It’s become an awkward truth that, in the U.S., a college degree is no longer a guarantee for a job in the subject that a student majors in — that having a teaching degree means you’ll get a job as a teacher. Even when a graduate gets a job, their salary is often not enough to pay back debt on student loans. A college degree is no longer the great equalizer it was once thought to be.
The U.S. is not the only nation where high school students give their all to get into the best school possible, only to find that less than bright prospects await them. Families in China are encountering a surprisingly similar situation.
In an effort to change (in one fell swoop) from a nation where a tiny, well-educated elite ruled (for centuries) over the country’s millions, China has made it a goal to quadruple the number of college graduates. Eight million students, many of whose parents had only a cursory education, graduate from China’s universities and community colleges a year. The push to expand education to all sectors of China’s population has occurred at all levels: while only 1 in 6 Chinese 17-year-olds had graduated from high school in 1996, three in five now do.
Even in a country with a booming economy, though, college graduates cannot find work. While China has thousands of spots in factories that need filling, a recent national survey by a Chinese university revealed that “among people in their early 20s, those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed” as those whose education ended in primary school.
Students and their families in the U.S. are going deeply into debt to fund college, but the price is even higher for Chinese families. Those from poor rural areas like the Wu family in a coal-mining area in western China have devoted almost all of their earnings for years not only to save for college, but also to pay for elementary and secondary school.
As a New York Times profile of the family and their 19-year-old daughter, Wu Caoying, reveals, college is no guarantee for stable employment in a “white collar” office job. Wu Caoying is a sophomore at a polytechnic university in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province (and the ancient capital of the first Chinese emperor). She is majoring in logistics, a popular major due to the rise in internet commerce in China. But being a “slightly above average student” in her academic work, and too aware of how her tuition and boarding eats up almost all of her parents’ wages, she is thinking of dropping out of school and starting her own business, though she has neither the money nor experience for such.
Are there only so many white collar jobs even a huge economy like China’s can support? Or is the problem education systems — the U.S.’s, China’s — that are failing adequately to train students for the careers they can attain? In the U.S., eectricians, plumbers and others in skilled professional fields that do not require a college degree are seeing 23 percent job growth.
One phenomenon that is going on in the U.S. is that a college degree is required for jobs – file clerk, receptionist — that had once only required a high school diploma. A year after President Obama spoke of college for all, college is as important as ever but students and their parents need to factor a new reality into their decisions, that the jobs they end up with may not be the ones they went to college for.
Is it really worth it to go into five figures of debt to spend your days operating a xerox machine? Is the dream of college for the masses turning out to be a nightmare?
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