For Weekly SurgeMay 14, 2013 

On Saturday, 739 Coastal Carolina University students walked across the graduation stage straight into a job market that, well…absolutely sucks. So far, the economy has yet to rebound in any meaningful way. According to the Wall Street Journal, the official unemployment rate for people younger than the age of 25 is 16.2 percent -- more than twice the rate for the general population. After adjusting the numbers to reflect changes in the labor force as a result of the recession, that percentage swells to roughly one out of every five youths and young adults.

To make matters worse, the Class of 2013 will be mired in student loan debt. For those lucky enough to actually find a job, they will be more likely to accept lower salaries than in better economic times.

So, no: The kids are not all right. In fact, things are downright awful. All their lives, kids are told to go to college. From the earliest ages of cognitive development, it’s been pounded into their heads: “Good grades + College = Job.” At one point in the not too distant past, that was mostly the case.

But then the economy crashed, and everything that was once an absolute guarantee became little more than a trite mantra quietly repeated to oneself when cramming for another final in an obscure English course; a class taken merely to fulfill a general education requirement necessary to graduate. This is what higher education has been reduced to: a series of obligatory credit hours, many times with no connection at all to the career paths of students, critics say.

Between skyrocketing costs, and diminished job prospects upon graduating, the return on investment for today’s typical four-year college education is starting to get questioned. Is it time to eschew what we’ve been brainwashed into thinking about four year schools? Is it time to finally say, “f**k college”?

There is no denying that the majority of society’s prized jobs -- white collar careers with big pay checks – will require, at a minimum, degrees from accredited four-year schools. However, the point is not that a four-year educational path is bad; the point is that the four-year educational path is not for everyone.

The Student Loan Chernobyl

While future job prospects are one of the many uncertainties in today’s higher education environment, cost is not. Degrees are expensive, especially those coming from traditional, four-year schools. Full-time CCU students dropped on average nearly $10,000 in tuition alone this academic year (out-of-state tuition is more than $22,000), according to figures provided by the university. This doesn’t include room and board, nor any other fees associated with enrolling at the university. And, tuition has risen by more than 11 percent since the Class of 2008 first arrived on campus.

According to U.S. News and World Report, which specializes in higher education, 70.6 percent of full-time undergraduates at CCU receive some kind of need-based financial aid. The average need-based scholarship or grant award is $4,653. The school’s high numbers of students from out-of-state – the most of any other public school in the state percentage-wise – means the average grad walks across the stage $31,629 in debt, based on statistics provided by ProjectOnStudentDebt.org. This is nearly $6,000 above the state average for four-year schools.

“Regarding the student debt, nearly 50 percent of CCU (students) are out-of-state, and therefore are paying a much larger tuition cost,” said Melissa Braunstein, Placement Coordinator for CCU’s Career Services Center. “We have more out-of-state students than any other public college in the state. I would surmise this is a contributing factor to larger debt.”

Gregory Thornburg, Interim Vice President of CCU’s Enrollment Services, placed the number of out of state students slightly lower: “Our grad debt is higher than the state average because [of] the number of out-of-state students. Our general population will run 46, 47 percent out-of-state, which is much higher than anybody else in the state.”

To rub salt in the wound of student debt, finding a job is much more difficult than it was before the recession. Longer periods of unemployment and underemployment (that is, taking jobs in which the individual is overqualified, or underpaid) immediately following graduation is on the rise, which makes repayment of student loans that much more difficult – even if those loan payments are deferred. As one might expect, rates of defaulting on student loans is on the rise as these graduates struggle to balance a life of underemployment with the need to repay tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. At CCU, the average default rate in 2009 was 7.1 percent ( FindTheData.org), which is 4.7 times higher than it was in 2006, back when the economy was still going strong.

And, student loans aren’t easy to walk away from. “You must repay your loans even if you don’t complete your education, can’t find a job related to your program of study, or are unhappy with the education you paid for with your loan,” states the Federal Office of Student Aid. “In rare cases,” debt-holders may discharge loans in bankruptcy court. However, you “must prove to the bankruptcy court that repaying your student loan would cause undue hardship”– and sob stories won’t get you far as you might think.

