In pursuit of higher education

In pursuit of higher education

A tough job market and rising college tuition send mixed signals to students

By Carla Iacovetti 01/06/2011

“If you have a college degree, you can be absolutely sure of one thing …. you have a college degree.” – Author Unknown

Not even a decade ago, having a college degree meant superior career choices, greater financial and job security, and the ability to create a better quality of life. The logic for pursuing a college degree is pretty obvious. If you want to earn more money – go to college. If you want to have better career options and live with a greater sense of well-being – go to college. After all, statistics have always shown that people with higher levels of education have better job security.

Over the last several years, however, the tides have somewhat changed. According to an article written for the U.S. Department of Education in 2000, “In 1997, a person with a college degree from a four-year college earned approximately $18,000 more in a year than a person who did not go to college.” While this statistic seems promising, some reports show it to be passé, with the economic shift that has taken place over the last couple of years. It is interesting to note that the Federal Student Aid website shows only statistics dated back to 2007. That is nearly four years ago, when a degree meant everything for annual earnings.

The results of the longest recession in the post-World War II era are numerous, and according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, “Only one-quarter of 2010 college graduates who applied for a job actually received one, compared with more than half in 2007.” Consequently, a large percentage of recent college graduates in today’s work environment are suffering from the effects of this recession, and opportunity is not knocking at their doors. Many are working in fields completely unrelated to their degrees. There are continua of stories of college graduates who have been hit hard by this economic recession, and so many dreams of better jobs with fatter paychecks have been stilled by this reality check.

Amy works as a barista at a Ventura coffee shop, while she continues to look for work after graduating with a degree in business from San Diego State more than a year ago.

“I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to college, but my parents insisted,” she says. “Now I have my bachelor’s degree in economics, and I can’t even find a decent-paying job, so I moved back home, and I’m working at a coffee shop.”

Even though Amy faults the economy, she does not regret going to college. “You know, I was the typical college kid who didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do, so I got a degree in economics that I am not using. No regrets though …. College changed my approach to life in so many ways.” While Amy makes a mean latte, she has recently applied to grad school to acquire her MBA. “I think having a masters degree will open up some employment opportunities for me,” she says. “You know … at some point I’m going to get sick of making coffee.”

Josue Magana, a senior at California State University, Channel Islands (CSUCI), is a business major who believes his decision to attend college was the best decision of his life. “School has transformed my life and given me a lot of hope. It’s never a waste of money to go to college, because a degree is so much more than a piece of paper,” Magana says.

2Magana is a first-generation college student whose family emigrated from Mexico with a very inspirational story.

Magana was not always as determined as he is today, especially with parents who did not go past the sixth grade.

Even though they had great moral values, higher education was not emphasized in the Magana home. “School was just a place to socialize,” he says. “I found no value in education, and was content receiving report cards with Ds and Fs. I did manage to graduate from high school with a 1.67 grade point average, which is way below average.”

By the time Magana turned 25, he was discontented working minimum-wage jobs and began to look introspectively at his life. His parents only went so far, and were somewhat stagnant, and his friends all had minimum-wage jobs, living meager existences.

“In the back of my mind, I knew higher education was the gateway to a more respectable job, but because of the way I was raised, I had no self-confidence,” he says.

Even though Magana lacked self-confidence, he made a vow to himself that changed his life. He enrolled in Oxnard Community College (OCC), and with the mindset that failure was not an option, he chose to do the opposite of what he did in high school. “I took notes in class, never missed a class, and got tutored,” Magana says.

Magana’s changed philosophy about education paid off. After his first semester at OCC, he made the dean’s list, which gave him a great boost in self-confidence and the realization that success was something he could achieve. Since Magana began his college education, he has received only two Cs and is intent on pursuing his master’s degree in financial planning. In October, Magana was selected out of 400 students to go Washington, D.C., to attend the Hispanic Professional Institute, and he delivered the keynote address at the Portraits of Success Gala.

In August 2010, business conducted an online survey asking if college was worth the cost. “Yes, education is important – regardless of how much money you make,” said 34 percent of the respondents, while 30 percent said, “No, it’s not worth it to take on all that debt,” and 27.5 percent said, “Yes, you can have a more lucrative and fulfilling career,” and 8.1 percent were simply not sure.

There is no doubt that the stressed economy has had an impact on many in this nation, not just college graduates. Many who have degrees are settling for lesser-paying jobs or not working at all. Is the purpose of acquiring a degree, however, only monetary gain?

3“You must think of education in broader terms, it’s not just about a job. It’s so much bigger than a job or a career,” Jane Sweetland, dean of enrollment at CSUCI, says. “To have a four-year degree, you have demonstrated that you have been able to be engaged in communication at every level.”

