Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“I don’t want to work at Walmart” like her mother, she wrote to a school counselor.
Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.”
Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.
Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.
“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”
Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.
A college education is no guarantee of success- or is it?
There are legions of entrepreneurs who dropped out of college or never went to school and made fortunes. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg made billions. There are lots of nameless millionaires who struck it rich in the tech business, sans college degree.
There are also legions of college drop outs who have managed to fail in every endeavor they try.
Of course, financial security is only one reason to go to college. What value ought to be placed on education itself? An undergraduate college degree does not confer any real expertise on the student. Instead, the new graduate is expected to understand the question which need to be answered and to recognize and discern between various answers in the quest for knowledge.
For a select few foregoing a college degree is a practical alternative. These are the rare individuals who unique visions, drive and talents. They do what needs to be done and accomplish goals.
For the rest of us a college education helps us get a leg up and succeed in a world of challenges. Not a bad thing.
BENJAMIN GOERING does not look like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, talk like him or inspire the same controversy. But he does apparently think like him.
Two years ago, Mr. Goering was a sophomore at the University of Kansas, studying computer science and philosophy and feeling frustrated in crowded lecture halls where the professors did not even know his name.
“I wanted to make Web experiences,” said Mr. Goering, now 22, and create “tools that make the lives of others better.”
So in the spring of 2010, Mr. Goering took the same leap as Mr. Zuckerberg: he dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco to make his mark. He got a job as a software engineer at a social-software company, Livefyre, run by a college dropout, where the chief technology officer at the time and a lead engineer were also dropouts. None were sheepish about their lack of a diploma. Rather, they were proud of their real-life lessons on the job.
“Education isn’t a four-year program,” Mr. Goering said. “It’s a mind-set.”
The idea that a college diploma is an all-but-mandatory ticket to a successful career is showing fissures. Feeling squeezed by a sagging job market and mounting student debt, a groundswell of university-age heretics are pledging allegiance to new groups like UnCollege, dedicated to “hacking” higher education. Inspired by billionaire role models, and empowered by online college courses, they consider themselves a D.I.Y. vanguard, committed to changing the perception of dropping out from a personal failure to a sensible option, at least for a certain breed of risk-embracing maverick.
Risky? Perhaps. But it worked for the founders of Twitter, Tumblr and a little company known as Apple.
As cities like this one try to reinvent themselves after losing large swaths of their manufacturing sectors, they are discovering that one of the most critical ingredients for a successful transformation — college graduates — is in perilously short supply.
Just 24 percent of the adult residents of metropolitan Dayton have four-year degrees, well below the average of 32 percent for American metro areas, and about half the rate of Washington, the country’s most educated metro area, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. Like many Rust Belt cities, it is a captive of its rich manufacturing past, when well-paying jobs were plentiful and landing one without a college degree was easy.
Educational attainment lagged as a result, even as it became more critical to success in the national economy. “We were so wealthy for so long that we got complacent,” said Jane L. Dockery, associate director of the Center for Urban and Public Affairs at Wright State University here. “We saw the writing on the wall, but we didn’t act.”
Dayton sits on one side of a growing divide among American cities, in which a small number of metro areas vacuum up a large number of college graduates, and the rest struggle to keep those they have.
The winners are metro areas like Raleigh, N.C., San Francisco and Stamford, Conn., where more than 40 percent of the population has a college degree. The Raleigh area has a booming technology sector and several major research universities; San Francisco has been a magnet for college graduates for decades; and metropolitan Stamford draws highly educated workers from white-collar professions in New York like finance.
A college degree is supposed to pave the way to a better life. It didn’t work out that way for Judith Tuck.
Tuck graduated from the University of Arizona in 1996 with a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling and $44,000 in student loans. She had every intention of keeping up with her loan payments, but after a series of low-wage jobs in her field, her debt began to snowball. Tuck, a 73-year-old widow, now owes more than $136,000. Her wages have been garnished and she faces losing everything, including her home.
“The only good thing about student loans is that the day I die my children will not have to pay for them,” she says.
Outstanding student loans topped $1 trillion last year, exceeding the total amount of credit card debt. Thousands of borrowers are postponing getting married, buying a home or having children until their debts are paid off. Defaults are rising, which typically leads to larger loan balances. And the problem isn’t limited to young adults. Some borrowers are older adults who went back to school. Others are parents who co-signed loans for their children.
