College education used to be a steppingstone for upward mobility and a guaranteed pathway to secure middle-class status for the first-generation graduates. It was the sole purpose of American life, promising the hard-working people to get the dignity they deserved in the sixties. American continent, blessed with the vast natural resources and the immigration of top talents from all around the world, has seen progress and prosperity like no other continent since WWII. But that America is a matter of the past, partly due to the fact that education has become commercialized even in the land-grant universities. Students are paying high tuition fees in the majors with substantially low return on investment, creating social discord and frustration in the job market among many college graduates. In the 2020 Democratic primary, student debt became a firing issue to enrich the base, and donations poured into campaigns of certain candidates often backed by the young population once the elimination of student loan plans were presented. Such political momentum reflects the sense of economic failure from the college degree holders, who are feeling underemployed and failing to keep up with the rising living cost in the major cities. Many are legitimately questioning the worth of traditional higher education.
Colleges for centuries guided the young minds towards progress and economic independence. But now, it focuses more on the wealth accumulation than serving the best interest of the students. American student borrowers with a degree have an average debt of over $37,000. Unfortunately, the student loan default is more evident for the minority and low-income communities, setting back their dreams of being middle class. On the contrary, aside from the private colleges, even a few state flagship university professors are earning more than the US President, Secretary of States and Pentagon Chief. More than 70 universities, including some public universities, pay over $1M to their Presidents. To attract students, colleges are manipulating rating data giving false hopes of economic progress and social prestige. It’s not the small ones you are thinking of – UC Berkley was kicked off the US News & World Report Ranking after manipulating data. In an Atlantic article, the author wondered about which college is not lying. Moreover, instead of embracing more students to educate and bring equality, the college ranking competition is creating an unhealthy culture of selectivity and reducing the chances of upward social mobility for many underprivileged communities.
Nothing better could have exposed the disguised approach of the colleges and big-name universities other than the recent Covid-19 outbreak. Hundreds of lawsuits were filed all over the USA to get refund of tuition and athletic fees. In many cases, the students are told that the universities are paying staff; so, they can’t a refund properly. Moreover, many college admins played dumb to bring back students on campus in Fall 2020. The goal was only to fill up their dorms, an important cash source. Nevertheless, a 19 year old person is paying the tuition fees with his/her high-interest student loans that s/he might have to repay for the rest of the life.
Now, the critical concern is whether your vast investment in education is going to pay off in the long-term or not? There is no straight forward answer for that. People often interpret the scenario based on their own perspective. Overall, according to a Pew Research Center study, income is stagnant for most of the people living in the USA, failing to keep pace with the rising living costs. During the pre-COVID period, unemployment dropped to the lowest level in decades, and the stock market showed high gains. But unfortunately, today’s real average wage considering inflation has about the same purchasing power as of the late 1970s, as revealed in that Pew study conducted in 2018. The economic gains mostly went to the top earners over the last few decades. It raises the bigger question: Will you earn a livable salary as a graduate? Statistically, it is not working well for many people. The high-paying jobs, as many people dream of working in financial districts and Silicon Valley, come with high price tags in housing and taxation. Often, advanced degrees, like MBA, JD, DDS, and medical degrees, from top-ranked programs add six-figure student loans, which cut a big chunk of a paycheck. Huge variations of living costs are perplexing for many early careers and often frustrating them, putting the work-life balance on edge, and many of them are working for the second or even third gig to pay off their bills.
A number of solutions had been often discussed. The increase in the minimum wage is one of them. No doubt – that is an important step and long due. However, in the service industry, the profit margin is razor thin. Any change of even dollars per hour can have a large impact on their operational strategy. Many jobs will disappear with the advancement of robotics and machine learning. For example, during Covid-19, some restaurants are bringing robots to serve food, remote working is exploding by replacing low wage workers, and hospitals are using tablet carrying robots to proxy in-person doctors. The other solution often discussed is to tax the rich people more and introducing wealth tax. In this politically divide congress, any such policy will face strong resistance, and more importantly, it is hard to know how exactly that is going to help an individual. Moreover, while Americans are enjoying the sweet fruits of globalization, the US job market is also embracing global competition from China and other emerging economies. That puts an extra burden on the locals to distinguish themselves. For decades, American companies have lead in the technological fields, but that dominance is fading out over time, impacting the salary of the American tech workers. In a word, there is no alternative other than pursuing the right career path considering many parameters to avoid future remorse. What appears to be a great career today, might not pay-off after 10-15 years.
Under these challenging circumstances rising from different sources, there are multiple avenues to think of to balance the education and career to earn a livable salary. Although rich people are in an advantageous position in the American education system, the country also celebrates talents from all around the world and focuses on creating leaders and entrepreneurs. Becoming a part of that selected group is highly competitive, but not impossible. Achieving American dreams is getting harder every day; however, that sense of insecurity should not stop you from pursuing your aspirations because that what makes America so unique in the whole world.
If you need to have an expert opinion to get into a new ballgame of college admission and career planning , UGI will be at your service to navigate through the complex web with real-world experiences. You don’t necessarily end up with a degree that will haunt you for the rest of your life. Even with some late planning to utilize limited resources, it is possible to maintain a livable salary after graduation. Everyone deserves a second chance, even after graduating, if s/he is not happy with the career.