Small liberal arts colleges are starting to lose the battle against the “educational-industrial complex.” This month, two colleges in the eastern United States—Sweet Briar College and Tennessee Temple University—announced they will close their doors this year (2015). Insurmountable financial challenges and declining enrollment were cited as the reason for the closure of these two schools.
These universities were 114 and 70 years old, respectively. They had hundreds of students and thousands of alumni. But, they were unable to stay afloat in the current world of massive for-profit universities and university conglomerates affixed to state treasuries.
All this bad news made me start thinking: If colleges are struggling to make ends meet, what does this mean for archaeology?
Publicly traded, for-profit universities look like they’re in trouble as well. Alia Wong wrote about “The Downfall of For-Profit Colleges” in last month’s Atlantic magazine. Wong cites abysmal graduation rates at for-profit institutions (only 27 percent finish with a Bachelor’s), abuse of veterans’ and Department of Defense educational benefits, and the fact that many students complete programs for jobs that make less than the wages for a high school dropout. Many of the for-profit schools use shady recruiting tactics, cost more than state institutions, and encourage students to take out more loans than they need.
It’s not a surprise that the United States is experiencing a student loan debt bubble. After hearing about the closure of Sweet Briar College, millionaire Mark Cuban said this was just the beginning of the end for higher education in this country. (As leader of the bubble announcement brigade, Cuban announced that we are also experiencing a tech bubble right now too.) Regardless of whether we’re in or out of a bubble, it is true that student loan debt is astronomical. At over $1.2 trillion, the student loan debt load is crippling the economy and families across this country. Tuition is rising as states slash higher ed budgets.
Everybody seems to have a solution to the student debt crisis (Even me. Keep reading.):
— Limit the amount of student loans each student can take out to $10,000/year, even from private lenders.
— Encourage more students to go into technical programs at community colleges rather than going for a 4-year degree.
— Slash university budgets, like they did in Arizona. I mean, you can’t take out loans to go to a college that doesn’t exist. (Just kidding. That’s not a solution. Budget cuts actually make universities increase tuition/fees, which fuels loan debt. It is a sign that state budgets aren’t willing to keep big university spending at pre-Recession levels, however.)
— Some students are simply boycotting their loan payments. They say they were convinced to take out usurious private loans for “worthless” degrees.
How does this situation affect archaeology?
The condition of our country’s universities should be a major concern for industries like cultural resource management archaeology because we rely on our degrees as proof of abilities. Degrees are the currency of our industry’s hierarchies and are important for permitting standards. If we can’t get degrees, we won’t be able to get permanent jobs or do consulting archaeology.
So, the high price of a college degree has a serious impact on our entire industry. It will force more students to enter majors with a better guarantee of a higher wage upon graduation and away from humanities like archaeology. We’re already seeing a proliferation of “Best College Majors” articles that stress how much money an engineer, any engineer, with a BS will make upon graduation. The sad thing is: All these engineering graduates are just going to water down the wages for all engineers in like 10 years once Millennials start flooding the market with engineering degrees.
I remember when I was a high schooler, every parent/teacher/guidance counselor stressed the adage, “Just get a degree that says ‘Computers’ in it and you’ll be okay”. Now, most software creation and app design is outsourced to Asia. Looks like Americans weren’t the only ones that heard about the need for computers workers.
We are also forgetting the fact that Gen-Xers and Millennials can have like seven careers in our lifetimes, switching jobs about every four years or so. How can a single degree cover the skills that will be required in each career? Answer: It can’t. We need to be lifelong learners.
Finally, most of today’s college students will be expected to do jobs that simply do not even exist yet. Some states and agencies are trying to prepare for this reality. This fact has changed CRM archaeology in some major ways in the last few decades.
Cultural resource management archaeology did not even exist until the 1960s. Old timers used to use pencils, compasses, and rulers to do all of their fieldwork. They typed up reports on typewriters. These fading documents fill up SHPO offices across the country.
Things are done differently now. I remember when using a handheld GPS in the field was super high tech. Now, companies that aren’t using tablet-based field recording systems are like dinosaurs. CRM companies are also conducting projects using research designs that put many academic archaeological projects to shame. The best CRM research designs are sophisticated, ambitious, and swimming in data, money, and talent that university researchers wish they had access to. The final reports can be the equivalent to two or three dissertations and are written by a cadre of experienced experts that have….COLLEGE DEGREES.
