Never in history has it been easier to get a college degree than it is now in the United States. There are more colleges, more programs, and more ways to pay for them than ever before. Many programs enable students to get a degree online without ever visiting a university campus. Some colleges even allow some student to enroll without a high school diploma.
According to a recent CBS News story, two-thirds of American college graduates regret getting their degrees.
My father used to say that education is the only thing that they can’t take away from you. Most baby boomers heard something similar from parents who grew up during the Great Depression. During their time, any college degree was a ticket to the world of the well-off.
This is no longer true. Bachelor’s degrees are so common that they carry little occupational status. Master’s and doctoral degrees are less common but no longer guarantee employment.
One reason for this devaluation is the choice of an esoteric degree. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill “offers 138 distinct undergraduate degrees, concentrated into 84 majors within 26 broad fields of study.” In 2016-17, it awarded 5,811 undergraduate degrees. Besides the traditional disciplines, there are mind-boggling programs with few uses in the marketplace. Thus, the university awarded 103 degrees in “Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution.”
Massive Student Loan Debt
Those degrees are not cheap. A typical non-resident student at UNC with “average aid” paid about $33,000 per year for a total cost of over $132,000. This amount only covers basics like tuition, books, room, and board. Transportation, clothing, entertainment and all other expenses add to that total.
Only very well-heeled parents could write checks to cover such expenses from savings. Assuming that the family can contribute $15,000 per year, this leaves a shortcoming of over $72,000. Most students fill that gap by borrowing. Thus, debt is the most common cause of college degree regret.
Student loans have never been easier to get. There is a plethora of student loan programs. The vast majority of these loans are guaranteed by the federal government, which will pay the lender if the student defaults. Students spending a few minutes filling out online forms can borrow $20,000 per year. Even a reasonably frugal student can end up $80,000 in debt by graduation.
The two sources of regret, degree choice and debt, can create a perfect storm. Not all professions are created equal. The newly minted, heavily-indebted graduate in Peace Studies is entering a field in which the average salary is $50,000. If the entry-level wage is two-thirds of the average, the graduate who is fortunate enough to get a job in the esoteric field will start at about $35,000.
Today, this starting salary is barely enough to get by as a single person in a major city where rent alone will eat up over a third of the total. Add in the cost of a professional wardrobe, food, a car, utilities, and the other necessities, and not much is left. The graduate must make payments on those student loans.
The plight of those graduates, unable to find positions in fields like Peace Studies is even worse. They must still pay off their loans. The federal guarantee that made that money so easy to borrow also make the government an interested party when a borrower defaults. Many are forced to postpone career plans and move back into the parents’ home.
The Big Picture
According to the CBS story, “About 70% of college students graduated with student loan debt this year, averaging about $33,000 per student.” For many, the loans represent a nearly life-long commitment. More than $86 billion in student loans are still being paid by people on Social Security over the age of sixty-two.
The consequences can also have political implications. As the 2020 election draws near, many Democratic candidates are promising to forgive student debt and make college tuition-free. In true socialist form, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposes to erase the entire $1.6 trillion student debt in one fell swoop by taxing the rich on Wall Street.
One way to avoid degree remorse is to pick the right field of study. The most satisfying degrees (with a 66 percent positive rating) were in the applied sciences, mathematics, and engineering. These fields have an abundance of entry-level positions. High demand for graduates means significantly higher than average salaries.
Those who regret their decisions the most are humanities majors. They express remorse at a 75 percent rate. Following closely behind are those with degrees in social, physical, and life sciences, as well as graduates with art degrees. In the middle fall those with business and health sciences degrees.
There is one notable exception to the trend against studying the humanities. Education and teaching degree holders experience regret at levels barely higher than engineers.
Still an Individual Decision
Regardless of the fields, all college students experience anxiety over how to deal with their future. About one-quarter of those with humanities degrees are happy with their decision, and a third of the engineers still regret them. The decision to enter a field of study should always consider God-given abilities, personal interest, advice from elders and prayer.
The best advice to students, no matter what their area of study, is to enter college with a clear notion of what you want to be. Take time to decide what is best for you. Develop a plan for life to serve as a framework for the future. Ask and follow advice from family, friends and clergy about what they think might be best for you. Spend time in prayer and reflection to listen to what God’s plan for you.
Each person has a purpose. True peace in the world of work only comes by following this purpose—and not necessarily from pursuing “peace studies.”