Blame Universities—Not Wall Street

Most of the demands of the protestors who are “Occupying Wall Street” are vague, ill conceived, and even contradictory. The United States cannot simultaneously expand entitlements and end the debt, nor can we guarantee every person a job and every worker $20 an hour.

The occupiers are a diverse group, ranging from professional protestors to disaffected students; they can’t even agree on why they’re protesting. But some of the protestors and many of their online sympathizers share a common characteristic; they seem to have bought into the college hype—the conventional wisdom that told them college was the route to a good job, a decent income, and a stable life.

New York Magazine reports that fifty percent of the protestors are between 20 and 29 years old. A quick glance at the profiles on “We Are the 99 Percent,” a website affiliated with the protests, reveals that most of the participants (and sympathizers) are young, in debt, and highly educated. One young man featured on the site said he has a B.S. in physics and $80,000 in debt. One young woman claimed to have a master’s degree, $30,000 in student loans, and no job—despite having sent out over 100 job applications. Another young graduate wrote that he has $70,000 in student loans, a low-wage job, and lives in his parents’ basement. In one case, a woman with a master’s degree said she works 2 low-wage jobs while her husband, with a Ph.D., works 4—just to pay the bills.

Now, it‘s hard to take all these claims at face-value—after all, the 99ers are posting online, often anonymously, and many will probably say anything if they think it makes banks and capitalism look bad. But, for the sake of argument, let’s take them at their word. There is probably a kernel of truth in their tales of woe.

The 99 Percenters who fell into the college loan trap are not evil or stupid to want someone to blame when the mantra they’ve heard since kindergarten—get A’s, stay involved, get a degree—ends up being useless (or in the case of those deep in debt with no tangible skills, worse than useless). But where the protestors get it wrong is that they’re occupying Wall Street instead of the real culprit—State U.

It’s not surprising that businesses aren’t hiring; they’ve been saying for years that colleges aren’t preparing students for work in the real world. A recent study by York College confirmed that college grads entering the employment sector aren’t ready for the tasks ahead of them. According to David Polk, one of the professors who conducted the study, some of the qualities that students lack “include the ability to communicate and listen respectfully, motivation to finish a task, and attention to appearance.”

Even so, for many recent college graduates, 99 Percenters among them, our terrible economy may very well be partly responsible for their joblessness. After all, students’ lack of preparation predates the recent downturn, and most still got hired for entry-level professional jobs before 2008.

But much of the blame for so many young people’s disillusionment should fall on the colleges and universities that promised them the moon in the first place. Why does a 27-year-old with little work experience and a Master of Fine Arts degree expect that a job in her field will be easy to find? Or pay a “living wage”? It is likely that, starting in high school and continuing through college, her counselors and teachers told her that a college degree—any college degree—was the fast track to success and fortune. And then college administrators repeated the myth and added that an advanced degree would certainly assure success, fulfillment, and happiness.

Why do such students everywhere assume that $100,000 in student loan debt won’t be a huge burden as they start careers and families? Because Sallie Mae and the university student loan office explained that student loans are “good debt” and that once students graduate and have a job, monthly loan payments won’t be a big deal.

But in too many cases, without a really good job offer upon graduation, the repayment of student loans is indeed a crushing burden. The sad truth is that a college education is oversold. There are too many graduates with too many degrees chasing too few jobs. More than half of the fastest growing jobs—contrary to popular belief—are not in fields requiring a 4-year degree. And none of the fastest growing sectors require an unspecified degree in liberal studies or the arts—they require specific skills like nursing, engineering, or plumbing.

A college education, just like an investment made by Wall Street stockbrokers, is a risk. Students, like the investors, have a responsibility to themselves ignore the hype and read the fine print before gambling their time or money. And colleges should stop marketing junk bond-level degrees as blue-chip investments.

The 99 Percent should stop blaming employers and Wall Street capitalists and start blaming the conventional wisdom and the institutions that sold them a bill of goods—and themselves for buying it.