5 Reasons Going To Grad School Isn't Worth It Anymore
So you're thinking of going to graduate school. Unlike most sane human beings, two to four years of boring lectures, midnight term papers, and microwaved ramen haven't turned you off of chasing that paper. Maybe you want to become a bona fide Master of your art. Maybe you want to dedicate your life to the noble pursuit of academia. Maybe you just want college to last forever, so you never have to get up before ten in the morning. All of these reasons to pursue an advanced degree are equally valid. However, what the university industrial complex doesn't want you to know is that none of them are still worth the blood, sweat, and tuition it costs to run the postgrad gauntlet. Let's start with the most obvious reason …
Many Post-Grad Careers Pay Like Crap
Aside from wallpapering your office with degrees or insisting your Uber driver address you as "Doctor," the biggest selling point of a top-tier education is the awesome careers they unlock. Get a fancy fellow degree, and, surely, a fancy fellow future awaits you. But while colleges continue to claim that they're the best cure against blue-collar-itis, many grad schoolers won't even be able to skip the queue for food stamps, let alone the job queue.
According to the agreed-upon debt standard, a graduate degree is only worth the price of admission if the holder can immediately use it to get a job that pays more than the cost of said degree. However, U.S. federal data now shows that 38% of all American Master's degrees won't come anywhere close to delivering that kind of payday. The worst offenders are the obvious ones: advanced creative degrees.
Once a golden ticket into the media landscape, these bloated art schools are now responsible for staffing more Starbucks's than writers' rooms. While a typical graduate of an Ivy League theatre or film program will leave with a debt ranging between $135,000 and $180,000, yet after two years, the median annual wage of these drama nerds isn't even a quarter of that. Even worse are journalism MA courses. While some of the greatest reporters have sprung from Columbia University's highly competitive J-school in the past, today its graduates will be lucky if the clickbait they'll write in the first years in the job market will cover the interest on the student debts.
But contrary to what dads think, fine arts degrees aren't the only waste of time and money. Even 'proper job' Masters degrees no longer guarantee a cushy upper-middle-class life. Architects, speech pathologists, publicists, and many other experts earn less than the average high school dropout when taking into account the opportunity cost and student loans they accrue spending half a decade on an American campus.
So, to use a phrase that costs the average American eighty thousand dollars to learn: Cui bono? If not the schooled, then definitely the schoolers. Grad students enjoy nowhere near as much financial aid or protection as undergrads (even foreign students get taken better care of by Uncle Sam), so universities routinely treat grad school as their personal piggy bank, ruthlessly hiking tuition prices and fees to make up for dips in profits elsewhere. And not only does the government condone this price gouging, it has gotten in on the action. Federal grad school loans now charge interest rates as high as 7.9%, making them as predatory as the payday loans these postgrad will need to cover the rent until their next Footlocker shift.
Speaking of minimum wage jobs: this academic upselling has gotten so bad that statistics show that 45% of recent MA graduates working in their chosen field can't even manage to pay off the interest on their student loans, let alone the loans themselves. As a result, graduate programs now destroy as many careers as they make. The crippling debt eventually forces countless alums to sacrifice their dreams for a steady paycheck of corporate or teaching positions barely related to their fields of expertise.
But so what, right? Like many, perhaps you want to go to grad school to opt-out of the capitalist rat race and into the more civilized realm of academia. But if your post-postgrad goal is to become a tweed-wearing, term paper-grading tutoring machine, you should probably know that …
University Adjuncts Get Treated Like Crap
For many grad schoolers, the student becoming the master is only the first step in their scholarly ambition to become a full-fledged college professor. But getting your university departmental pipe and elbow patches won't happen overnight. In the meantime, you're going to have to spend a while in the academic trenches as an adjunct. How long? On average, just a bit longer than you can humanly stomach.
These days, the bulk of college classrooms are being fronted by Adjunct or Research Professors, part-time tutors who're shipped in en masse to teach all the 101 courses tenured profs turn their noses up to. But while they are given the title of professor, these faceless faculty freelancers get treated like second-class academics, receiving much lower pay, little to no benefits, and no opportunity of advancement at the universities they work. That is if they're working at all.
As a result of the previously mentioned MA mill, the adjunct market has become so flooded with desperate degree debtors there aren't enough classes (or students) to go around for them to teach. Most adjuncts are lucky if they manage to scrounge together half a day's worth of teachable classes per week (not that it stops them from putting in 40-50 hours of work), which earns them less money than the average Walmart Greeter -- on average $2,700 per course. That's per semester, not per class.
