Snarky Behavior

What Do You Do, With a BA in English?

November 27, 2007 · 2 Comments

What do you do, with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college, and plenty of knowledge…
has earned me this useless degree…

So go the opening lines of “Avenue Q.” A musical that I found extremely relatable two years ago, when I moved to DC with a meager savings account, an over-valued skill-set, and a bohemian apartment on “U” Street.

I’ve heard it said before that “the BA is the new diploma.” The data backs this up. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (my employer, by the way), the total enrollment of students attending two- and four-year degree granting institutions has more than doubled since 1970. During that time, female representation has increased drastically from 40% to 56%.

I’ve written before about the constraints on opportunity that arise as a direct result of inaffordable higher education. Here’s the scary trifecta:

1. Average annual tuition of 4-year private institutions has increased from $9228 in 1986 to $27,317 in 2006 (not adjusted for inflation).

2. The average total amount borrowed by students to finance a 4-year degree (as measured in 2001 constant dollars) increased from $12,100 in 1993 to $19,300 in 2000.

3. The median income for a male graduate (as measured in constant 2004 dollars) has only increased from $46,300 in 1980 to $48,400 in 2005. And incomes are on the decline since 2000. Note that the average income for a high-school grad in 1980 was $38,800.

So… I borrowed $16,000 to finance my undergraduate degree, and will likely require (worst case) a staggering $114,000 to finance my Masters. Which not only begs the question: why the hell did I get a liberal arts degree in History, but why does anyone pursue anything else?

Clearly I’m on the high end of the spectrum for tuition, debt burden, and (please God) should also be on the high-end for income earners. So my case is atypical. But there are students at Columbia who do not face the same financial considerations, because their educations are subsidized by financial aid and awards.

I’m not going to play the reverse-discrimination card here, especially since I turned down a hefty fellowship from the Elliot School at GW to attend SIPA, but as a disinterested observation, it does seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy for white men, who are last in line for financial aid purposes, to pursue careers that inevitably reinforce the over-representation of “old white men” who sit in boardrooms chalk full of white haired or bald guys who look identical to each other (even though most of those guys are legacies who probably never even had debt).

My point is, there is a substitution effect for dedication/effort/expectations for every less dollar of debt burden… the more indebted someone is, the more they will value their job, work for performance bonuses, take less days off, rise the ranks, etc. Debt is a strong motivational factor. Which is why I’m up writing crappy blog posts instead of preparing for my in-class debate tomorrow.

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