AMY MROTEK, OPINION COLUMNIST
We are a uniquely educated generation with an historic amount of degrees under our arms, swaggering around campus concerned with what font should brand our resumes. We agonize over class schedules and internships. We pick majors and ascribe more meaning to them than our own names. We trudge the tree-littered St. Norbert campus in a privileged smog, unfettered by the fact that every single one of us is a participatory member on the fast-track to an elite minority: college graduate.
Studies as recent as 2012 from Harvard, Bloomberg and the National Center for Education Statistics cite the numbing number that only 6.7 percent of the world’s population holds a college degree. That stat is so low it hits its head against coffee tables, and trends don’t show a whole lot of positive future traction.
In fact, experts imply the opposite. Universities across the nation have fallen from their cap-and-gown grace, caught up in the sandstorm that is today’s economic and ideological backlash. You’d be hard pressed to find a serious news publication that hasn’t run critiques of college education, with John Cassidy’s “College Calculus” in the September issue of the New Yorker only the latest in the higher-ed onslaught.
My own biases aside (what the hell am I writing all these checks for then, Bursar?), it seems that, now more than ever, recognizing the glistening diamonds amidst the academic rough is not only beneficiary but personally gratifying. That 6.7 percent has to hold its own somewhere.
There are two kinds of support whittled from the college experience: the tangible (those measurable snippets, like salary and job affordances) and the intangible (those generated in spaces that literally function for growth and knowledge). Both are necessary. Both carry college past its caricature, balancing the emotively impalpable with concrete factoids that ultimately build its indispensible frame.
The economic reality of graduating amidst recession ripples contributes to millennial woes, if not defines them. Underemployment is a steady concern. Student loans don’t pay for themselves. Yet most analysts still maintain that the lifetime earnings of a college versus high school degree holder still don’t even out. A joint 2014 study between Forbes magazine and the Federal Reserve maintained the average college student who pays annual mean tuition of $20,000 can expect to clip their educational costs by the age of 40. The difference in earnings cruises up from there, with the college graduate making out with an $830,000 net profit by retirement (estimated at age 67).
While this is spit-shined news for even the student-loan saddled, raw numbers aren’t the sexiest, universal sell. It’s hard for any one of us to see past this age-40 paradise that beckons and calls.
So how about job flexibility? Professional plasticity is certainly a tangible worth its weight, as studies show our generation will hold 15-20 different jobs in our working life. Maneuvering to and from middle management without a college degree is simply improbable, and your ability to navigate between and beyond entry-level positions into those that sustain your bank account and self-worth are still rooted in certain academic merits.
This doesn’t even take into account how the country’s blue-collar sector has virtually dissipated. The traditional working route that established stability for our grandparents and even parents is no longer feasible, and those snug, pensioned careers at the plant or with the platoon have been squeezed out, with what positions remain seeing increased competition.
Yet perhaps the most encompassing–albeit abstract–rationale behind the worth of college lies in its unencumbered setting for self-awareness and its literal and ideological diversity. These are the intangibles, the parts we look back upon when we’re retired that help us connect the dots of our being.
One of the core tenants of college means to leave your household of 18 years and live amidst thousands of strangers from any and every palette of life. Higher ed secretes pluralism; colleges and universities are petri dishes for rubbing elbows with individuals who fundamentally differ in thought, action and belief orientation.
You will be challenged. You will be uncomfortable. You will see and hear things that contradict your schema, and you will play bumper cars with new ideas, new identities. To say you don’t experience this without college would be false. But it would be equally false to say college doesn’t afford this at the most opportune time of your life–when one is old enough to cultivate sincere, imperative character yet young enough for trial and error. Furthermore, college does this more and better than anywhere else.
Literal diversity is a hard pill to swallow when you take a gander around our own campus. It’s not unfair to claim Norbs is, for the most part, demographically pretty darn white bread. Yet this simply isn’t the case at other institutions, and, indeed, historically, colleges have offered themselves to be the mirrors of cultural tides and expanding social awareness. You should want to take part in that headfirst, eyes open.
Even amidst all these words splattered on paper, without question, college still isn’t for everyone. But neither is going vegetarian. Or Wisconsin winters. Or feather fedoras. And while adult life leering immediately outside our collegiate funnel is certainly difficult, the logic of cutting out the academic middleman remains shortsighted.