Even worse, while adjuncting is supposed to be the academic equivalent of making minimum wage flipping burgers straight out of school, between having a resume with bigger gaps than a Midwestern shopping mall and working in an industry with fewer advanced positions than a Midwestern sex manual, most adjuncts will get stuck in postgrad Peter Pan land for an untenable chunk of their career. Ironically, these circumstances cause most adjuncts to drop out of college before they even get within a mile of a tenure track.
Ah yes, tenure. Now there's a job perk no paltry undergrad degree can provide. But even if you manage to stick it out long enough to make it onto that coveted track, there's no guarantee all those sacrifices will pay off because …
Getting Tenure Is A Total Crapshoot
Still not turned off by the prospect of becoming a postgrad? Fair enough. After all, at this point, you'll have spent close to half a million dollars and the best years of your life just to get to face the other end of the classroom – grad school teaches perseverance if nothing else. But is it perseverance? Or maybe you still believe all that scraping and scrounging will be worth it for those eight little words every up-and-coming professor dreams to hear: "The lawsuit will be settled out of court." No, hang on, I meant the other one: "The committee has approved your recommendation for tenure."
University tenure, the educational equivalent of diplomatic immunity, is the pot of gold at the end of the postgrad rainbow. Established in 1915 by famed scholar John Dewey (no, not the decimal guy, the other one), being awarded tenure means that unless you stumble drunkenly into class with no pants and a racial slur tattooed on your bare ass, and you keep doing that every day for a minimum of two semesters, it's impossible to get fired.
If that sounds like a great way to make sure that the tenured academics no longer give a damn about their professorial career – that was the point. By the end of the 19th century, universities had become so reliant on wealthy donors anyone whose name was on the campus library could make a professor drink career hemlock for corrupting the youth with radical ideas (like, say, how unions are good). Tenure was supposed to guarantee "academic freedom" so that the greatest minds could speak said minds without fear of losing their jobs. But that was a century ago. Today, any postgrad questing for the golden grail of tenure will instead discover a poisoned chalice.
Over the past 30 years, the college tenure track has derailed completely by the very things it was supposed to protect against -- politics and profit-seeking. Instead of being focused on scholarly work, the six-year-long application process is now more like getting a second Ph.D. in Applied Asskissing. How could this be? Surely, tenure is awarded based solely on scholarly merit. Not at all. Like in a frat, professorial pledges are voted in by the existing inner circle, the university's own tenure committee. And this board is comprised exclusively of people whom you don't need an advanced Law degree for to realize all have massive conflicts of interest.
First, there are the campus administrators. With universities having become billion-dollar businesses, these once genteel support staffers have been replaced by corporate sharks. To them, tenure is a carrot you dangle not to attract the best and brightest but to pressure postgrads into toeing the company line and pursue the specializations, research topics, and even personal politics of their choosing. And with them also having destroyed the academic middle class, admins are assured a steady supply of young professors willing to sell their scholarly soul for some job security – anything to keep them from a life as a starving adjunct living in a barrel and giving back-alley lectures.
Then there are the other tenured professors, who also each get a vote on new meat. And while senior scholars are definitely the greatest arbiters of academic merit, they also happen to be the pettiest drama queens outside of a Real Housewives set. Notorious for developing lifelong grudges over the slightest academic slight, this council of crusty old white men won't think twice of postdoc-blocking you for the sin of not agreeing with their theorems, not including them in your thesis acknowledgments or not being a straight white man – instead leapfrogging one of the tenure toadies who spent their track picking up their dry-cleaning.
And even if you do everything right, there are almost no tenure spots left to grab. At its peak in 1975, there were enough tenured positions for eight out of 10 working professors. Today, that number has dropped to two, with 12 applicants for every single position in the country. Of course, that number is more than a bit misleading – it's actually much, much worse. When looking only at 'new' professors (i.e., anyone who doesn't remember the Alamo), a whopping 96% remain fireable as hell. That's because many of the same senile old farts who received tenure free with their subscription to Scientific America in the '70s are still squatting on those dwindling tenure spots, cashing paychecks and sleeping through lectures until the day they're taken out of the classroom in a body bag.
But here's the kicker: not only is the postgrad path to tenure demeaning, exploitative, and more than a little bit racist, it's also pointless. At their current Gordon Gecko levels of greed, universities aren't squeamish about protecting their bottom line by cutting entire courses or even departments, at which point even a tenured professor will learn there's a big difference between not being able to be fired and not being able to lose your job.