Sooner or later, the student loan debt is going to reach critical mass, and implode in spectacular fashion. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that the nearly $1 trillion debt load for student loans far exceeds every other form of consumer liability except mortgages in the U.S. This means that in our country, people are more in debt because of student loans than they are for medical bills, auto loans, or credit cards. While other trends in debt are flat, or even on the decline, student loan debt is still on the rise.

President Obama has made some attempts to alleviate some of the burdens of student loans. For example, under the president’s new “Pay As You Earn” plan, new borrowers won’t have to pay more than 10 percent of their discretionary income on student loan repayments, and remaining debt is forgiven after 20 years. However, current borrowers are still up a creek. Plus, the plan only applies to federal student loans – not loans from private organizations.

A Change in Perspectives

The economic collapse starting in late 2007 was a major blow to the trusted educational formula we had come to rely upon. When jobs started disappearing after millions of college freshman were just beginning their four-year college journey, it wasn’t something that they saw coming or could have planned for.

However, there are several contributing factors to the perilous state of the American educational system, one of those being our society’s obsession with a four-year education. Parents, guidance counselors, and commercials for education mills – a pejorative term used to describe for-profit universities who operate more as a business than an educational institution – pressure students from the earliest stages of their academic careers that if they want to succeed, they need a degree from a four-year university.

“I felt pressure from my cultural background and from my parents to get some kind of degree, so I continued to change majors even though I didn’t have any specific goal in mind,” Carson Rogerson, 28, of Myrtle Beach, tells The Weekly Surge. “Upon graduating from [Socastee High School], I had a desire to go to college for music. I was burned out on music and band, but I didn’t have much desire to do anything else, so I continued on reluctantly.”

It took Rogerson a handful of schools, and tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to finally finish his degree, which was by this time an economics degree from the University of South Carolina. Yet, was he better off than when he started college in 2002? “With the terrible job market and my lack of specific job skills, my chances of gainful employment were still the same as before I earned a college degree,” says Rogerson. He eventually went back to school at Horry-Georgetown Technical College, where he received his Emergency Medical Technician basic certification, and now works for Richland County.

“I spent seven-and-a-half years earning a bachelor’s degree which did not increase my job prospects at all,” he says. “Now, after one-and-a-half years of school, I hold a respectable job where I can afford to take care of my family.”

Rogerson’s story is far from unique, which is why conversations about educational decisions are shifting away from “student life” to pure economics. “I talk to students all the time, and it’s interesting because students are making more educated decisions about schools,” says April Garner, Career Resource Center Coordinator at HGTC. “It’s not just about following your favorite football team anymore, or being apart of Greek life. It’s more about economics.”

Yes, Virginia, There Are Other Options

“What people should understand is that, especially for Horry-Georgetown Tech, we have matriculation agreements with four-year universities all around the state,” says Garner. “So the smart thing to do is to start in a technical college environment, get your [general education requirements] out of the way for a lot less money, and then graduate with a two-year associate’s degree and the possibility of even a job at the end of your coursework.”

In almost every four-year curriculum, general education requirements are mandatory for graduation. Some of these classes are necessary pre-requisites for more advanced coursework. But, many are also unrelated to the career paths students eventually take. And, since tuition at four-year colleges is the same regardless of whether a student is in an Intro to Early British Lit class or taking a 400-level course in Applied Biomedical Design, the average student will drop more than $27,000 in his first two years at a public university for an education he could receive at a fraction of the cost from a technical college.

Whereas CCU graduates leave school with more than $31,000 in debt, students from HGTC’s Institutional Research Department reports its graduates walk-away with $7,500 in debt.

Additionally, going the technical school route also gives students the opportunity for on-the-job training while earning an associates degree – which gives them more options halfway through their education. For students unsure about a career path, this is a much better option. “The little bit of time I spent at HGTC is incredibly more valuable than the long period of time it took me to complete my bachelor’s degree,” says Rogerson.

