A recent article in the Washington Post highlighted a particular segment of the nation’s struggling unemployed. That is in itself is not surprising. After all, black unemployment exceeds the unemployment level for handicapped people and many other challenged groups within our nation. The group that the Post profiled was people with Ph.D.s in the sciences. An increasing number of chemists, biologists and other scientists who have invested heavily in their education are finding themselves jobless. Of those who are employed, thousands are doing lower-wage “post-doc” work in laboratories, as opposed to heading up research projects or teaching in universities.
I have always believed that education is one of the vital keys to upward mobility and overcoming poverty. Ph.D. unemployment however, is a startling fact for African Americans who have been taught that education is the great racial equalizer. They have been encouraged to sell or sacrifice almost anything to achieve the highest levels of education. The Washington Post, however, shows us that the most sought-after Ph.D.s may not be the great career makers. Those who are advising today’s students often imply that a college or graduate degree is some sort of financial guarantee. The Post article noted the loud clamoring by groups like the National Science Foundation and the current administration for more American students to pursue advanced degrees in the sciences.
These groups fail to mention that highly-trained students may not find jobs in their field when they finish their degrees.
I’ll never forget a discussion I had with my father at the ripe old age of 12 years. He told me that he was not going to give me a traditional inheritance. He informed me that there would be no money left. Instead, he would give me my inheritance now. My inheritance would be in the form of him financing my entire education as far as I chose to go. The only thing that he asked in return was that I would commit myself to being the best I could be at whatever career path I chose. I thank God for his wisdom and because of his guidance I excelled in a private high school, a private college and in Ivy League graduate school. I will never forget that somebody had to pay for my schooling and I will never forgot that Dad had to work very hard to pay it off.
Students from wealthy or upper-middle class families may find themselves out of work for a while, but they likely have a support system to help them change course and find something else to do. Poorer students, however, particularly those who may be the first in their families to go to college, often borrow huge amounts of money just to obtain a bachelor’s degree. And it is not just the students themselves who are affected: parents or grandparents have often co-signed for the loans, only to find themselves deeply in debt during their retirement years.
Education is an investment, and like any investment it requires thorough research beforehand. There is nothing wrong with majoring in social work, for example. But you should not borrow tens of thousands of dollars to obtain a degree that leads to a career with an average annual salary of $30,000. Students must research the job market, as well as the salaries they can reasonably expect to earn upon graduating before taking out loans that can cripple them financially for decades to come.
Nationwide, we are now facing almost $1 trillion dollars in student loan debt. A 2010 report from the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center revealed that black college graduates have more student loan debt than any other racial group. Twenty-seven percent of African Americans with bachelor’s degrees are carrying at least $30,500 in student loan debt, compared to just 16% of their white counterparts and 9% of Asian American college graduates. The top 1% of all borrowers is facing over $150,000 of debt!
What is the consequence of all this debt? It hinders the very progress we want all students, and racial minorities in particular, to make. Debt ridden graduates are hindered from buying houses and delay getting married and having children. Common sense would indicate this has not helped our nation’s slowing economy.
Many experts have offered policy proposals in response to the mounting student debt crisis. Some have proposed complete student loan forgiveness. Besides being impractical, this is markedly unfair to the adults who declined opportunities to attend high-priced prestigious institutions in order to avoid such debt. Others, including the Chronicle of Higher Education, have called for making four-year college free, just as K-12 education is. But that will still cost money.
Personally, I want to call on all education advocates to start being honest about what a college education is and is not. It is a vital part of improving one’s prospects in life. It is not a magic bullet that guarantees financial security regardless of major or debt burden. Every family should research the most affordable option for college, as well as the job market for various majors. All students should make plans for how they will realistically use their degrees upon graduation.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.