Politically, in Canada, whenever somebody with a little bit of power heads out to talk to young’ins, the topic of university tuition inevitably comes up. Youth generally don’t have a whole lot of expenses other than tuition and booze, so it’s a big deal to them. And even if young people aren’t currently in university, most think they’ll end up there some day, since everyone except me has told them it’s the key to success.
And because those politicians want to get elected, they always say the same thing. University tuition should go down. We want more kids to exchange four years of their lives for a degree that may or may not be useful, because heaven forbid we encourage someone to take an alternate path.
But wait, you say, the statistics prove that college educated people make more than non-college grads. So shouldn’t we encourage everyone to go? As always, the statistics don’t tell the whole story.
I’m not convinced that there isn’t a chicken and egg argument with getting a college education. Are people more successful because they go to college? Or are the people who are going to go to college going to be successful anyway? Stuff like ambition, intelligence and hard work will make you successful, degree or no degree. Smart people tend to go to college. But that doesn’t necessarily make them successful.
And, of course, we have so many useless degrees out there. Sure, many people shrug off the uselessness of a psychology or a women’s studies degree and go on to lead productive lives in completely unrelated fields, but many others struggle with the weight of student loans and a job that doesn’t live up to expectations.
We’re doing people a disservice by encouraging them to go to college and take degrees that just don’t translate to jobs. Yes, I realize the job market can change quite a bit during a four-year degree, but when was the last time you met an engineer, nurse, teacher, doctor, pharmacist, social worker, or software engineer that was unemployed and not by choice? There are hundreds of jobs that have good long term prospects.
We can’t expect 18 year-olds to make these kinds of decisions. They don’t have the maturity to make huge life changing decisions, even though they do all the time. And, as parents of 18 year-olds can tell you, typically the last thing an adolescent wants to do is what you tell them. So we’re left with what Will Hunting described as this:
See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a fuckin’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!
So how do we avoid this problem of useless degrees? I think it’s simple. Like everything else in the market, we use incentives.
A few Canadian provinces have programs that will pay back someone’s student loans if they live in the province for a certain number of years. You live there, pay taxes in the province, and they’ll top you up with some sweet refundable tax credits. I get the program, and I like it, but why would any province give tax credits to someone who got a degree with zero job prospects? I have a problem with useless degrees, and other taxpayers should too. They don’t add anything to the economy.
Another idea is to discriminate student loan funding. If you’re looking at a degree in underwater basket weaving, maybe the maximum amount of student loans that you qualify for should be less than someone in a hard science. Let’s tie student loan funding to the future prospects of getting a g.d. job.
If we combine reduced student loans for arts degrees along with making tuition higher, it’ll reduce demand for these programs and help get rid of the dreamers. Want to study drama? Okay, but you better hit up the bank of mom and dad. Want to learn the ins and outs of Polish? Knock yourself out, but be prepared to pay out your ass.
There are long term shortages coming in certain industries. We know this. We also know that there are other industries that will always be in demand. It’s time we changed incentives to encourage people to get into these fields. Because if we don’t, our entire economy suffers. All college kids want is a chance to be a successful adult. It’s time for adults to lead the way, and stop perpetuating the myth of a college education is the ticket to riches.