Obama: Education Key to Economic Success (September 28, 2010)


With all due respect to our Commander in Chief, this claim carries the weight of the past – the presence of a tried and true American economic meritocracy. Though this “self made” mythology served us well for several generations, it is the refusal to acknowledge that times have changed that instills such a frustration with the political classes – of all stripes.

It’s 2010 Mr. President and I beg to differ. Can I see a show of hands of those who have an undergraduate degree, even a Master’s or PhD, yet count themselves amongst the unemployed or underemployed?

[Boop also raises hand.]

That’s what I thought.

Bring up your web browser and Google the phrase “young graduates can’t find work.” The very first story I clicked on discussed the increased spate of suicides amongst recent college grads: children raised to believe that if they worked hard enough, and wanted “it” bad enough (whatever form “it” may take), there was nothing they couldn’t accomplish. Flash forward a decade and most of these young people are saddled with $100k in student loans while considering themselves “lucky” to find the randomly open retail or restaurant position. The struggle to make ends meet is no longer the exclusive domain of the uneducated.

My intuition tells me that if I took a poll within my own circle of friends and family (a group that is admittedly, rather learned), I would be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been faced with unenviable choices. Do I go for my annual checkup, which will require me to pay a couple hundred toward my health insurance deductible, or do I pay for my child’s school fees? Do I pay the electric bill in full or should I start putting a little something aside for Christmas (Eid, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, etc.)?

While there is no doubt that our educational system, with its astronomical costs and rampant inefficiencies, is in need of some serious rehab, it is disingenuous to foist this Jedi mind trick argument upon us: all that’s missing from our ability to remain internationally competitive is a few college degrees. Horse puckey.

Case in point: I have a very good friend who took a job as a batboy with the Chicago Cubs when he was an undergrad. In the course of six months, said friend netted himself a cool 80 grand – a veritable fortune for a person not yet of legal drinking age. The problem was that the job was way too demanding on his time and energy. When he found himself in danger of failing most of his classes, he politely declined to return to the team next season. The ball club, largely full of uneducated athletes, showed my buddy mad respect for his wizened decision.

Seven years later, with a cum laude degree from DePaul University, my friend is still chasing that earning power he enjoyed at the age of 19. After enjoying a respectable career at a large non-profit, he is presently up for a groovy promotion that will earn him the right to make 60% of what he did as a batboy.

Hmmm….athletes and entertainers. I wonder where our kids got the idea that 15 minutes of YouTube limelight is the only path to financial freedom? Maybe because in 2010, that is looking more logical than ridiculous. As they watch their educated, hard working parents come home each night, tired, unhappy and yet still struggling with the mortgage payments, these offspring declare “not I,” and spend more time working on their jump shot than math homework.

And the vicious cycle continues.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I love college. I love life as a student. If I had my druthers, I would just collect degree after degree, insulating myself from reality in the comfortable, navel gazing world of academia as long as humanly possible. The Master’s degree I earned in English Literature has opened up a world of culture, critical thinking and personal enjoyment that would never have been available to me otherwise.

But I am about to be an unemployed administrative assistant. I feel like a failure for losing a job that was always just “good enough.” Most Americans are nothing if not pragmatic. Instead, if I lived in the USA of Obama’s stumping, I’d be big, high rolling pimp of a wordsmith, instead of struggling to pay off student loans on a 35k income – that I am about to do without.

If I am wondering where the return on my educational investment is, I am certain I’m not alone.


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