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 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT