College is not about learning. In fact, it never has been. That’s why millions of students today bypass Ivy League lectures taught by Ivy League professors—available for free—just so they can pay for similar or even inferior content at lower ranked schools. Everyone wants to attend Harvard but will ignore the content taught at Harvard if the outcome does not contribute to a Harvard degree.
The people in the trenches—the college students—understand this reality. A college degree simply serves as a sort of vetting process that tells a prospective employer that a student is intelligent, capable, and qualified for the job. A college degree is nothing more than a signaling mechanism meant to convey a specific message.
Many educational purists (particularly older folks) object to the purpose of college being exclusive to employability. They believe that because college has traditionally emphasized learning, and because college graduates have traditionally excelled in the workplace, learning in college fosters professional success.
Understandably, they have it wrong. Decades ago, college actually meant something, primarily because so few had college degrees. In 1940, only one in twenty adults had completed at least four years of college, which meant that students could actually focus on learning, even though that was never the purpose of college. With college graduates in short supply, employers still came knocking. The downside of mistakenly emphasizing learning rather than employment was small, if any.
Today, however, the educational landscape is starkly different. In 2015, nearly 28 million people attended some sort of college, making the Millennial generation the most educated generation in human history. College degrees no longer mean anything. The signaling power of yesterday is now lost in the noise of today generated by millions of other similarly qualified candidates competing for the same shrinking pool of quality jobs.
In the wake of a shifting college landscape, the traditional “enroll-study-graduate” advice is not only ineffective, it’s downright dangerous. Today, the Class of 2014 remains 50% underemployed despite college graduates having invested trillions of dollars into a college education.
Even getting a job as a recent college graduate is not a cure-all, either. Between 2000 and 2013, the earnings for recent graduates declined across the board, including a 10% reduction for bachelor’s degree holders and an 8% reduction for master’s degree holders.
Most notably, the current glut of college graduates has shrunken the margin for error that existed decades ago and created an environment where one misstep in college can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and create decades of despair.
To succeed in life after graduation, students must attend college with an acute understanding of its purpose: to get a job. This approach requires one eye on the classroom and one eye on the job market. When one misstep can impose so much misery students cannot afford to take on $100k+ in debt and hope all goes well. It won’t. For the sake of college students’ welfare, let’s stop deluding ourselves into thinking that college is about learning. That broken perspective is wrecking the lives of too many college graduates.