FOX Business reports that middle-skill jobs – jobs that require a high school education, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree – will account for approximately 45 percent of all job openings through 2014, and that occupations requiring an associate’s degree only are growing the fastest. What does this mean? Students who are opting for technical college educations are going to have better prospects for jobs than their counterparts who spend more time in school at four-year colleges and universities.

“If a student comes in and they’re on an associate degree path then a good portion of that academic path is going to be hands-on experience,” says Garner. “Technical college students will always have that advantage as far as that curve is concerned. And what’s great about it for them is that a lot of those internships [required for graduation] turn into full-time jobs.”

And, local vocational schools are all doing very well in preparing their students for the working world. Miller-Motte Technical College’s cosmetology program in Conway recently received the “School of the Year” award at the 2013 Student and Professional Cosmetology Competitions. Scores from the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) – a mandatory test in nursing – shows HGTC nursing students with a pass rate of 97.76 percent; better than Clemson (91.8 percent), University of South Carolina-Aiken (89 percent), Francis Marion University (95 percent), and the national average (90 percent), according to a press release from HGTC.

Another technical college in the area, the Golf Academy of America, graduated 63 students with associate’s degrees last month. “These students put in a lot of hard work and all of them are now well prepared to step into golf career opportunities anywhere in the country,” said Jim Hart, Golf Academy of America president and director of the Golf Academy of America Myrtle Beach campus, according to a press release. “Our students are some of the best trained and most knowledgeable golf career professionals in the industry.”

But, technical schools aren’t the only ones experiencing a growth boom. There are now alternatives to the alternatives to four-year colleges. For example, “code schools” are popping up across America, which teach budding computer programmers code skills in a matter of weeks and months. And, they do so at a fraction of the cost of either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

One such school, Dev Bootcamp, is a nine-week program in Chicago and San Francisco that teaches popular programming language “Ruby on Rails.” The course costs $12,200, and part of that tuition is refunded after its graduates find a job and keep it for 100 days. While Dev Bootcamp doesn’t guarantee a job after graduation, 90 percent of its graduates who are looking for a job find one. And, the average starting salary is more than $80,000. A tech-startup called The Iron Yard, which recently set up shop in Greenville, now offers intensive, three-month programs teaching programming and computer skills with reputedly the same effectiveness of traditional computer programs.

Breaking the UnCollege’d Stigma

Parents raise children to be shining examples of human achievement. They want their child to be soccer stars, class presidents, or polished concert cellists. Likewise, they press their children from the earliest ages to get good grades so they can go to an Ivy League school when they graduate. And, there’s nothing wrong with having high standards for our children.

However, not every child is a star athlete, and not every child gets to be class president. In fact, it may even have nothing to do with talent. The children may simply not have the desire to take that chosen path. When education is viewed in the same regard as forcing sheet music into a child’s hand, we may be pushing them in a direction that isn’t right for them. Not every child wants to go to Harvard. Some just want to work on cars, or fix sinks, or repair broken wires.

This was the motivation for Mike Rowe, of “ Dirty Jobs” fame, to launch MikeRoweWorks.com in 2008. His mission was to break the stereotype of “dirty jobs.”

“We’ve declared ‘War on Work,’” Rowe states in the launch video for his site MikeRoweWorks.com. “We’ve made work into the enemy and I believe that something has to be done to point that out and start a conversation about the casualties of this war because if we don’t, then the country is going to fall apart.”

"We no longer encourage our kids to learn a trade. We tell them instead that going to college is the only way to get ahead in life. And I’m all for getting an education but not at the expense of completely marginalizing the jobs that built the country,” Rowe continues.

In his 2011 oral testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee, Rowe states there are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities as skilled tradesmen begin to retire and the skills gap widens because there aren’t enough skilled workers to replace them. It’s unbelievable to see thousands of over-educated college graduates protesting on the streets of major cities decrying a lack of jobs when nearly half a million positions are struggling to be filled. Is this not the warning sign we need that America’s educational priorities are horribly, horribly askew?

Yes, it’s blue collar, manual labor where you come home with cuts, burns and dirty hands. But, it’s good work. It’s honest work. It’s work where you can support a family and have a good life. Society shouldn’t discourage this career path just because you don’t need a four-year degree to do it. But, that’s exactly the attitude society takes when a high school senior says, “Hey. Maybe college isn’t right for me.”

Of course more so-called “prestigious” jobs are going to require higher levels of education. But, job prestige is no sort of indication of future financial success or overall job satisfaction. According to Business Insider , which dug through a study compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, physicians and dentists had the second highest rate of suicide among all occupations (marine engineers were the first). This is not to say that encouraging your child to pursue a career in healthcare is akin to sending them to their deaths, but (obviously, here) professional success does not guarantee personal happiness.

The weekend at the college didn’t turn out like you planned...

There will always be a need for advanced education. Traditional four-year schools are instrumental to our economy, keeping the labor pool filled with highly skilled, highly educated talent. Furthermore, four-year schools provide opportunities for students that the specialized educational programs of technical colleges are not designed to do. “One of the primary goals of higher education is to contribute to higher-order thinking such as problem solving, critical thinking, cultural awareness etc,” says Braunstein, CCU’s Career Services Center Placement Coordinator. “While this is not a technical skills set like what the two-year institutions provide, it is still a skill set that is valued by employers.”

“Tangible skills set or not, just having a bachelor’s degree is still a qualifying factor for many positions,” says Braunstein.

But perhaps the I’ll-explore-Europe-for-year plan isn’t so bad after all.

“I would recommend to anyone feeling the way I did back then to take a step back and evaluate your own desires and skills and abilities and decide a plan for education and a career path,” says Rogerson. “College and advanced degrees can open a whole lot of doors, but can also cost you a lot if you go in blindly and without purpose.”

Researching options is key.

“Some people want more of the campus life experience…others want to get to the heart of the learning process, earn the degree and be done with college as quickly and as painlessly as possible,” says Garner. “My department advises our students or potential students to do the research to see what a job will require – now and four years from now – to determine whether or not it makes sense for them to pursue a bachelor’s degree after they graduate.”

Garner also warns that the sometimes-prohibitive cost of four-year colleges should not be the end of the conversation for high school seniors. “This can be dangerous – a dream killer – if you are dealing with someone who thinks, for instance, that [a postsecondary] education is out of reach because they can’t afford it,” she says. “Attending a two-year college could make going to college a reality for someone who would have that financial challenge.”

Something Has to Give

Last year, 2,162 high school seniors graduated from Horry County schools. Of those students, 75 percent were headed to a two-year, or four-year college. Given the miserable economic climate, and the expenses of going to college, the decision of where to go to school, and what type of school to go to, is not an easy one to make.

It would be impossible to break down in a single article all the factors that are contributing to America’s educational crisis. Easy access to financial aid – be it through private or federal lenders, or through state-sponsored scholarship funds – allows colleges to increase tuition with a marginal impact on enrollment (meaning more money for colleges, especially for-profit universities). Society’s “demonizing of dirt,” as Rowe calls it, pushes students away from vocational training when this may be a better-suited career path. And, the myth still exists that more expensive schools lead to better jobs.

Fortunately, the economic recession has shined a new light on the fleecing of America’s young adults. The growing trend of alternatives to four-year schooling is providing a much needed relief valve for a glut of over-educated, under skilled college graduates struggling to find their place in the working world. And, the harsh economic reality of their decisions have prompted other college-bound students to think harder about the future of their postsecondary education.

As a society, especially in an area like Myrtle Beach that thrives on skilled labor and the service industry, we must eschew the conventional wisdom that dictates educations from technical colleges are somehow less noble than educations obtained through four-year schooling. As Rowe stated at the launch of his foundation, these are the jobs that hold America together.

So, yeah, some of these people may not have gone to college, but they’re debt free, doing what they enjoy and are presumably good at, and supporting families all across the Grand Strand. In many ways, we should be envious of the lives they established for themselves. After all, you don’t see civil servants protesting at Occupy Wall Street rallies complaining about a lack of work. They’re the ones collecting paychecks while cleaning up the litter after the protests subside.

Weekly Surge is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service