Monday, September 12, 2011

Degree Cost, Quality, Return and Your Passions

Rhetoric and communications studies are, in theory, meant to explore effective communication. Rhetoric spends its time in the classical theories of persuasion, while most communications programs now embrace psychology and quantitative analyses.

But should we be persuading students to pursue degrees in our disciplines? I don't know. We need some new scholars and industry will certainly employ those capable of crafting messages (marketing and public relations remain in demand in a slow economy). But, in general, how do I "sell" the disciplines?

As the 2011-12 academic year has started, I've already had "THE" question from a student: will his $30,000 in debt be worth it after he completes a degree in English / Communication Studies.

My defense of rhetoric and communications studies is roughly the following list:

  • A well-rounded undergraduate degree can help you in almost any graduate program.
  • Communication skills increase your value regardless of your career path. 
  • All knowledge must be communicated, so it helps to understand the persuasive strategies across various disciplines.
  • Special education is expanding its awareness of writing and language arts education.
  • Scientific and technical communication are growing fields.

But, for those hoping to teach K-12 courses or at the college level, I cannot say that the degree is the wisest investment. I won't lie or mislead students and parents: many of my colleagues are underemployed and several are unemployed. Some of those individuals have $50,000 or more in student loan debt. Because the current loan payoff period is 298 months, that means paying $100,000 over the next 25 years. Yes, you read that correctly: a quarter of a century is the new normal thanks to consolidated loan debt.

So, the question for those graduates isn't if $50,000 is worth it, but is $100,000? For a student with $30,000 in loans, the actual debt is approximately $60,000 to $72,000 unless he or she pays the loan early.

The reality is that a college degree is required by many employers. Without an undergraduate degree, the unemployment rate is higher and the situation even worse!

I'm not sure how to advise students. I have a job, in rhetoric and communications. Then again, I have a Ph.D. and some unique skills. Having a computer programming background and a liberal arts education is a great mixture and a huge advantage. Maybe that should be part of my advice to undergraduates: consider a mix of double majors or a minor that gives you both "technical/professional" and "liberal arts" credentials.

Rhetoric, language arts, and communications programs are shrinking. Many graduates in these fields used to pursue K-12 teaching posts (most of my students are education majors), but those jobs are no longer secure. We also know that media jobs are vanishing. I have to suggest considering a technical and/or business emphasis to support the liberal arts degree.

You need the degree. But why do you need the degree. Let us explore that with the following:

From The Atlantic:
The Importance of College: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
JUN 27 2011

Daniel Indiviglio is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about the intersection of business, finance, economics, and politics. 

These days, getting a college degree is a pretty good idea. Indeed, if you're someone who can get into college, going is practically a no-brainer. Those who go to college make more money and have more opportunities than those who don't. This argument has been soundly and easily made a number of times, this week by New York Times columnist David Leonhardt and earlier today by my colleague Derek Thompson. But saying that college is important in practice is different from saying that it is important in theory.
Yes, "those who go to college" do better than those who do not, but this observation features several rhetorical weaknesses:

1) Not all college majors are equal. Some college graduates earn little more than a high school graduate with specialized vocational skills: a graduate in recreation studies, for example, earns less than an average auto mechanic. An underemployed rhetoric graduate might be offset in averages by the salary of a chemical engineer. Some degrees simply do not have a return on investment, while other return several times their cost.

2) Students entering some colleges and universities tend to have socioeconomic advantages that nearly guarantee their successes. At least one contributing factor to successes of the handful of upper-middle class and upper-class dropouts who ended up millionaires and billionaires is that it helps to start with connections. It is not the only factor — you must also be an amazing talent, often through very hard work — but connections help.

3) On the topic of connections, some institutions are better-known for their alumni networks than their academic rigor. Yes, these colleges and universities might provide good or excellent educations, but the reason so many U.S. Supreme Court justices attended Harvard or Yale is that there is an undeniable social network in our political system that values connections to those two universities.

It is possible that attending the courses at a university might not be the key to future employment and security. The institutions might simply correlate to other factors that indicate where a student is headed in life. It is possible that being admitted to a Harvard or Yale, whether you attend or not, is as good an indicator of future success.

Back to Indiviglio's column:
[Let's] quickly summarize why college is important right now. There's currently a big demand for college graduates. Since the demand outweighs the supply (see Leonhardt), college graduates obtain relatively higher wages. Even though college is expensive, the lifetime earning potential it provides results in its being worth the cost (see Thompson). 
These arguments are completely correct, but they're also completely irrelevant if a broader question is asked: should college degrees be important in the economy today?
Again, supply and demand might not represent the English, rhetoric, and communications disciplines. Generalizations aren't a good argument when there are a myriad of academic disciplines. The argument would be stronger within some fields than others.

