Education Opinion

The Case for ‘Useless’ Degrees

By Walt Gardner — May 26, 2014 2 min read
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Graduates of the class of 2014 are quickly learning that the degrees they’ve spent four years and thousands of dollars earning aren’t worth as much as they had been led to believe. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 44 percent of those aged 22 to 27 in 2012 were working in jobs that didn’t require a degree (“For New Graduates, Path to a Career Is Bumpy,” The Wall Street Journal, May 24). This was the highest percentage in nearly two decades. Last year, 8.3 percent of college graduates were unemployed, a rate which was also well above that of the past several decades. I expect the numbers to be similar for 2014.

Although science, engineering and math majors fare better in finding immediate employment, I’ll confine my comments to majors in the classic liberal arts, which include English, history, art, music, philosophy and their variants. There’s no question that these graduates are at a distinct disadvantage. Saddled with heavy student debt, they’re understandably wondering if they’ve been shortchanged. After all, having to move back home with their parents while their peers are in their own apartments is a blow to their egos.

But they need to bear in mind that there is a difference between education and training. While they sometimes overlap, they are not the same. Education has to do primarily with concepts, while training has to do primarily with techniques. Note the word “primarily.” If students wanted to enhance their chances of landing a well-paying job immediately after graduation, they should have enrolled in a trade school. There they would get hands-on experience with a skill that employers are seeking. However, “guessing about what will be hot tomorrow based on what’s hot today is a fool’s errand” (“Why Focusing Too Narrowly in College Could Backfire,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 10, 2013).

In contrast, education is designed to develop an understanding and appreciation for concepts that do not necessarily apply to existing jobs. But down the line, this wherewithal serves graduates well. That’s because it provides a broad foundation that helps graduates adapt to changing conditions in the marketplace. When I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, I faced a series of rejections because employers asked me if I had specific experience in the field I was interested in. My peers who had majored in business immediately found work because they knew enough accounting, finance or marketing to convince their employers that they needed little training.

Eventually I found work as a trainee and used my writing skills to branch out. Looking back, I think my liberal arts degree has served me quite well. I don’t know how many of my peers feel the same way. They pursued a narrow course of study that led to immediate employment. But what about the other aspects of what college is supposed to be about? I’ll never know the answer.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.