Higher Ed Should Enable Students to get an Education AND a Career

Image credit: AHA World Campus

And I am not talking about getting the “training” (vs. “education”) to make a buck. Hear me out.

A friend relayed what an Ivy League professor said to her recently: “Students these days seem not  interested in getting an education. They flock to engineering and fields that would help them get a job. Parents are responsible for pushing students in this direction.”

As a parent who has just finished paying for her son’s college education and as a Career Advisor in the last 6 years helping graduate students launch into the professional world, I have something to say about this: The professor seems to see getting an education and gaining the ability to make a living as mutually exclusive. This is not the first time I have heard this binary debate and I am still puzzled by this narrow view. For me, there is no choice to be made. It is not about getting either an education or building a career. I want both. My upbringing has formed this view.

Growing up in Taiwan in the 60’s and 70’s when it advanced from among the least developed countries in the world to being one of Asia’s four “Tiger Economies,” I was raised by a college-educated father who impressed upon his 3 daughters:

  1. The importance of becoming a learned and cultured person through formal education and life-long learning.
  2. How empowering education is – it gives you the freedom to shape your life, choosing what you do, where you live. My father’s mantra was: “Education is the best way to be in control of your own destiny.”

In other words, education is for BOTH cultivating your mind and building a career; there is no conflict between the two. My family did not have the means to fund my MA studies in the U.S. Between working 4 jobs 6 days a week for 2 years and a generous scholarship from Rotary International, I was able to earn an MA degree in Translation and Interpretation from the then Monterey Institute of International Studies. And that did reshape my life.

For U.S. college students, what is the reality they face today? What are the reasons behind, as the Ivy League professor said, young people choosing fields based on career considerations? Student debts fueled by decreasing public financial aid and increasing tuition costs have created the financial imperative. Expanded access to higher ed also means that educators need to acknowledge and support the diverse needs in terms of educational outcomes. The elitist approach of higher ed prior to the 1950’s no longer serves the needs today. Finally, beyond meeting financial needs, engaging in productive work is as much a form of life-long growth as the years spent on campus. Rather than dismissing productive work, educators should view it as their duty to help students bridge into professional lives.  

I became aware of the U.S. student loans issue through my students. It’s understandable that students across the board are anxious to find means of supporting themselves post-graduation, be it through employment or freelance work, but the level of panic among the American students stood out to me. This scene plays out every Spring – my American students say to me: “I have to find a job because I need to start repaying my student loan in 6 months.” A former student told me that by the time she finished graduate school, she was carrying a debt load of $140,000 and she said: “I don’t think I will be able to pay it off in this lifetime.”

I wanted to make sense of the student debt problem in the U.S. How did we go from higher ed being a public good to saddling students with 1.7 trillion dollars of debt?

History of expansion of access to higher education

According to a report by the Department of Defense, the 1944 GI Bill was passed to prevent the potential for economic instability as the 16 million veterans returned to the post-World War II U.S. economy. It contributed greatly to the doubling of college and university degree-holders between 1940 and 1950.

The Pell Grant was passed in 1972 with the goal of narrowing the higher ed attendance gap between low-income students and those with more resources. It was described as the GI Bill for the general population. In subsequent decades, the total population attending higher ed continued to increase, but affordability decreased. Pell Grants’ coverage of college costs has been shrinking. In Dan Barret’s article “The Day The Purpose of College Changed”, he wrote: “under Reagan, the maximum Pell Grant decreased by about a quarter. Student loans became a more common way to pay for college.” President Biden tweeted in August 2022, Pell Grants “used to cover 80% of the cost. Today, it’s only 33%.” Student loans have taken up an ever-increasing share of college costs.

Increase in tuition

Another key factor driving down affordability of higher ed is the increase in tuition. Between 1980 and 2022, the cost of higher ed has increased by 1200% while inflation increased by 236%, according to Visual Capitalist. 


Source: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/rising-cost-of-college-in-u-s/

Here is the example of a friend: she attended UC Riverside in the early-80’s and paid  $700/term for fees, making her cost of attendance  $2,100/year. According to the table below from UC Admissions, she would have to pay about $15,000 (tuition + fees, excluding insurance, housing, meals) now. The $2,100 in 1981 is worth $6,800 today after adjusting for inflation. This means UC tuition has increased at double the rate of inflation in the last 40 years. What makes matters worse is the wage stagnation experienced by the U.S. workers during the same period of time, making family support of higher ed costs less and less attainable.

Source: https://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/tuition-financial-aid/tuition-cost-of-attendance/

Expansion of access to higher ed creates diverse needs for career outcomes among graduates

My analysis shows that in 1950, 1.5% (2.3 million) of the US population was enrolled in college and in 2020 it increased to 5.7% (19 million) – a 7 times increase.  US higher ed institutions are no longer educating just the financially privileged minority anymore.

Source: Educationdata.org and US Census Bureau

In the final analysis, to stay relevant into the future, higher ed needs to deliver on academic excellence AND career readiness. Why? Career readiness no doubt serves a practical need, but it also has a lasting impact on mental health.

  • The good news is access to higher ed has broadened. The democratization of higher ed means it is no longer reserved for the well-heeled. Yes, there will always be the privileged group that do not need to worry about paying back student loans or making a living. Period. But the vast majority needs to pay back loans, make a living and build a career. In other words, the needs of the students we serve have changed, but educators seem to still hold on to the idea of being educated for its own sake. This disregard of the students’ reality is counter-productive.
  • Some educators unwittingly make working “unsavory.” In my mind, working is not merely about making a buck. Having the ability to work and contribute leads to self-sufficiency and self-actualization. Isn’t this the purpose of education after all? My observation among my students is: those who are “under the gun” to support themselves tend to be more motivated and hence get better career outcomes, leading to a better sense of accomplishment. The ones who hover, but never land, are those who can’t bridge the knowledge acquired with real-life contribution – unique or prosaic. The learned helplessness is the price this “hovering” exacts on them, their families and society.

We need to stop pitting “getting an education” against the need to work, to build a career, to build a productive life after formal education is completed. Until and unless U.S. colleges become free, students need to work to fund their education. Above and beyond that, achieving self-sufficiency through productive work is how responsible citizens are built. Every chance they get to solve a problem through work, they are changing the world.

Winnie Heh

Career Advisor