Menu Join now Search

So, Generation X ... Do You OWE Your Children a College Degree? (Part 1)

Generation X is in the thick of child rearing. Many of our children are a mere year or two away from graduating high school. There were two competing stories circulating the web of late … one is about the overabundance of college graduates and the other is about a shortage of college graduates. Everyday we are bombarded with a litany of information about the escalating costs of a college education, that we (parents) need to save more to pay for our children’s college education … 529 savings plans, tuition prepayment plans, PLUS loans for parents. Save, save, save for your children’s (mandatory) college education … it is your duty as a parent. I freely admit I have bought into the hysteria…at least from the “haven’t saved a dime” guilt perspective … but is a college education a “birthright?” Is it still the golden ticket it once was? Does the basic college degree still hold value?

Story 1: “Employers and career experts see a growing problem in American society—an abundance of college graduates, many burdened with tuition-loan debt, heading into the work world with a degree that doesn’t mean much anymore.” (Time)

Story 2: “Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that the U.S. was ranked seventh among nations in the proportion of adults eighteen to thirty-four enrolled in college. […] Just 39 percent of U.S. adults had an associate’s degree or higher, compared with 55 percent for Canada and 54 percent for Japan.” (Bloomberg)

Reading the above two quotes you would rightly assume we live in a confused nation … so which is it? Are there too many or too few college graduates? If the first quote is true, it is not much of a leap to figure out the new idea of college being considered “as much of a birthright as a driver’s license” is due to Baby Boomer parents. They shifted the focus of college as intellectual to college as monetary.  

“In 1973, a bachelor’s degree was more of a rarity, since just 47 percent of high school graduates went on to college. By October 2008, that number had risen to nearly 70 percent. For many Americans today, a trip through college is considered as much of a birthright as a driver’s license.” (Time) One needs to note that these are enrollment numbers, not graduation numbers. Fewer than 50 percent of those enrolled in college will graduate. “Half of U.S. students who begin college never finish, […]” (Bloomberg)

Understandably, when the Baby Boomers came of age there were many industries such as manufacturing, which did not require post secondary education, and were still considered viable career paths. Employees learned on the job and/or attended company sponsored training classes. If an individual was not college material, he or she was able to have a career in manufacturing, construction, or in mills that provided a comfortable living. Blue-collar children willingly followed their parents into a career at the local factory. These jobs were largely labor intensive but many provided medical benefits and pensions. However, the 1980s and 1990s saw a mass exodus of blue-collar jobs to overseas locations where labor was cheap and environmental requirements far less restrictive. I remember sitting in an economics class when the professor told us that, given the low cost of fuel and the high cost of American employment, it less expensive to extract ore in America, ship it and mill it in Japan, and then ship the finished product back to America ... the advent of the global economy. Not to fault the Boomers too much, those without college degrees saw evaporating job prospects and Baby Boomer college graduates where not experiencing the same employment insecurities. (At least until the Great Recession.)

Logic would follow that the overseas exodus of many labor-intensive industries created more competition state side for the remaining blue-collar jobs. Now Baby Boomers who put their faith in skilled labor jobs, only to have their pay, their pensions, and their job security vanish, pushed their offspring toward college, by the 1990’s a degree now largely symbolized more than just potential higher earnings but a golden ticket to instant employment security.

Two dynamics converged. The children of college educated Baby Boomers went to college, as expected, and the children of blue-collar Baby Boomers went to college. It did not necessarily matter if college was not the right choice for the individual child…it became the expectation. College became more about slogging through and getting a piece of paper (the golden ticket!) and less about expanding intellectual horizons.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 1973 (the year referenced in the Time article), the population of the U.S. was 212 million and, according to the Census bureau, 14.2 million citizens over the age of 25 had four or more years of college. That was 7 percent of the total population. (I am taking liberties with assuming four or more years of college is equal to having earned a Bachelor’s degree.) Fast forward to 2008 where the estimated population increased 43 percent to 304.1 million … but the number of people with four-plus years of college increased a whopping 306 percent to 57.8 million!! From 1973 to present the year-over-year median increase in four-year degree holders was 4 percent ... per year … that works out to an average of 1.2 million new Bachelor degrees a year. The market is flooded with sheepskins, college has become a birthright.

“Marty Nemko, a career and education expert who has taught at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, contends that the overflow in degree holders is the result of many weaker students attending colleges when other options may have served them better. “There is tremendous pressure to push kids through,” he says, adding that as a result, too many students who aren’t skilled become degree holders, promoting a perception among employers that higher education doesn’t work. “That piece of paper no longer means very much, and employers know that,” says Nemko. “Everybody’s got it, so it’s watered down.” (Time)

Generation X, as our children are preparing to graduate from high school, have we entered a time of mass hysteria where everyone must hold a degree to compete? As the global economy takes hold and the U.S. shifts towards two primary employment sectors, knowledge based and service based, do all of our children need a college degree just to be granted a place at the starting line of adulthood…if not they default to jobs in the lower paying services sector as nothing is considered to be in between? Is this yet another legacy left to us by the Baby Boomer generation…”social security anticipated to be wiped out, trillions of dollars in national debt, oh, and by the way, all our children went to college so if you want your offspring to have an inkling of a competitive chance in the rat race, yours need to also!”  

Part 1 ? Part 2