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 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT