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We all like a good tale of woe; the media know this. A perennial favorite involves an overeducated Ivy League grad forced to live on the brink of insolvency while hacking away at a bartending or janitorial gig. The question arises: Is college really worth it?
Kevin Carey, writing in TNR, says the press has sounded this alarm now for four decades. In 1976, for instance, a Harvard labor economist published The Overeducated American, a book questioning the future economic advantage of obtaining a college degree. The NYT ran a front-page story on it as “the labor market was embarking on what turned into a decades-long run-up in the value of college degrees.” Carey also dug up similar articles from the 80s and 90s, noting what has become a predictable story template, often driven by, he says, a desire to boost circulation, project current trends into the future, or appeal to recent grads’ need to commiserate.
Here’s the formula for how to write the college-grads-are-screwed story:
Start with a grim headline, like “Grimly, Graduates are Finding Few Jobs.” (Times, 1991). Build the lede around a recent college graduate in the most demeaning possible profession (janitor, meter maid, file clerk) and living circumstances (on food stamps, eating Ramen noodles, moved back home with parents.) Pull back to a broader thesis, like “The payoff from a bachelor’s degree is beginning to falter.” (Times, 2005). Cite an expert asserting that this is no passing trend, e.g. “ ‘We are going to be turning out about 200,000 to 300,000 too many college graduates a year in the ‘80s,’ said Ronald E. Kutscher, Associate Commissioner at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” (Times, 1983). Finish with a rueful quote from the recent college graduate. “When I have to put my hands into trash soaked with urine or vomit, I say ‘What am I doing here? This job is the bottom. Did I go to college to do this?’ ” (Post, 1981).
Carey’s premise is that the media gets it wrong with these stories, and a big reason for that has to do with the experts who cite the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is slow to account for the shifts in technology and high-skill-level sectors (like healthcare and manufacturing) that increasingly require higher education credentials.
In a clever move, Carey went back and tracked down some of the doomed grads of yore to see how they turned out. How’d they fare? Pretty darn well. The bartender with the Yale masters in management (class of ’80) is now a senior manager at a international development consulting firm. A file clerk who lived off rice and beans? Now, a senior research supervisor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Health.
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