This is an interesting (and depressing) article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about individuals with graduate decrees (mostly in the humanities) currently on some form of public assistance. According to the article the number of graduate-degree holders receiving food stamps or some other form of aid doubled between 2007 and 2010. (Click the red headline above for the original article)
The cause seems to be a dual shift in higher education: 1) A growing emphasis on non-tenure positions to teach intro-level surveys and gen-ed courses; 2) Shrinking education budgets at both the state and federal level, which in turn make low-paying non-tenure positions a seductive option. My personal opinion is that both the government and universities are to blame here. I’m not well-versed in education budgets or the priorities of state and federal governments, so I can’t speak to that. I have noticed, however, that college administrations and faculties have only begun to fight back against these shrinking budgets. Many, instead of fighting, are running themselves ragged trying to make their slashed budgets “work,” which involves first and foremost finding enough instructors for rapidly growing classrooms. Some fear that if they try to fight back, it will hasten a shift towards online classes and thus further erode the academic tenure model. Many others are optimistic that things will improve again much as they did in the 1990s. Such optimism may be misplaced, but only time will tell.
However, what really interests me about this article is that it seems to be drawing attention to an occurrence that, while real and devastating, is perhaps a bit overblown. I began to notice some things when I looked closely at the numbers in this article. Take for instance the following passage:
"Of the 22 million Americans with master’s degrees or higher in 2010, about 360,000 were receiving some kind of public assistance, according to the latest Current Population Survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau in March 2011. In 2010, a total of 44 million people nationally received food stamps or some other form of public aid, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture."
When you break this down, it means that only 360,000 of the total 44 million people on public assistance have a higher degree, which by my calculations is roughly .8% of the total. Using some slightly outdated census numbers here you can see that individuals with higher degrees make up a much higher percentage of the total US population than they do the total percentage of individuals on public assistance. In other words, they are many times less likely to be on public assistance than individuals without higher degrees. An MBA, MA or PhD makes you less likely to end up on the dole.
The Chronicle article briefly acknowledges this: “People who don’t finish college are more likely to receive food stamps than are those who go to graduate school.” However, I find this to be a vast understatement. The number of individuals with higher degrees has doubled, as the article asserts, but the total number of individuals from other professions (say construction, service, etc.) has most likely increased by a much higher margin. The problem is not the degree itself, but those individuals who refuse to give up on their dream of a tenure-track position (like me, ehem).
Again, this is not to excuse the poor shape of the academic profession, or to suggest that the 70% of college-level educators who are being exploited in non-tenure positions deserve their fate. They do not. However, the data also suggests that most people with higher degrees do not stick around to suffer this sort of abuse forever. Ultimately they move on to another profession and relegate film studies to a passion instead of a profession. Once they do, they are much more likely to land a stellar job in corporate finance, or a successful non-profit, or a well-paying position in university administration, than those with an undergraduate degree or no higher education at all. For these people, accepting a lowly position in academia is still a choice, no matter how unfair and exploitative that choice may be. The stigma of shame not only clouds public assistance, as the Chronicle article asserts, but also the statistically undeniable proof that individuals with higher degrees, not unlike undergraduates, go on to lucrative jobs outside their respective “majors.”
Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that the tens of thousands of Walmart greeters, sales clerks, and servers at the local family diner could only wish for such a choice. Our shame, for many, is a dream come true.