It is easy, all too easy, to make sport at the expense of the Wall Street “occupiers.” They are overeducated, whiney, and spoiled, they have no coherent plans, objections, or complaints, and on top of everything they are coarse, ill-mannered, and uncouth. Welcome to many college campuses across the country.
But two recent articles make me think there might yet be a silver lining here. Jenna Ashley Robinson argues that a large part of the anger and frustration the occupiers feel is a result of their having been sold a bill of goods: everyone from the President to their high school guidance counselor has insisted that a college education is an absolute necessity not only to leading a morally acceptable life but also to a well-paying job. Naively believing this fairytale, thousands and thousands of students have incurred debts and spent a lot of time getting a college degree—and now here they are, without having mastered any real or marketable skills, with few and limited job prospects, and with a lot of attitude.
Rutgers sociologist Jackson Toby argues that a similar pattern might help explain why so many young people—including many college graduates—have been willing to risk their lives in the recent Arab uprisings. They too were told how important it was to get a college degree, at almost any cost and no matter what else they wanted to do in life. Now here they are as well: educated, many years older, and without jobs or prospects.
Return now to the Wall Street protesters. Perhaps one thing they might help precipitate is the looming bursting of the “education bubble,” which so many have discussed and predicted (see particularly this article in The Economist). This is much to be hoped for. Higher education has been overpromising and underdelivering, and at increasingly absurd prices, for some time now.
And students have indeed been sold a bill of goods. Consider:
It is false and offensive to suggest that one cannot lead a good, noble, and honorable life without a college degree. It is moreover false and foolish to believe that a college degree is an absolute good, worth having at almost any price. It is unfortunately true that for most colleges and universities and for most students no real educational value is obtained, in skills or knowledge; indeed, in many cases, the training in bad moral and intellectual habits, combined with the unrealistic belief in having achieved skill or knowledge, might actually constitute a value substracted. Finally, it is lamentably true that for a great number of students who attend college, the cost in money, time, and opportunity forsaken, is simply not worth it.
I have had several conversations recently with recent graduates of top universities in the New York area who have no job, no concrete idea what their education prepared them to do, and, in most cases, debt. For some of them, their parents paid the entire bill, so the student, thankfully, has no debt, but the parents’ sacrifice was enormous. Was it worth it? Perhaps. But there are a lot of people for whom it is obvious—painfully obvious—that it is not worth it, and they are figuring that out.
It might be too late for the Wall Street protesters to do anything about it in their own cases, since many of them have apparently already gone to college and gone into debt. But perhaps their frustrations, however incoherent and unfocused they might otherwise be, will help convey the message to younger people and to their parents that the time might finally have come to do a cost/benefit analysis before going, or sending one’s children, to college. That realization is a long time coming. I suspect many colleges and universities will not like the results of such calculations, but everyone else will be better for it.