Let’s start with what on the surface appears to be good news for college graduates: they’re the ones getting jobs.
College grads are the only employment group to have gained net jobs over the past five or so years. Unemployment among college graduates is much lower than among those without a degree. The most recent unemployment rate for college graduates ages 25 and older was only 3.9%; 7.4% for those with a high school degree.
But what kind of jobs are out there for college graduates? News stories about another trend tell a disappointing story. Most of the new jobs created since the great recession began have been low-paying. Nearly 40% of the 1.7 million jobs gained since the so-called recovery began have been in 3 low-wage sectors: food services, retail, and what is called employment services and means office clerks.
In other words, college graduates have been taking low-paid jobs. That goes a long way to explaining the mounting debt incurred by graduating students. Some would say that it’s a classic bait-and-switch when colleges offer expensive degrees knowing that many if not most of the students will get jobs that won’t allow them to pay off their loans. Kids think they’ll write TV ads and they end up penning short articles for Internet news services at $25 a pop. They think they’ll be television news reporters and they end up as administrative assistants in the sales department of a local radio station. They think they’ll get a position with a corporate law firm and they end up doing contract legal grunt work at $25 an hour. Or what about the kids with degrees who are hauling garbage, driving taxis, filing papers and staffing call centers? It’s tough to pay off $100,000 in college loans on the pay you get at any of these jobs.
Those who hold colleges blameless for the low pay in so many professions should consider one more trend: Study after study shows that enormous numbers of kids get accepted to colleges needing remedial work. For example, a study of scores on the ACT test shows that 48% of all high school graduates need remedial work in science. Other studies reveal that half of all students in California need remedial help in English and math and 40% in Colorado. One impetus for increasing online college courses is to inexpensively address the issue of kids arriving on campus without the basic skills to do college work.
My question—no, my accusation—is: Why do colleges accept students who aren’t ready to do the work?
By accepting and enrolling students who need remedial work, colleges participate in a vast and growing fraud on American families. Wouldn’t the kids not ready for college be better off in community colleges working on their English and math skills? Or in a state-sponsored vocational program that trains people for one specific career? I do not believe that any accredited 4-year college should be permitted to accept students who need remedial work before they can tackle real college, nor should any 4-year college or university offer remedial courses. It’s immoral to take money for higher education and deliver high school courses.
Now I’m all for universities establishing special extensions to offer high school grads the opportunity to improve their basic skills enough to be able to take college courses, but if and only if they charge traditional community college prices.
Encouraging kids who don’t really belong in college to take another route will solve half the problem, as it will ease the national college debt burden. But that still doesn’t address the fact that so many jobs pay so little nowadays. To solve the problem will take what it has always taken: Greater unionization. An increase in the minimum wage. Taxing the rich to pay for better public education and non-college training.