In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, marking an end to the Cold War, and thus, communism. Tensions spurred by Sputnik and the space race, the Cuban missile crisis, and the threat of nuclear war eased. Life was good.
Twenty years later, President Bush proclaimed that the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall marked “a significant landmark in freedom’s victory over tyranny.” Similarly, President Obama urged Americans to “reaffirm our dedication to freedom and democracy” in connection to the anniversary.
But while political celebration of the Berlin Wall’s fall (rightfully) roars on, millions have ignored its economic implications. And those economic implications have hit college students and graduates the hardest.
Today, students are swimming in debt. Reports indicate that 44 million borrowers collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. alone, and the average student in the Class of 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt. Not surprisingly, 1 million students per year default on their student loans.
For millions, the employment prospects are not much better. A recent report found that 43% of recent college graduates are underemployed in their first job after college. Think of the latte-serving Starbucks worker with a college degree. Even worse, of those underemployed graduates, two-thirds are underemployed after 5 years, and over 50% remain so after 10 years.
Despite the economics of a college degree shifting, the advice given to college students has not. Indeed, America has an entire cultural and educational system to do only one thing: send kids to college no matter the circumstances, no matter the costs, and no matter the consequences.
This conventional, antiquated, dangerous school of thought is based on this misguided believe that every student needs to attend college, work really hard, and graduate with a stellar GPA from a top university. Then, upon graduation, the student takes his or her freshly-minted diploma to an employer, who is supposed to be so amazed that someone as gifted as this student is standing in their presence. Out of this amazement, the employer rushes to offer the student a job, a handsome salary, and juicy benefits. Then, the student lives happily ever after. It’s like a three-step process for 18-year olds.
Not surprisingly, many of the people giving college advice are older folks, those who graduated college before the Berlin Wall fell. These parents, policy makers, teachers, and administrators are the “Old Guard,” having never actually experienced first-hand the struggles of college students inside the New Economy. The Old Guard has never worked and attended college inside the New Economy.
Instead, the Old Guard has learned of recent college graduates’ struggles through second-hand sources, such as the latest statistics or economic reports. The Old Guard advises students through the lens of their own college experiences formed a generation ago. The Old Guard offers career advice based on realities that haven’t existed in decades. In essence, the Old Guard is convinced that this college-at-all-costs approach still works. It doesn’t.
Most importantly, the Old Guard fails to realize that the Berlin Wall’s collapse initiated a process that has exponentially diminished the value of a college degree. With the collapse, suddenly roughly 1.5 billion people, previously isolated behind communism’s Iron Curtin, can access the world. Billions of people with their own hopes, dreams, and pent-up ambitions have begun a journey to pursue their own version of the American Dream. Previously, Americans knew all about cheap labor, but when the Berlin Wall fell, it had to respond to cheap brilliance—at scale.
It’s this cheap brilliance that’s largely disrupting the economics of a college degree. Today, after over the course of thirty years, more educated, talented, and ambitious people than ever before are competing directly with U.S. college graduates. Since 2000, China has produced more college graduates than America and Europe, and China is now building the equivalent of nearly one university per week. The U.S. ranks third in total college graduates per year behind China and India, and the gap is widening. By 2030, some predict that the number of Chinese graduates between ages 25 to 34 could rise 300%, compared to just 30% in the U.S. and Europe. As a result, billions of people around the globe today compete for the same jobs that every college graduate wants.
That’s why, if you graduated college prior to the Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989, you likely have no idea what you’re talking about when it comes to college advice. Assuming a standard college graduation age of 22, the first people to graduate college after the Berlin Wall’s collapse would have been born in 1967. As of 2018, that means people 51 years or older—born on or before 1967— should not be giving college advice.
In place of the Old Guard needs to emerge fresh, new voices. Thought leaders with insights crafted through their own battle-tested college and work experiences occurring inside the New Economy. Thought leaders who ditch the college-at-all costs narrative and actually advise students on what matters. Thought leaders who advise students to slow down and experiment before investing six figures in higher education. Thought leaders who see the value of self-awareness to students. Though leaders who emphasize networking, internships, and practical skills over needlessly spending hours in the library. Thought leaders who return to practicality.
Should we fail to develop a New Guard of leaders in the higher education space who understand the dynamics and challenges of the New Economy, we’ll continue to do a tremendous disservice to our county’s next generation of students—and, in turn, our nation’s future.