Education is the great equalizer of the ages. Since Horace Mann modernized our public school system in the 19th century, millions of people have been able to achieve the American dream through hard work, perseverance, and dedication. It's a sad reflection on our society, therefore, that people with college degrees are unable to find employment and are staggering under the burden of financial debt. While some have begun to question the value of a college degree, secondary education continues to be necessary for advantageous employment and upward mobility in our society.
Higher education is worth its cost. From 2001 to 2013, average adjusted wages fell sharply for both college graduates and high school graduates – but workers with bachelor's degrees still earn over 75% more than those with only high school diplomas. Over a lifetime, this payout becomes more than $1 million, which shows that college degrees are still worth the initial burden. While many decry the falling wages and unemployment of college graduates, they fail to notice that the same – or worse – is happening to those with high school diplomas. Earning a degree continues to be a more profitable course of action – and this would be beyond any reasonable doubt were it not for underemployment.
Underemployment describes college graduates who are employed in jobs that do not require a bachelor's degree: about a third of all college graduates are underemployed at some point in their careers. However, even in cases of underemployment a college degree has benefits: college grads are less likely to be fired and still tend to earn more, as they receive promotions faster. However, there is no question that underemployment is harmful to our economy, as it doesn't allow people to work in the highest returning jobs possible. Minimizing our economy's underemployment should begin with our colleges, who are in the best position to make sure their graduates are gainfully employed in appropriate positions.
Institutions of higher education are ideally positioned to improve employment prospects with a few simple programs. Many colleges already have systems that match graduating students to internships or have representatives from local companies speak about job opportunities. Mandating this forward-thinking mindset in all colleges would increase the number of former students who have a plan for their future.
Colleges also have a second way to ensure that more graduates are employed: cut departments that have a track record of leaving students out in the cold with a crushing debt. Undoubtedly, some areas of study have higher rates of employment, like physics, law, or ecology; other fields of study are infamous for their graduates' unemployment, especially the humanities department. While areas like these remain important and continue to fill jobs around the world, colleges need to research exactly how many of their former students find jobs, and at what income levels. While many teachers and professors argue (correctly) that these departments make informed, educated citizens who contribute to our society, the cost to these future citizens is too great. It makes no sense for parents to send students to a college to study similar fields when employment prospects are low and as likely as not, the student will be underemployed or unemployed with an oppressing financial burden. The solution is for colleges to carefully investigate employment rates of their students after graduation, and to cut or reduce unproductive departments. With colleges spending less on these departments, all students could profit through reduced tuition and lower rates of default on student loans.
In short, a college degree continues to be worth the cost. Education is necessary to ensure upward mobility in our society and lift whole cities out of poverty. Even though the initial investment into education is massive, institutions have no shortage of options available to alleviate financial hardship. By encouraging students into more profitable departments, colleges can boost average income levels and lower underemployment. However, for those students who choose to study a field regardless of future prospects, colleges can still improve employment by connecting students with job opportunities and matching graduates to internships. Higher education remains the key to success for all people, regardless of initial income or location, and it is the best way to achieve the modern American Dream.
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