There’s widespread agreement that student debt is a problem, but there’s little consensus on how to solve it. Here’s a look at five proposals to provide relief for existing borrowers or prevent the crisis from getting worse:
Again and agin convenient talking points are just more misunderstanding of the situation.
It’s time to end the myth that the nation’s wealthy are getting rich off the backs of the poor. Instead let’s figure out what they’re doing right.
By Nina Easton, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE — What if I told you that there was a group of hard-driving workaholics who tend to have advanced degrees and bring a level of talent and skill to their jobs that attracts premium pay in the global economy? Scholars have found that this group is more likely than much of the population to raise their children in two-parent homes.
The 1% club stands accused, accurately, of more than doubling its share of the nation’s income since 1980. By 2007 it controlled nearly 24% of total income, the second highest in history, after 1929. (In 2009 its share dropped to 17%, suggesting that recessions aren’t necessarily kind to the rich.)
Railing about the 1% club has become shorthand for expressing outrage not only over growing income disparity but also about the state of the nation’s working class. Wages of men without college diplomas, for example, have dropped by a whopping third over the past three decades.
That’s deeply troubling. Socially and politically, there are plenty of reasons to worry about the growing income gap. But rage against the 1% is misplaced. Income is not a zero-sum game: The rich aren’t getting wealthier at the expense of the poor. Harvard’s Lawrence Katz has calculated that even if all the gains of the top 1% were redistributed to the 99%, household incomes would go up by less than half of what they would if everyone had a college degree. In other words, the financial rewards of higher education are a big contributor to the income gap.
Estamos Unidos: it’s going to be hard to compete with this campaign approach for the party that wants to make English the official language while throttling the dream act and diminishing the department of education.
In 2008, Barack Obama captured two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, winning in crucial swing states with large Hispanic populations like Colorado, Nevada and Florida.
The president’s re-election campaign is attempting to replicate that success for 2012, targeting those same states with this week’s launch of its first set of Spanish-language television and radio ads.
In four separate ads, Latino campaign organizers recount personal stories as reasons for supporting the president, focusing on education.
In one ad, Obama volunteer Lynette Acosta explains the importance of a college degree to her and her family: “Without the help of loans, I would not have been able to study,” Acosta says in the ad. “That’s why everything the president has done to increase access to funding is so important. … My mother says, ‘The best gift you could give me is a diploma that I can hang on the living room wall.’ “
The Romney campaign also recognizes the critical importance of the Hispanic vote. This week, the Republican National Committee announced its appointment of Hispanic outreach state directors in the swing states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia.
In President Obama’s State of the Union address, he noted the importance of college attainment in closing the skills gap in our country. He’s right and his timing couldn’t be better because it has become fashionable in some quarters to suggest that higher education is no longer worth the cost.
Pay Pal founder Peter Thiel got a lot of publicity last year saying there is a “higher education bubble” and offering to pay 20 bright young people $100,000 to skip college. Newspapers and magazines are full of stories about the poor job prospects for recent college graduates, and most everyone seems to know about a college grad living in their parent’s basement or driving a cab. College costs much more than it used to, and more students are taking on debt to pay for it. So, it’s become reasonable to ask the once-heretical question: Is college worth it?
With a question of such importance - not just to millions of students and their families, but also to the nation - it is important to look at the facts and not make decisions based on anecdote. The facts overwhelmingly point to the conclusion that many more people need higher education - both to secure their own futures and for the economic future of our nation.
Two recent analyses from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce describe what is happening. The first is that roughly 60 percent of American jobs will require some level of education beyond high school by 2018. Unfortunately, only about 40 percent of American adults have a two- or four year college degree, and around 5 percent more have a certificate or other credential of high value in the workplace. That’s a big gap.
But what about all those unemployed college graduates? The other analysis by the Georgetown Center found that 22 to 26 year olds with a bachelor’s degree have an unemployment rate of 8.9 percent. That’s high by any measure, but the unemployment rate for young adults with only a high school diploma is 22.9 percent, and it’s a staggering 31.5 percent for high school dropouts. And it is almost certain that those college graduates will be the first one hired as the economy recovers.
