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Is Higher Ed to Blame for the Plight of the Occupiers?

While speaking at a recent EDUCAUSE Conference, higher ed journalist, Anya Kamenetz, commented that “Occupy Wall Street is a referendum on the value of higher education.” Even though the rest of her presentation was rather interesting, this statement went on to occupy my thoughts.

The OWS crowd is angry. The 20-somethings in that movement resent the fact that they have college degrees, a tremendous amount of student loan debt, and no job. They want someone to blame for their frustration. Politicians push them to blame the banks and corporations or to blame the government, but there is also a tangible amount of frustration being directed at higher ed. After all, these institutions have promised that acquisition of a college degree will earn them a “better job” or “brighter future.” The academic experience should instead be marketed as what it really is: an enlightened path to the life you are ready to earn.

Beyond this fallacy in marketing, academic institutions are being improperly blamed. When looking at the recent college graduate who is struggling to jump-start his life, one must consider more than the possession of a college degree. Employers also look at level of workplace skill, industry knowledge, work ethic, reliability, diversity of experience, professional and personal references, and general likeability. All of these characteristics can be developed during college, but many students choose not to do the necessary work.

Mediocrity is rampant in classes I teach: students who repeatedly miss classes and deadlines, who refuse to purchase required textbooks, and many who disengage but never even bother to withdraw from the class (thereby forfeiting scholarship – i.e., someone else’s – money). They spend more time defending or making excuses than it would have taken to do the work. If these students are lucky enough to meet the bare minimum requirements, they finish the class with a C. They move on to the next class, where they will repeat the same behaviors, ultimately making mediocrity a habit.

Eventually, this C student graduates and then competes for a job against a student who worked harder and applied herself more and, as a result, graduated with a better chance of employment. The former student lacks motivation, work ethic, and sufficient knowledge, while the latter is more responsible, more motivated, and probably has numerous faculty recommendations to vouch for these traits.

What it comes down to is how hard the individual is willing to work. Yes, the cost of a college degree is a challenge and can seem inhibiting for many. But the existence of post-graduation debt and financial instability isn’t based solely on the high cost of a college degree. Plenty of students graduate with manageable debt or no debt at all. They are the ones who worked their way through college, did the work to identify scholarship resources while still in high school, or participated in work study programs. Their financially-frustrated counterparts wanted the full “college experience” but wanted to pay for it later, thereby accumulating immense student loan debt.

Having a college degree doesn’t guarantee we will be debt-free and gainfully employed any more than having a gym membership guarantees we will be thin and healthy. There is real work and sound decision-making that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that one leads to another.

I would encourage the Occupiers who want a career and financial security to get to the business of making that happen. They can start re-appropriating the time, energy, and voice being wasted in trash piles of city parks all over this country to begin to earn their place in the world of work. More directly, to the 15% of OWS protesters who are unemployed, I would say this…

Study the organizations you want to work for, and market yourself to them. Earn some solid recommendations from people whose opinions a potential employer will value. Take on an internship or volunteer in the industry in which you intend to work (the research shows internships almost always lead to full-time employment). Begin making connections with the movers and shakers in the business world instead of scorning them with chicken scratch on 99 cent poster boards. Earn their respect, and you will earn your future position.

As an added bonus to this hard work and sound decision-making, you will likely find yourself in a better position to pay down your debt and better equipped to manage your personal finances going forward. It’s about choices. Make the choice to better your situation instead of waiting around for someone else to fix it for you. And rather than dismiss your college experience as a waste of time, reflect on the intellectual return on investment you’re experiencing. Oh wait, that’s a free-market metaphor, and you probably skipped that class.

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  1. Ms. Bohanan, I could not possibly agree with you more! You have written a very good article that “hits the nail on the head.” There is much more to college than just classes. My experience with a majority of students is, unfortunately, similar to yours. But our current society tells students that someone/something else is to blame, allowing students to avoid blaming themselves.