Education Opinion

The Emperor’s New College Education

By Susan Graham — January 03, 2008 4 min read

The Emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, The Emperor’s New Suit, parades naked through the street as the court and the people admire his non-existent finery.

But he has nothing on at all,” said a little child at last. “Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child,” said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. “But he has nothing on at all,” cried at last the whole people. That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought to himself, “Now I must bear up to the end.” And the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train which did not exist.”

Do educator policymakers, like the chamberlains, find themselves too deeply committed to a plan of action and too fearful of being proved unfit for the role of the emperor’s advisors that they will not admit we may all be deluding ourselves? Have we all been part of a collusion that promises our young people an Emperor’s New Education when we insist that success, fulfillment, security and happiness can only be cut and stitched from the fabric of a four-year college degree? And are we, the general public, just like the citizens who are unwilling to acknowledge what we see?

Understand, I am not saying that college is a scam. But have its rewards been misrepresented? In my last entry I asked readers, “Why do we want them to go to college? It’s a $100,000 question that all too often begs an answer.” Marvin commented, “Perhaps the very rich can be blase about the financial fruits of higher education but for many of my generation, making more money was an urgent and positive driving force.” And Amitra said, “You’ve articulated something that I’ve been struggling with for some time now. I was one of those students that went to college because it was “expected” of me, and had no idea what I wanted to do. Now, I am stuck with a very large student loan debt that I’m not sure when I’ll be able to pay off, and a job that pays a lot less than some vocational jobs that I wouldn’t have had to go into this much debt to get.”

Are there other viable options? I spent hours noodling around the US Department of Labor’s Bureau for Labor Statistics website. In the Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2008-09, all of these jobs offer median incomes above $48,000 and below $60,000.

Registered Nurse
• Medical Sonographer
• Railroad Engineer
• Anthropologist
• Funeral Director
• Surveyor

And now some questions:
1. Which occupations require a four year college degree?
2. Which careers offer the least promising prospects for employment?
3. Which do not require some kind of license or certification?
4. Which has a well defined career ladder to advance in skills, responsibility and income?
5. Can you rank the jobs by median income reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics?

Here are your answers:
1. While undergraduate degrees in nursing and surveying are options, only the anthropologist is locked into a four year degree for an entry level job. The other careers listed may require an associate’s degree, an approved technical school program, industry certification, apprenticeship, or on-the-job training.
2. Unfortunately, the emergent anthropologist faces the weakest job market and will have to compete against other job candidates who hold advanced degrees. Health care fields continue to offer more new jobs than any other career strand. Creation of new positions for railroad engineers, funeral directors and surveyors is somewhat flat; but many of these jobs are held by workers who can be expected to retire in the next 10 years creating job openings for existing positions.
3. With the exception of the anthropologist, all of these jobs require either a license or certificate.
4. Registered nurses have the option of a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Advanced degrees and specialty nursing certificates allow nurses to move into administration, teaching, and areas such as nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist.
5. You may have figured out that I already ranked the jobs by median income. The median income for registered nurses is the highest and nursing is predicted to have excellent job opportunities.

Did I stack that information a little? Sure, because I wanted to support my position. Yes, the median income for all occupations requiring degrees is higher, but the prospects of landing one of those jobs is lower because there are fewer available. That is why your restaurant server tonight may be a college graduate. And while the median income of college graduates may be higher, the difference between earnings in technical and degreed positions may not be as great many people assume. People do not earn more because they hold a degree. They earn more because they possess specific knowledge and skills that are marketable.

My concern is that a well intended effort to prepare everyone for college may result in limited job preparedness. If most jobs require post-secondary training, but the most common form of post-secondary training is on-the-job, then we have a disconnect.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report on Tomorrow’s Jobs actually projects:

For 12 of the 20 fastest growing occupations, an associate's degree or higher is the most significant level of postsecondary education or training. On-the-job training is the most significant level of postsecondary education or training for another 6 of the 20 fastest growing occupations. In contrast, on-the-job training is the most significant level of postsecondary education or training for 12 of the 20 occupations with the largest numerical increases, while 6 of these 20 occupations have an associate's degree or higher as the most significant level of postsecondary education or training. On-the-job training is the most significant level of postsecondary education or training for 19 of the 20 occupations with the largest numerical decreases.

Our students need post-secondary education. But there are many fields where the necessary knowledge and skills can be acquired with a more modest investment of time and money. We don’t tell our kids that. We tell all of them, “Go to college. In four years you’ll get a degree and you’ll get a good job and you’ll make a lot of money.” We rob them of other options by implying that any other path leads to failure.

I always felt kind of sorry for the Emperor. While he may have been a little shallow and gullible, he deserved honest answers and hard truths from trusted advisors. Don’t our young people deserve as much from us?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.