While it’s a tougher time today to get a job, no one can ever take the degree away.

“You have this broadness of education from having the opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogue with professors and classmates,” Sweetland says. “Education helps to set precedents in your life for informed critical thinking and discipline.”

When there’s a down economy, it affects everything, not just education. Choosing the right major is important in this economy, but a degree has so much more value than a job ticket.

Matt Ward, the vice president of enrollment, management and marketing for California Lutheran University (CLU), believes that we should look at the overall statistics, not merely focus on those who are not working in their fields with degrees or not working at all. “How are the rates for those who have not attended college?” Ward asks.

CLU has not seen a decline in enrollment; in fact, it is doing better than ever. Ward, who has worked in enrollment and admissions for more than a decade, admits, “State funding to support higher education at the public sector has not kept up with the enrollment growth across the state, and this is having a positive effect on private schools like CLU.”

“The way people look at college education is a little different today,” he says. “People are much more attentive of career paths.” With today’s economic shift, funding sources have changed dramatically, so students need to pay closer attention to things they never used to worry about.

Steve Weir, the director of enrollment and financial aid at Antioch University, Santa Barbara, says, “Today’s students are being better consumers in looking at the kind of degree that they want.” Weir has been working at various levels of college administration for more than 30 years and has seen a multitude of changes. Antioch University, a private, nonprofit accredited institution with five campuses in the United States, has also seen an increase in enrollment over the last year.

Laura Tyson, who worked with former President Bill Clinton as the chair to the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Economic Council, recently broke down the nation’s unemployment rates on ABC’s This Week with Christiane Amanpour. Tyson currently teaches in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and shared the differences between the unemployment rates of Americans who have college degrees and those who do not. “Unemployment for those with college educations is now 4.5 percent. Unemployment for those with more than a college education is below 4 percent. We have a problem of education in this country, and we have to educate more of our young people fully, through college education. Let’s take this as an opportunity to do that,” Tyson says.

4When the California budget froze out, books and supplies were not covered by the state, but according to Jennifer Benson, public information officer for the California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR), “That’s not the case now.”

Benson says, “Anytime the budget is late, it’s an obstacle, and students getting assistance from the state should always have a backup plan.”

There is no doubt that there has been a decrease in resources, and there are a large number of people who need help.

Annually, the DOR assists 115,000 people at any given time, and nearly 70,000 to 80,000 are in plan, working toward their vocational goals. With the hope of helping individuals with varied disabilities, the DOR collaborates with consumers and other stakeholders to provide services and support that will result in equality, independent living and gainful employment. California’s DOR is the largest in the nation and the most diverse.

“The value of work does so much for the spirit, and being able to see those with disabilities re-enter the work force is not only good for the economy, but it’s good for us as social beings, and it’s good for the human race.” There is a collaboration of several departments here in California that works with consumers to educate them about becoming free from state dependency, and education is a part of that package. Whether it is through a formal education, a trade school or any kind of self-improvement, education is encouraged and has proven to help multitudes over the two decades that vocational programs have been in operation.

While the recession has impacted some programs at the state level, college enrollment is up. Sweetland says, “We encourage students to explore their values and to look closely at their career path choices. We want to develop thoughtful citizens for the 21st century and beyond.”

CSUCI has seen about a 20 percent gain in students who are applying for loans. “We have more applications for enrollment than we can accommodate, and we’ve had to employ very strict deadlines and adherence to admission requirements,” says Sweetland. To accommodate challenging economic times, CSCUI offers a book rental program for students who cannot afford to buy books, and many of the required textbooks are available in the library.

Is it an oversimplification to compare the wages and employment of college grads to non-college grads? Kevin Hallock, the director of the Institute for Compensation Studies at Cornell University believes it is.

“The very qualities that make a person a good college student may also make them a successful employee or business owner, whether or not they have a degree,” Hallock says. There is something to be said for a student completing four or more years of school, being a part of a structured program that requires critical thinking, self-discipline and completing assignments on time. Hallock says, “I think we have to remember that the payoff isn’t necessarily just the higher wage but a more fulfilling job or a more interesting job.”

Ward says, “The average person will end up having seven different jobs and seven different careers over the span of their adult life. Technical training will only take you so far, and your ability to move yourself forward technologically will only advance you as fast as you can critically think, and that’s an investment that you can only get from higher education.”

It is important to look beyond the recession. At some point, the economy will rebound, and there will be more employment opportunities. Those considering higher education should be wise about their investment. Weir says, “Make certain it’s a reputable school. You need an education that doesn’t just train you for one job, but that teaches you to be a smart thinker, and that is something developed over time – through cognitive observation, analysis and learning.”


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