they’ll either have the skills to grow the economy, or not. They won’t develop those skills sitting on the sidelines. In the absence of growth, prospects for boomers’ retirements are grim, let alone the folks who come after them. According to the most recent report on social security, the system will go broke the year I turn 65. Thanks, guys. If we want to get things moving, we need to integrate the young into the productive workforce ASAP.
College still passes the “I’d send my kid” test. I fully intend to send mine. As insurance policies go, it’s weaker than it once was, but it still beats most of the alternatives. I just hope that as a society, we don’t make the mistake of blaming colleges for preparing students for jobs that aren’t there, when we made the choice to let those jobs dry up.