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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

A changed college education

In Rick Perlstein’s 2007 essay “What’s the Matter with College?” he laments the death of college as a catalyst for radical social change. For him, the increasing pre-professional bureaucratization of college deprives students of the creative intellectual impetus they need to renew national culture and idealism. What he didn’t predict was that the end of college as we know it was indeed not brought by intellectual changes, but by economic changes – because college students are now entering an era of curtailed expectations, and living with less is becoming the way.

For the past several years, the average college student has had a clear path toward success. At college, one developed character by participating in social organizations, volunteering in charities, leading student governments. At the same time, one was expected to consistently maintain outstanding grades, attend office hours, demonstrate enthusiasm for learning. Not less were the demands to socialize and to party. Success in these – and, by extension, acquiring the necessary skills – meant that one was ready to graduate.

And the subsequent rewards were multiple. Fresh graduates expected a minimum starting salary of $40,000. Assured by the security of lucrative income, one could purchase an Acura, repay student loans, buy designer Armanis, marry college sweethearts. College payoffs were satisfying.

But the premise and promise that defined college are now withering and crumbling. That dream is under threat, brought about by a seismic economic downturn. The jobless rate is steadily increasing. Competition for jobs is fierce, pitting one not just against fellow graduates but to former managers and senior specialists. Financial reports continuously deliver gloomy forecasts. Fear is coursing and uncertainty is permeating. For many, this is the future disappearing.

Thus, expectations in college will no longer be the same. But what has changed?

Firstly, our entire orientation with wealth. We were living previously in an inflated setting, spending with money borrowed from the future. And unlike past crises, which were the product of business cycles – periods of economic fluctuations due to the imbalance of supply and demand – this crisis is real, so widespread, so integrated between numerous actors, a consequence of so many bad decisions by so many people all at the same time. College graduates must recognize and adapt to the unforgiving nature of this downturn.

It is also not just about reduced expectations, but our very conceptions of the way traditional businesses operate. Several industries are undergoing transformational, systemic changes. Traditional print journalism is entering into a crisis of identity, struggling to promote a viable business model against the growth of blogs and free content. The financial industry’s reputation and function is in shambles, the public’s faith distorted after all the perceived corporate greed and scandalous disregard. And the government’s nationalization of the banks ensures that corporate operations will never remain the same. Our professional education has to be realigned to this new reality.

Additionally, the fight for resources is increasingly diverse. As nations ascend in political influence, economic might, and military sophistication, the bidding for energy and capital occur in a realm where demand greatly outstrips supply. Resources are dwindling. Thus, for the college graduate, prior expectations of affluent lifestyles and extravagant spending are no longer realistic.

When Perlstein envisioned the death of college in America as we know it, he was imagining its death by a lack of intellectual radicalism. It would be interesting to know that change was brought instead by an economic crisis.

 

ZACH HAN is also searching for a job; interested employers can e-mail him at zklhan@ucdavis.edu.

 

 

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