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College students should make careful choices

A large segment of the Occupy Wall Street movement was college students complaining about student loan debt.

Recent graduate Rose Swidden told CNBC in Zucotti Park last fall that she would leave college after studying agriculture with a debt of $35,000.

"We did what we were told to do: go to college, get an education, you'll get a job, you'll get a house," Swidden said. "That's what we did and now what?"

Swidden is not alone. The unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds with college degrees is about 12 percent, nearly 4 percent higher than the national average.

The Wall Street Journal reports that "over the past two decades, the price of tuition has risen 20 times as fast as the average college grad's wages."

As a result, students have taken on more loans. Student debt has now reached $1 trillion. The average student now leaves college owing over $27,000 in loans, according to FinAid.org.

On one level, Swidden and others like her may not be entirely sympathetic figures.

Adults are expected to make rational decisions and understand the consequences of their actions. And you don't have to attend an expensive private university to be successful.

In fact, Bloomberg News finds that while it may matter where you go to school, what you study can often have a bigger impact.

For example, Bloomberg reports that "Harvard University's graduates are earning less than those from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology."

The South Dakota grads this year received a median salary of $56,500 while the median salary for Harvard grads was $54,100, even though Harvard's tuition is about four times higher.

Still, the bummed and broke college students have a point.

Economist Robert Samuelson says the post WWII drive (thanks to the GI Bill) to put college within reach of average Americans became a ticket to the middle class.

However, Samuelson says, "The obsessive faith in college has backfired."

Samuelson references the book, "Academically Adrift," by Robert Arum and Josipa Roksa, that reports that "45 percent of college students hadn't significantly improved their critical thinking and writing skills after two years; after four years the proportion was still 36 percent."

Samuelson says the growth of colleges and universities and the necessity to fill classrooms (get tuition money) has watered down the academic rigor. More students than ever go to college, but many of them learn less than their historical cohort.

Meanwhile, vocational training from community colleges and apprenticeships has suffered and is even looked down upon. As a result, students are herded into college where there's an increasing chance they will not emerge with the skills necessary to compete in the workforce.

"It cheapens the value of a college degree and spawns the delusion that only the degree - not the skills and the knowledge behind it - matters," Samuelson says.

No one will argue that a college degree is detrimental, but the new reality is that, increasingly, job applicants are judged on what they can do, not necessarily where they went to school.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.

 


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