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Higher Education Gamble – Too Big A Risk?

Graduation IMG_6461

Consumer: noun. “a person who purchases goods and services for personal use; a person or thing that eats or uses something.

Students probably cannot be accurately labeled “consumers” in the strictest sense of the definition. After all, the schools are still there after the students graduate. Most often, customers can get their money back if the goods or services, even half-used or half-eaten, turn out to be of poor quality, defective or misrepresented in the sale. How many schools have you heard of that do that? Knowledge/education cannot be ‘used up’ such that it is rendered “consumed.”

Students do pay for a service, that of teaching. Others, including corporations, will use the education students receive for profit…at least that’s usually the plan. (Of course, there are collateral, incidental and ancillary consumables, from room&board to books to beer to cafeteria food to job placement services.)

Customer: noun. “A party that receives or consumes products ( goods or services) and has the ability to choose between different products and suppliers.”

In the end, the students (or their paying parents) could fit the definition of customers, perhaps more narrowly, “clients” as the customers of a professional service provider, or the principal of an agent or contractor, hereinafter referred to as “colleges” or “universities.”

These professional services range from college level learning to degree brand value and school reputation. Different from most other product or service organizations, schools often encourage students and parents to donate money long after graduation. Most businesses who sell to customers wouldn’t even think to ask. (Business investments are not equivalents.)

In the end, students/parents usually ask:

  • 1. Which school(s) do I most want to attend?
  • 2. Which school(s) could I most likely attend?
  • 3. Which school(s) could I most afford to attend?

In reality, schools are “wholesale distributors” of students, working them through the packaging process in order to deliver them to the labor force, where they will be consumed slowly over decades by corporations. In the end, much like the corporations to which students are served up, schools usually ask:

  • 1. Which applicants/recruits do we most want here?
  • 2. Which applicants/recruits are we most likely to attract?
  • 3. Which applicants/recruits can we most likely afford to accept?

One interesting way to view colleges and universities might be as the final stage of preparation and packaging for the raw materials that come out of high schools.  Schools shop through and inspect the applicants, admit whom they wish to their process, and then begin to shape and market the students.

Students come off the assembly line(s) with the appropriate labeling ranging from “Drop Out Ken” to “Doctor Barbie,” or “Engineer Ken” or “ROTC G.I. Joe/sephine.” Then they’re wrapped in caps and gowns and boxed.  Some get special “Ivy League” limited edition packaging, while others are prepared through discount generic education channels.

Afterward, they are all loaded onto pallets and shipped during hiring seasons to “Employees R’ Us” where some have been ordered in advance, others are cherry picked, and others left on the shelves.

And then, there’s “shrink.”  Among young [2015] college graduates, 10.5% are neither enrolled nor employed (compared with 8.4% in 2007). About one million “missing workers” include college grads — potential workers who were neither employed nor actively seeking work simply because job opportunities remained so scarce in 2014. Those might be considered surplus, or worse yet, scrap from the college assembly lines.

Gambler: one who plays at any game of chance for money or other stakes; stake or risk money, or anything of value, on the outcome of something involving chance.

One can’t argue the rule, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” But not everyone can be a winner, either. Unemployment of young graduates is extremely high today. For young college graduates, the 2014 unemployment rate was 8.5% (compared with 5.5% in 2007), and the underemployment rate is 16.8% (compared with 9.6% in 2007). 2015 isn’t looking any better.

For the first time since 2007, the official national unemployment rate for African-Americans dipped below 10% in the second quarter of 2015, according to the Labor Department. Despite that improvement, at 9.5%, it’s still nearly twice the national average of 5.3%, and more than double the 4.6% rate for whites.Aug 4, 2015.

For  young African-Americans without college, “the real unemployment rate…is 51%,” according to Bernie Sanders. 

Grim reality #1, that may be one of the reasons that among 2014 U.S. high school graduates, 70.9% of African-American graduating high school seniors had enrolled in college by October 2014 compared to 67.3% of Whites.  (U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Grim reality #2, enrollments aren’t the whole story. Many first-time full-time students go in, but don’t graduate, no matter race/ethnicity. “While researchers and other analysts have found that African-American and Latino college enrollment rates [are] approaching that of Whites in recent decades, they note that their college completion rates have lagged in comparison to those of Whites and Asian Americans.

Comparing students starting bachelor’s degree programs in 2002, those who earned a B.A. at the original institution within six years varied greatly, depending on the school sector and student race. Loans aren’t forgiven, completion or not.

Grim reality #3 is that African-Americans with college degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed as other graduates.  One new study found that 12.4% of black college graduates were unemployed, though for all college graduates, the unemployment rate stood at just 5.6%. Another found Blacks and Hispanics at about 11% and Whites at 5.8%.

The underemployment rate by race is just as stunningly disparate, 8.2% for whites, Hispanics at 12.7%, and 15.4% for blacks. (There was no indexed analysis of the depth of underemployment.)

Has college become too much of a gamble? Or was it a Ponzi Scheme all along?

Today, 40 million people owe $1.2 trillion from student loan debt. To date, there is about $60 billion in defaulted student loan debt according to Chris Lang of the New York-based debt collection agency, ConServe. When gamblers lose big, they often flee, leaving town to avoid getting their kneecaps readjusted…or worse. Some 2% to 4% of delinquent student loan debt is owed from students abroad. “For some, fleeing the country seemed like the best option,” according to a CNN Money article.

“I have never let my schooling interfere 
with my education.”  
– (Apocryphal Twainism)

There’s almost no question, in a foreseeable slow-growth and low-peaking domestic job market where universities are unaffordable, wages are depressed such that jobs pay too little to repay the loans, but still demand at least some advanced education…something’s got to give.  There are no alternative answers or solutions anticipated in the near term, even as tuition and enrollments steadily increase.

Like the lottery, the more people that play, the lower the chances of any individual to win…and college enrollments continue to rise on a fairly steady decades-long trend. Despite the evidence, ill-advised young people are encouraged to take the gamble, as unemployment or underemployment loom large.  Interestingly, when looking for metatags for this post, I found that “unemployment” isn’t an available option on LinkedIn.

No doubt, there’s a deep disconnect between the ideals of “higher education” and the realities of today’s domestic (and perhaps global) job market.

How do we help young people weigh the risks and shape their futures using reasonable logic based in current and most likely market trends? When is the risk not worth the potential gain? When is it better to have learned something and lost, than never to have learned it at all? How do we teach high school students to make informed choices, and begin early exploration of education and career alternatives to the increasingly risky choice of university education?

And most of all, how might we create and facilitate new learning channels, assess and measure self-learning outside of traditional high-cost channels?

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Copyright © 2016 – Robert D. Jones – All Rights Reserved

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