Speaking of unforeseen disasters …
The Pandemic Is Causing Grad Schools To Crap Out
It will come as no shock that, just like everything else aside from an entire tub of ice cream, the pandemic has made it a million times harder to finish a graduate course. And sadly, it's way worse than just the shuttered libraries or glitchy webcam lectures where a tenured professor wastes 20 minutes turning off the cat filter.
If getting an advanced degree was becoming a terrible investment in the before times, the pandemic has turned these subprime educations into toxic assets that can crash at any moment. In order to save their most essential workers, the sports coaches, marketing teams, and anti-union lawyers, universities started slashing into their education budgets like Jason slashes into coeds. Not only are thousands of teaching positions being cut every day (650,000 in 2020 alone), admins are pulling the plug on any degree that can't fill a classroom with five hundred hungover undergrads. That puts the much smaller (and thus less professor-efficient) advanced courses first in line for the chopping block, meaning grad students everywhere have to worry if today's the day their degree stops existing because the dean wants to turn the faculty building into luxury dorms to attract rich international students.
And if having to switch colleges in the middle of a degree is disastrous for undergrads (the dropout rate is staggering), it's downright deadly for grad students as their degrees have become so hyperfocused there's often no obvious equivalent elsewhere. Like an Eastern-European stuck in an airport because their ex-Soviet state stopped existed in between layovers, these faculty-less refugees aren't guaranteed to find anyone willing to recognize their paperwork. Those who do manage to find a new campus to call home will often have to make a major sacrifice, often in the form of settling for a subpar degree, moving to a faraway college, and/or starting over with only partial credit.
Even if you manage to pull a degree out of the wreckage that's the post-pandemic postgrad … pandemic, it doesn't mean the budget cuts can't still get you after the fact. Because if a standard graduate degree doesn't open too many doors anymore, imagine how many will slam shut when someone tries to call the faculty for a reference and they can't even get a dial tone.
And if you think that sounds a bit dramatic. That, since this has been caused by the pandemic, things will eventually stabilize and go back to normal. Yeah, about that …
Not Enough Teens Give A Shit To Keep Colleges From Collapsing
You might think the current higher education system is worth the old college try. But you know who doesn't? Teens. Thousands and thousands of teens. And their decision may well kill your academic future because if our higher education system has been put on life support, the Class of 2021 is about to pull the plug.
For some reason, colleges are having a hard time convincing Gen Z'ers to stay in school – something about watching Millennials drown in student debts with nothing to show for it but a studio apartment and an anxiety disorder has made these kids very jaded. Combine that growing reluctance with the declining birthrate (again, just the thought of having to start a college fund makes the average 30-something go hysterically sterile), and universities have been losing more teens than Facebook in the past decade, with admissions dropping by a quarter and tuition income by 30%.
Then the death blow came during the pandemic. A masterclass in hubris (Not that any of them offer an MA in Classics anymore), universities refused to reduce tuition by a single cent despite reducing the entire college experience to a series of low-quality Zoom meetings. In 2020, a whopping 21.7% fewer high school graduates, predominantly men, enrolled into freshman year compared to 2019 – the kind of drop that usually indicates there's a World War going on. This caused overall college enrollment to plummet by five whole percent in a single year, and the preliminary numbers for the 2021-2022 school year hint at an even bigger drop.
At this rate, no amount of million-dollar marketing campaigns or college football stadia you can see from space can save the university industrial complexes from what education experts are calling an "extinction-level event" that will crash the college market worse than the banking crisis of the late 2000s. Except that, unlike the Lehman Brothers, the federal government doesn't consider Saskatoon U too big to fail. A 2020 Hechinger Report shows that over 500 of the U.S.'s 2,662 two- and four-year colleges are now barreling towards bankruptcy, with several smaller schools already dropping out.
Here's the thing: getting educated is always a smart move; only an idiot or a politician would try to convince you otherwise and I, kind reader, am no politician. But getting a second degree, particularly in the U.S., is first and foremost a career decision, to show you're the smartest person for the job and have the paperwork to prove it. But you know what else proves you've got a good head on your shoulders? Not blindly doubling down on a system that's crumbling after decades of decadence-fueled decay. And hopefully, one day, a worthwhile higher education will rise out of the ashes of this mess, a socialist utopia of tuition caps and forgiven student debts. But while Rome is burning -- that's not the time to get that MFA in Fiddling.
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Top Image: Leon Wu, Unsplash