Skip to main content

Do you need a BA, MA, MBA, JD and PhD?

By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Special to CNN
updated 12:05 PM EDT, Wed May 2, 2012
Can it be that earning a college degree is no longer enough to lift one from the daily grind?
Can it be that earning a college degree is no longer enough to lift one from the daily grind?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephen Trachtenberg: A college education is now viewed as utilitarian and practical
  • Trachtenberg: Bad economy scares many students, who ask: "Does it pay to go to college?"
  • He says attaining a higher education used to be a noble intellectual pursuit
  • Trachtenberg: Few jobs satisfy the soul; students should seek self-enrichment in college

Editor's note: Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at George Washington University. He is chairman of the Korn Ferry Higher Education Practice and senior client partner at Korn Ferry International, an executive recruiting firm.

(CNN) -- Over the last several decades, the reasons used to justify acquiring a university education has morphed from the academic to the applied, to the sublime and the ridiculous.

Once characterized as a noble intellectual pursuit -- something one did to gain knowledge and wisdom, contemporary references define college as utilitarian and practical: Without a college degree, one cannot hope to successfully enter the job market. Stay in school and you'll "earn more," as some like to say.

The children of the incumbent middle and upper classes are increasingly the offspring of college graduates and for the most part they follow their parents' lead (especially young women). They understand that to maintain the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, getting a degree is important both for image and long-term prospects. It is the thing to do, what is expected of the daughters and sons of doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, civil servants, etc. There are, of course, a small number of entrepreneurial types (the up-and-coming Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) who forgo college and seek their fortunes in garages. But most people trod a conventional path; they seek to get jobs rather than to be Jobs.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

For those aspiring to the middle class -- the struggling working class, immigrants and children of immigrants -- going to college is probably the most important ticket necessary to take them from one stratum up to the next, all part of the passage from labor to management.

I regret that too few students of any of these economic groups attend college in order to stretch their minds or to mature to where critical thinking overcomes impulse. College is the time to embrace the joy of discovery and the world of ideas, passions and relationships.

But the current dour economic climate and the increasing talk of the need for colleges to justify themselves with questions such as, "Does it pay to go to college?" or "What do we get for our tuition dollars?" have thrown everyone a curve ball. Middle class students are frightened. They no longer expect to live as well or better than their parents but rather are treading water to simply keep afloat, accepting jobs that were once felt to be "below their station." PhDs are driving cabs and tending bars.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

Lower class students are stunned at the changes afoot. Can it be that earning a college degree, something that takes enormous perseverance, energy and, of course, financial sacrifice is no longer enough to lift one from the daily grind?

What then to do? Perhaps the simple BA degree is not enough. Perhaps a few bells and whistles are needed: a double major; joint BA-MA degree; or a doctorate. For many people, these are viewed as resume enhancers, silver bullets that might just turn the head of a human resources person, getting her to take a second look at a prospect's job application. And, of course, if one doesn't have a job, then earning another degree is a way to fill one's days.

It is a sad situation that many of today's students do not want to waste course time on something that is not perceived as advancing their careers.
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

But, earning a livelihood and living a quality life do not always go hand in hand. Yes, everyone needs food and shelter and whenever possible, a little extra spending money. But having a job does not always satisfy the inner cravings or the imagination.

Just take a look at the essays written by folks attending their 40th or 50th class reunions and you'll discover people who have earned decent salaries for many years, were promoted up the ladders of their professions, who provided for the wants of their families in many ways, but who ultimately found their work to be unfulfilling, living lives of "quiet desperation."

When the economy allowed for retirement at the relatively young age of 65, some of these people jumped at the opportunity to change course, to go from boardrooms to ateliers, to move from the service professions to the field of craftsmen, musicians or community volunteers.

Joe Klein: Learning That Works

Too few jobs satisfy the soul. Higher education should help to address that shortcoming. But for that to happen, we have to learn how to combine the practicality of learning with the joy of exploration. We need to give instruction in Arabic and Mandarin so students can work successfully in the global economy, but we also should encourage learning about the culture and history of the countries where those languages are spoken.

Taking an elective in college used to mean studying something you wanted to learn about but not necessarily major in: the mathematician who took a class in 19th century Russian literature or the French major who studied Biology 101. It is a sad situation that many of today's students do not want to waste course time on something that is not perceived as advancing their careers. They don't care to learn things that won't be on the final exam.

Congress says it wants colleges to measure outcomes, to access what a person learned during their 4-year college education. I don't disagree with the need for accountability -- after all, the cost and price of getting an education is not trivial. I want, however, to be one of the people who writes the questions and decides the correct answers. As Winston Churchill said, "We make a living from what we get. We make a life from what we give."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT