College degree is no employment guarantee

By Elizabeth Ellis

Originally published Aug. 4, Ellis says why she chose this column as her best of 2010: ”MSR’s own Vickie Evans-Nash thanked me for this column’s particular slant on education and its impact; at end of year the column still reflects our country’s current economic conditions as well as the way we strive to cope.”

“I have a degree in Liberal Arts. Now, did you want fries with that?”
— Maxine, Hallmark card character created by John Wagner

A co-worker at Hennepin County spouted off bitterly, “I’m going back to school. I want a better job!” The late writer Caroline Knapp would tell her college is for noble embetterment, not employment. Writer Natalie Kusz’ father asked Natalie, “Who told you college was invented to get you employed?”

A plumber’s van represents technical training, licensure and bonding. Trade schools — not college — teach carpenters to plane wood and electricians to wire your house. If you want to think, go to college. If you want to get a job, learn a trade. Work, the playwright Voltaire knew, still “keeps us from three great evils: boredom, vice and poverty.”

There are more benefits to a job than just the paycheck: belonging, respect. Being employed deems us capable — trusted, even. “Work is a daily discipline,” said fashion designer Emanuel Ungaro.

That co-worker won’t necessarily get a “better” job than the one she has even with a college degree. Good work is done with honor and integrity.

I know two janitors who are proud and two highly educated men who are jerks.
She can better herself by pursuing a college education, but she won’t necessarily get ahead financially when there’s the debt from her student loan to repay while unemployment rates rage at 10 percent.

Employment newspapers today are filled with ads for schools. A young man I know from one of those programs is doing a 40-hour week of unpaid work plus his 40-hour work week. The corporation who’s getting his free labor isn’t promising him anything.

I know of people with high school diplomas, but without my college degree, whose paychecks are bigger than mine.

“There’s a lot of kids out here,” dockhand Rick Walker told writer John McPhee, “right out of McDonald’s, and they’d be better off if they’d stayed at McDonald’s. But if you can handle [river barge and tow] work, you can make 50 to 80 thousand dollars a year without a college education or even a high school diploma.”

A woman I read about collected degrees like tattoos; however, the article did not state how much this cost or how she intended to pay. When I worked at Hennepin County, we used to point across the street to the parking lot attendant. “He has a Ph.D.” “Blue sky research” — writer Ian Frazier’s term — is study with no immediate prospect of economic gain.

A college grad I know of could’ve done her job without the college degree her employer required, but she needed to jump the hoops to stack up the credits, to reach the degree and to paint the résumé in order to cross the finish line.

“Only she who is willing to sacrifice,” writer Nikki Giovanni wrote, “is worthy of the prize.”

A young man I know got by, got through, and did what was required, then refused to attend commencement.

A college athlete I read about was pushed through for the sake of the athletic department. He sued the school.

A recent college grad told me that a non-credit college course costs $100 while the same course for credit cost $400, and that in four years the cost of a college credit has gone up considerably.

“Women only go to college to find husbands!” my father said, adding, “Read the Reader’s Digest cover to cover for 20 years, and you’ll have a college education!” You can self-educate — autodidact — but no one gives you credit for that. Being ignorant, according to Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck, is to be avoided; however, today’s college is a scare tactic, i.e., don’t get a college degree and you’ll sling a mop forever.

A university’s mission is not to make money, but to make a difference in the larger society, and artisan Mary Jo Schmith told me college focuses on “problem solving.” College and the student loans that support them are now a business.

I know a woman whose daughter was offered “scholarship” discounts by colleges competing for her tuition like retailer’s coupons at your grocer.

Writer Kurt Vonnegut said it: The arts are not a way to make a living. I worked in a coffee shop with a college diploma. I paid back my student loan. Competition among recent law school graduates is so intense that one I know of is a groundskeeper.

Engineering requires a college degree, but the young woman I met who graduated a year ago in civil engineering is still not employed. She said that for the next herd of eligibles, the ante will be upped: A master’s degree will be required.

Can you succeed in life with or without college? First, define success. “Any definition of success,” former NBA champion Bill Russell wrote, “has to be yours and not someone else’s.”

Can you be happy? “Happiness,” according to philosopher Bertrand Russell, “in the long run for most men comes chiefly through their work.” Writer Terry McMillan put it thus: “A house and a car and all the money in the bank won’t make you happy.”

Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to