The college degree quest has to change if archaeology will continue to attract top talent
Who wants to get a PhD just to work in CRM for $40,000/year or less? That’s 10+ years of higher education that will only allow you to make as less than a unionized bus driver in most cities. This doesn’t even include the cost of the living while you get the degree and the potential loss of wages incurred while you’re sitting in class.
Right now there are hundreds of anthropology graduate students that can pretty much expect that fate unless they already have some CRM experience or an MBA (FYI: do as much CRM as possible while you’re in grad school, or else). A select few PhDs will land teaching jobs with a functional wage and a few others will adjunct. Most of the rest will go into CRM or will choose an entirely different career.
I’ll propose another scenario: How about getting an MA, start working in CRM for $40,000/year upon graduation and have no student loans to pay for AND you get a host of valuable certifications AND you graduate with a professional network intact! That’s right, no loan payment.
It could take 56 years to finish this degree, but a degree in CRM would actually prepared you for a career in CRM because your curriculum was created through collaboration between a community or small liberal arts college and the heritage conservation industry. You worked on real projects while in school or interned for a real company/government agency that gave you a reference and professional network upon graduation. This means you would already have at least one year of real-world experience in CRM and at least one project that you can take ownership of, in addition to your thesis. Qualifications like the HAZWOPER 40-hour, MSHA certification, OSHA training, first aid, and wilderness first responder could actually be built into your curriculum so that, when you graduated, your future employer only has to renew your certifications.
You may not get paid that much right out of school but, best of all: You have no loan debt and would be well-positioned to land a permanent job in the industry.
Sound too good to be true? It is for Americans, but it’s reality in other countries. I just described the way higher ed is in the Netherlands where my wife went to graduate school. College tuition is free to all Dutch students that qualify for a university (i.e. score high enough on high school exit exams). Technical training in other industries is provided for students that do not qualify for a university education. The Netherlands actually pays a stipend for college students so they don’t have to work while they’re in school. Technical school graduates get all the certifications required for their career so employers don’t have to pay to retrain tech school graduates. Most of Europe has a similar system for their students.
Unfortunately, this is too good to be true for Americans. But, you do have options that can help you graduate cheaply and with little to no student loan debt. Since CRM is more of a technical trade, you should take the fastest, cheapest path through the school that will provide the most opportunities for real-world experience. CRM should be similar to the Netherlands’ technical education path.
Here’s how you can come as close as possible to the Dutch experience in the United States:
1) Get the cheapest accredited undergrad degree you can find in a city where you can find a job that will support you. This way, you may not need loans for your undergrad (I found a way to do it. So can you). Boise State University immediately comes to mind, but there are dozens of schools that meet this qualification.
2) Decide whether or not you want a Masters or PhD. The PhD is overkill for CRM right now, but I can almost guarantee that it won’t be in 1020 years. This decision will help you decide your next strategy.
*Remember: Work for a couple years after finishing your undergraduate. Be sure you want to do CRM for a living. The folks at Go Dig A Hole have an awesome blog post about this (http://www.godigahole.com/2015/02/24/is-archaeology-the-right-field-for-you/).
2a) Become a CRMer– Get the cheapest accredited MA anthro you can find. Adams State College is good for this. So is the University of Idaho; or,
2b) Take a few years longer to become a CRMer– Get the best accredited MA in anthro that will provide you with the skills you need for CRM. Sonoma State is my best recommendation.
2c) Go for the Gold– A PhD is basically all about prestige (or winning the lottery and becoming a professor) so you need to aim for the top of the ziggurat. For your PhD, go to the best, most widely renowned school you can get into but make sure it has a track record of graduating and funding students. An anthro PhD from Central Appalachian State isn’t going to open as many doors as one from the University of Arizona or Stanford because top-ranked colleges crank out just as many PhDs as lower tier ones. The same candidates with a PhD will apply for the same jobs, but employers are more likely to prefer PhDs from prestigious universities (Maybe I’m wrong. If so, somebody please set me straight in the comments or send me an email). A tuition waiver is an absolute must. A TA or RA position is also essential.