And why are we demanding college degrees? What does the degree signify? Indiviglio argues the degree has become a part of job screening process, allowing employers to make certain assumptions. This approach to hiring uses the degree as a "sign/clue" of certain traits or qualities an employer desires.
Demand Does Not Always Signify a NeedImagine if employers, no matter what business they're in, begin believing that college degrees are incredibly valuable. Careers that traditionally favored college degrees now consider them mandatory and some that never sought a degree suddenly begin seeking college grads. That leads young adults to see a college education as more and more vital, as they want to be competitive in the labor market. So as the asset's cost rises, they take on more and more student loan debt to ensure they get a degree, through ultra-cheap government-guaranteed financing. 
Of course, the latter story has not yet come to an ugly end, like the housing bubble did. But some people believe there's an education bubble being inflated.
You cannot learn rhetoric or communications research "on the job" but you can learn many of the professional fields our undergraduates occupy. Until relatively recently in history, journalists and most writers did not need college degrees. Why does an artist need a degree, compared to the traditional model of an apprenticeship? What happened to the vocational apprenticeship is that we replaced it with undergraduate degrees. Originally, we assumed students would receive a well-rounded liberal arts education, but today many programs are so specialized that students do not receive that ideal education. I know many programs — even in the humanities — with no foreign language requirement. Some programs allow computer languages to meet the minimal foreign language requirement that does exist.

This situation leads me to ask what does the undergraduate degree in rhetoric or communication represent? Not what I want it to represent (a liberal arts student ready for an unpredictable world) but what does it represent to employers?

Apparently, the undergraduate degree has merely replaced a high school diploma. Too many of the students who passed through my classroom in the last six years have jobs that are not "college graduate" positions. If the economy doesn't improve quickly, these students will be forever stunted in their career paths. They cannot achieve their maximum potentials after years and years of underemployment. Was the degree worth it for those students? Some have told me, rather bluntly, that the degree was not worth the expense. I estimate a third, yes a third, of the students still in contact with me are working in retail positions. A rhetoric degree for selling sporting goods? Unless the former student is promoted into the marketing department, his or her potential is not going to be met.

Indiviglio recognizes this problem:
… [When] high school standards declined and college became more popular, some applicants stood out above others as being more educated and potentially smarter than those with only a high school diploma. If the trend keeps up, however, a time will come when a college degree isn't enough either: masters degrees will be commonly sought, as the value of college degrees fall to be worth as little high school degrees are today, since so many applicants will have them. If this trend keeps up forever, perhaps we'll one day have locksmiths with PhD's.
I'm already convinced the master's degree is the new bachelor's degree. The MBA replaced the undergraduate business education. Today, some firms are seeking Ph.D graduates to fill posts that were filled by MBA graduates. The oversupply of workers is enabling employers to be unrealistically selective — with little evidence a Ph.D is a better employee than a business graduate. Considering how many "doctors" were involved in the Wall Street banking mess, they might be over-confident as managers and senior employees.

In rhetoric and communications, I don't know that we will see the same trend. Newspapers and magazines do not need "doctors" to write columns (even though I am a columnist). Public schools have union contracts that increase pay based on degrees earned, so there are pressures against hiring applicants with the most college units and highest advanced degrees. If anything, in our disciplines the more education you have the less likely you are to be hired for many positions. About the only positions exclusive to a Ph.D in rhetoric are that of professor and private prep school instructor.
A commenter to the Indiviglio column wrote the following:
I work in fancy prep school. Over the past few years, here have been some of our new hires: a Yale grad with a degree in American Studies. We put him in two English classes and two American History classes. After two months, he asked to be taken out of the History. Why? He said he was up every night trying to learn the material. "But you have an American Studies degree from Yale," I said. "Yeah," he said, "but that was all theory. Now I have to explain the Monroe Doctrine, and I don't even know what that was." Next: a Brown grad with a dual major in Chemistry and Drama. We hired her to teach Chemistry. After two months, we had to take her out. She didn't know the basic Chemistry. "What did they teach you at Brown?" we asked. Well, it seems she used the drama side of her dual major to write and direct "guerrilla theatre" performances about the effects of water and air pollution on the environment. That was how she fulfilled the Chemistry side of her major. We shifted her to the Drama department for the rest of the year. Last: a Harvard grad with an English degree, hired to teach English. I have no idea if she was academically qualified or not. She stopped showing up after a month. We had to cover her classes with existing staff and accepted her resignation. The truth is, no one, not even the degree granting institutions, has any idea what these Bachelor's degree students know or don't know. The process and the product are a complete shambles.
That post represents many others; it was not a post in isolation. Disagree or not, and I'd like to imagine this is an outlier, employers definitely have a perception that degrees are losing their value. That might not be the reality, but perceptions and emotions drive the marketplace.
In the end, I tell my students this:

Study what you love and be passionate about the subject. Your undergraduate degree should include a minor or major in the "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, but if you don't love those subjects rely on them to differentiate you. If you can write about science or technology, you have a unique place in the market.

Do not avoid studying what you love — that is a serious mistake and you will resent the university experience. But, recognize some classes won't be within the field you love.

I love poetry and children's books. I have an undergraduate degree in English education and children's literature. There is nothing wrong with that and I know it added to my personal happiness as a student. Yes, it meant I had to double major in a "serious" field, but I also have a degree that I love.

If you love rhetoric and communications, study the disciplines. Be passionate, while being realistic. In the end, we have no idea where the economy is headed today. Be prepared, but do not sacrifice studying what matters to you. By being prepared, you can avoid the worst outcome while hoping for your ideal role in society.