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Debt to the nth degree
by Christine Whitmarsh
Nov 09, 2010 | 1222 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
How many college degrees do you need to make your dreams come true without drowning in debt in the process?

If you were to ask Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, they might say none. Both multimillionaire groundbreakers are college dropouts. These are examples of individuals who chose to forge their own trails, start gigantic corporations and then employ college graduates, rather than becoming graduates themselves.

This kind of intellectually curious, pioneering spirit, however, may now be buried under piles of student loans, syllabi and the promise of a return on investment that directly correlates to one’s degree count. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an Oct. 20 news article by Richard Vedder states that America appears to have an epidemic of extremely overqualified workers. From restaurant servers to the more than 5,000 American janitors with Ph.D.s or other professional degrees, postgraduate education is offering up big promises of big fortunes — but what exactly is being delivered?

How much education is too much? How many advanced degrees does today’s college graduate truly need to succeed financially and feel spiritually fulfilled? Especially if the pursuit of such degrees will likely leave them buried in a canyon of student loan debt well after their tenure at Applebee’s ends and they land their dream job, whatever that may be.

Just about anyone who perseveres long enough in the system can get a Ph.D. in whatever they want but what does that mean in the real world? Graduates are emerging from the warm, safe cocoon of college only to find out there are more blue-collar jobs available than dream jobs in their fields of expertise. On top of that, graduates are unable to do simple things that have never been a problem for the everyday American – like changing a tire, performing simple home repairs and balancing their checkbook.

What is the actual real world value of an advanced college degree? For occupations such as doctors, lawyers and nurses, it may be a no-brainer: High occupational demand combined with a concrete connection between degree and job title equals more job opportunities and more money. But how many degrees does a docent at a museum need?

Some degrees seem to be more symbolic.

Self Magazine recently ran a caption showing “Vice President and Dr. Biden.” Jill Biden has a Ph.D. in English, making her a “doctor.” If you were having a heart attack, would Mrs. Joe Biden be the doctor you would want in the house? And then, of course, there’s Dr. Biden’s friend Mr. Obama. Although he has two Ivy League degrees, he hasn’t figured out that spending $3 trillion over Bush’s $2 trillion does not bring a nation out of debt.

In a recession, when every dollar is budgeted wisely (except in Washington), wouldn’t it make sense to take a common sense approach to academic investments? When the TV commercials tell you to go to college, stay in college and never leave, they may not necessarily be promising that a master’s degree in political science will ever pay the bills. Although, that and a couple of bucks will buy you a seat at Starbucks for as long as you can sip the coffee; you might even have enough time, while trading against society on your laptop, to fill out a job application.

Finally, there is something to be said for the pioneering American spirit that drove Bill Gates and Steve Jobs out of the classroom and into the garage to make their marks on history while making a contribution to American business in the process. The actor John Ratzenberger (Cliff Claven on “Cheers”) hosted a documentary series called “Made in America,” in which he toured various American manufacturers, showing viewers how items made in America are produced. What is being produced in our college classrooms: trail blazers or trail followers? Who among the next generation will have the courage to jump off the academic fast track, roll up their sleeves and do the work that needs to be done to prove that words like “business” and “capitalism” are not dirty words in America? My money’s on the geeks in garages.

Christine Whitmarsh is the owner of local writing firm Christine, Ink. She can be reached at
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Debt to the nth degree by Christine Whitmarsh

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