Your PhD is where you really want to give a sh*t about your education. A PhD is like running a Spartan Ultra Beast Obstacle Race that never seems to end. Until, one day, you get to the finish line and find out there isn’t any free Gatorade or t-shirts. If you’re going to physically and mentally abuse yourself like that, then you’d better get your degree from the most noteworthy institution you can.
3) Get in and get out as soon as possible– Reality is waiting for you on the other side of college. Do whatever you can (CLEP tests, AP exams, online college courses, ect.) to get out of school ASAP.
4) Take only what you need– Your financial office will offer you a massive wad of loans as long as you’re enrolled. Only take what you need–the absolute bare minimum. Just enough to cover tuition, even less if you can afford it. No degree is worth $50,000+/year in student loans.
5) Get somebody else to pay for it– Make every effort to get a government institution, private organization, or company to pay for your education (especially grad school). Scholarships, fellowships, grants– any mechanism that cuts down your expenses. If you’re in graduate school, you need to seriously apply for every single grant opportunity you qualify for. Every. Single. One. Every. Single. Semester.
PS: You can also go the “public service forgiveness” route if you’re lucky enough to work for a government institution for 10 years while you’re paying your student loans (click here to learn more).
Fixing the student loan situation starts in our minds
Americans are swimming in student loan debt because of the way we think about college. Undergrads tend to believe college needs to be the time of their lives. I see a lot of young people taking loans to pay for all kinds of stuff they don’t need (car payments, vacations, luxury apartments, gym memberships, ect.). You don’t need student loans if all you want to do is live at the same level you did while you were living with your parents. You can just stay in your childhood room and keep playing Playstation. Student loans are for tuition, not lifestyles. I’m sure your parents would love that.
I also see a lot of archaeologists going back to school for an MA because they don’t know what else to do. Can’t find a job? You can just hunker down in grad school right? Wrong.
How can I tell who these people are? I ask them one question: What are you going to do with your degree after graduation? If I don’t get a direct response in less than 10 seconds, that person shouldn’t be getting a grad degree because they still don’t know what they want to do. Student loans for grad school are to pay for a degree that will further your career and increase your wages. Grad school is a major, expensive decision and if you’re not sure you want to do archaeology or think a grad degree will automatically solve your career woes you’re in for a major surprise.
Finally, people keep thinking that college is an investment. It is, sort of. Getting a cheap degree and walking away with little debt is an awesome investment. But, just like buying the wrong house, a degree can be a sh*tty investment. Investments put money into your pocket, so, in order for a degree to count as an investment, its initial cost can’t be so high that it actually takes money out of your pocket for the next 30 years. If you paid too much for a degree, it’s no longer called an investment. It’s a liability.
The best way to save the American college system is pragmatism on the part of the students and altruism among university administrators. Universities need to remember that they provide a social good. They make our society smarter which helps us create more wealth, cause less violence, and move our technological prowess to higher levels. Universities are not businesses. They shouldn’t be run that way. They shouldn’t be run by businesspeople either.
Students need to be pragmatic when it comes to their education. They should remember that the degree shows one thing: That you have the capability and dedication to learn in a structured environment. A diploma is a badge that you can show to employers so they’re more likely to let you in the front door–like an ID will help get a 21-year-old into a bar. That’s all it is. College isn’t a lifestyle. It’s not a place to expand your mind (Expanding your mind is what travel, parenthood, marriage, and the rest of real life is for. You can expand your mind at a local public library for free. You don’t need a university for that).
Most of all, a college degree does not mean you are automatically entitled to a job.
Students need to vote with their wallets by attending cheap, accredited schools that don’t waste public dollars on sports teams, flashy rec centers, or luxury student housing and have a track record of getting students graduated. Get in and get out as cheap as possible. Then, live life.
If students stressed pragmatism and universities recognized the altruism at the heart of their mission, archaeology would flourish because students would be prepared for careers and universities would be forced to adopt sustainable financial paths. This change will only happen if students start voting with their wallets.
I believe in education. I do not believe in expensive education. I have also been known to be wrong. What do you think? How does the student loan bubble effect cultural resource management archaeology? How does it effect our entire society?
Please, write a comment below or send me an email.
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