Higher Education: The New Battle in the Parent Games

medill logoFull disclosure: I hold an MSJ from Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism. Go Wildcats!

Last night, a friend posted a link to a blog written by a woman who gives career advice. Penelope Trunk seems smart, and her advice is usually sound. In this particular post, she writes why people should not go to graduate school.

“It’s pretty well established that non-science degrees are not necessary for a job. In fact, the degrees cost you too much money, require too long of a commitment, and do not teach you the real-life skills they promise.

“Yet, I do tons of radio call-in shows where I say that graduate degrees in the humanities are so useless that they actually set you back in your career in many cases. And then 400 callers dial-in and start screaming at me about how great a graduate degree is.”

She makes some valid points. It is really expensive to get a graduate degree. I’m 11 years out of school and still paying for mine. (If everything goes according to plan, it will be paid off May 2012.) But if you do cost/benefit analysis, my first two full-time employers would not have even interviewed me if I hadn’t had Northwestern University on my resume. I know this because they told me so. I also know that more than 250 people applied for both of those jobs. I believe I got myself the job… after my grad degree got me the interview.

Even if I hadn’t had to pay for the tuition, the time I spent in school cost me something. It cost me time, which is the most precious of all commodities. Trunk argues that time should be spent in the workforce, not in a classroom. For some people, that’s probably true.

For me, the time I spent in grad school was the best investment I ever made in me. I didn’t “get to know myself better,” as Trunk suggests. I got to know other people. I found a group of people like me. It was the first time in my life I wasn’t the weird girl in the group because all my classmates had a similar weirdness. Could I have found that in the workforce? Maybe. Could I technically do my job today without any formal training? Probably. But both of those things would have been immensely harder and taken much longer without my education.

Truthfully, I don’t actually care that much if other people go to graduate school or not. I did. I liked it. I’m happy with my decision. What bothers me about Trunk’s piece and so many comments I’ve heard like it, is the disregard for education.. as if learning itself isn’t a reward. Years ago, I saw an interview on 60 minutes with an Ivy League president. When asked about the high cost of education at her school, she seemed startled, “Is that all?! That’s a bargain.” She was right. She also missed the point.

We absolutely need to have a serious discussion about why an Ivy League-educated person can’t possibly take a job as a teacher or social worker because the  student debt is so choking. How come our best and brightest are forced into a certain sectors as the only way to pay for their education in another sector? We need to look hard at why the cost of education is going up at the same time the federal government wants to cut Pell grants. Again.

In the past three elections, I’ve noticed a sentiment that education is not worthy of respect has gotten louder and louder. Candidates with graduate degrees are mocked, while those with a “working man’s PhD” are revered. At the same time, I’ve seen a rise in my completely non-scientific sample of acquaintances of, not just home schooling, but unschooling.

Why is that? What mother, other than a Yale grad, would be disappointed her son grew up from poverty to be a Harvard grad? Why can’t there be respect for both? Why is there a need to put down another person’s work, either in the office/farm/factory or the classroom?

This feels very much like next battle in the wretchedly named “Mommy Wars.” It used to be breast-feeding vs. bottle feeding; co-sleeping vs. cry it out; daycare vs. stay-at-home. Now, it’s formal education vs. school of life.

Every person is different. Every situation is unique. Every family has personal goals. Shouldn’t we look at our goals and decide what path makes the most sense to reach them, and then do it? And can’t everyone else stop telling us we’re doing it wrong? It’s not helpful. It’s certainly not educational, however you define that.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Higher Education: The New Battle in the Parent Games

  1. Couldn’t agree more and very well put. It’s such a personal decision. I know tons of people who are very successful without graduate degrees. I know others who would not have gotten the connections or (yes) self-awareness necessary for their very successful careers without them (me included). Most importantly, though, what ‘success’ looks like is as different for every person as what it takes to be a good parent. Why is this a debate again?

  2. Hardin

    I’m one of the weirdos who loves education for the sake of being educated. As long as it’s not going to put my family in a bad financial situation, my aim is to periodically pursue more formal education throughout my life. Even if it’s not an immediate winner on the cost/benefit scale.

  3. I’m in grad school. If you asked the writer of that article, she’d tell me not to even bother. Heck, she DID say not to even bother, because there are no teaching jobs in the humanities anyway. I admit, I have the luxury of not having to support my family since I married someone with job security, but I’m pursuing the thing I love. The thing that makes me happier than anything else. And I’m really really good at it. And if being really happy and being really good at something isn’t a sign I should do it, then, I’m just screwed. But, I know friends who have the same degrees I’m pursuing, and they’re making it work. And I’ll make it work too. Because dammit, one day I *will* be able to tell people I’m an English professor.

  4. Also: I sure wish my mom would get with the program on my chosen life plan. She keeps trying to convince me I’m doing the right thing, much to the bafflement of me and the person who knows me best, Jon. It’s like, she loves me, but she doesn’t understand me or what makes me happy. She literally suggested I should become a genre fiction writer!

  5. As a public high school teacher – who is currently unemployed because of differences in opinion with public school education – and who is currently considering a master’s degree, here’s my two cents:

    For some people, graduate school is their ONLY option for advancement – the majority of colleges won’t even consider you as an adjunct professor without a master’s. For some people, a bachelor’s degree is useless and a waste of money, let alone a master’s. I think it’s a personal decision based on goals and desires.

    And – I totally agree that we need to back off each other. A garbage collector is just as valuable to society as a doctor – and thank God there are people who WANT to be garbage collectors because it’s not what I want to do.

    And the educational priorities of this nation are RIDICULOUSLY screwy. Teachers aren’t paid what they deserve; students are cookie-cuttered and non-thinkers; and prices for good education are way to high.

    Sorry for the rant – this has been on my mind a lot lately as I reconsider my career choices and future options.