It’s not hard to figure out what is behind these numbers. Occupations that require higher levels of skills, like healthcare, are growing. Low skill jobs aren’t exactly disappearing, but they are shrinking, leaving more workers competing for them. The skill and knowledge requirements of most occupations are increasing, and people with only a high school diploma or less are not able to fill many of the jobs that the knowledge economy is creating. It’s like two games of musical chairs, where chairs are taken away from one game - the one for low-skill workers - and added to the game for workers with the skills and knowledge in demand in the workplace.
Given this hard reality, it’s no wonder that people are concerned about the cost of higher education and whether or not they can afford it. It’s not just that students are graduating with a lot of debt that they may struggle to repay. Many economists now believe that this shift to loans to pay for college is causing ripple effects through the economy. For example, if students graduate with a lot of debt, they will likely have to put off buying a house, and that hinders the recovery of the construction industry. So a lot of people are affected by the high cost of college, not just students and their families.
As conceptual ideals go, the American Dream is pretty iconic. And for a long time, it was pretty easy to define: People worked to earn a college degree, get a good job, buy a house and have a spouse and kids. But then the Great Recession came along and upended everything. Now, our goals are more modest — like having a financial safety net — but are still out of reach for many Americans, especially those approaching retirement age. Nearly half — 44% — of Americans say they’re working harder than their parents did at their age. In MetLife’s fifth annual survey about the American Dream, more than 80% of respondents say attaining the American Dream is very or somewhat important, but the yardstick we’ve used to measure whether or not we’re living that dream has changed drastically. Some of the shift is generational: 41% of all respondents say the American Dream is about personal fulfillment. But within that total, there’s a big gap. While only a third of Boomers agree with that statement, more than half of Gen Y respondents do.
Our outlook about wealth and material possessions has changed, too. Roughly three-quarters of us say we have what we need, but last year, only 58% of respondents agreed with that assessment. Nearly two-thirds say it’s possible to achieve the American Dream without a college degree; 59% say it can be done without owning a home. An even larger percentage — 70% — say it’s within reach even if you’re not wealthy or don’t have kids, a stark contrast from traditional thinking, says Beth Hirshhorn, MetLife chief marketing officer.
“They’re shifting from the traditional definition of a nuclear family to broader relationships,” she says, while the drive for financial success has been replaced by a desire for financial security.
These more modest desires don’t mean that the American Dream is any more attainable, though. Three quarters of Baby Boomers say a financial safety net is crucial to achieving the American Dream, but nearly as many say they don’t have a safety net in place. While 57% say they’re living paycheck to paycheck, 28% say they still plan to rely on the government and their employers’ retirement plans and simply hope that’s enough to support them through their senior years. However, less than 20% of Gen Y respondents say the same thing.
The 2012 presidential election can be seen as offering a choice between two visions of how to return us to this country’s golden age — from roughly 1945 to around 1973 — when working life was most secure for many Americans, particularly white, middle-class men. President Obama said his jobs plan was for people who believed “if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would be rewarded.” Mitt Romney explained his goal was to restore hope for “folks who grew up believing that if they played by the rules … they would have the chance to build a good life.” But these days, many workers have lost a near guarantee on a decent wage and benefits — and their careers are likely to have much more volatility (great years; bad years; confusing, mediocre years) than their parents’ ever did. So when did the rules change?
It has been hard to keep track. Over the past four decades, we have experienced the oil embargo, Carter-era malaise and a few recessions. Mixed in were the thrills of the late 1990s and mid-aughts, when it seemed as if you were a sap if you weren’t getting rich or at least trying. But these dramas prevented many of us from realizing that the economic logic was changing fundamentally. Starting in the 1970s, labor was upended by a lot more than just formal government work rules. Increased global trade devastated workers in many industries, especially textiles, apparel, toys, furniture and electronics assembly. Computers and other technological innovations had an arguably greater impact. While factories continue to make more stuff in the United States than ever before, employment in them has collapsed.
Computers have hurt workers outside factories too. Picture the advertising agency in “Mad Men,” and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.
As a result, the people whose jobs remained valuable in that “Mad Men” office were then freed up to do more valuable things. A talented art director could produce more work more quickly with InDesign. A bright accountant could spend more time thinking of new ways to make and save money, rather than spending endless hours punching numbers into an adding machine. Global trade works much the same way. It’s horrible news for a textile factory worker in North Carolina, but it may be great for a fashion designer in New York.