Degrees in ‘Pop Culture’?

A recent piece in USA Today caught my eye by virtue of its mix of the heartbreaking and the absurd. The story, titled “Grim job prospects could scar today’s college graduates,” by Chris Raasch, tells the truly sad story of just how difficult it is for too many of today’s college graduates to find employment suited to their level of education — if they can find employment at all. The story quotes the following statistics: Over the past year, unemployment among college graduates younger than 25 averaged 9.4 percent. Moreover, 19.1 percent found themselves in jobs for which they were overqualified.

Add to this latest data what we learned last year from the landmark national study on higher education, Academically Adrift. The authors found that 31 percent of the students they surveyed, graduates of the Class of 2009, had been forced to move back home with their parents. Of those who found jobs, the majority were making under $30,000 a year. Adding insult to injury, the average student-loan debt is now $25,000.

The USA Today story then moves from the heartrending to the absurd:

In this tough environment, some college-educated applicants are second-guessing their choices of majors, too.

“I am optimistic that I am going to find a job, but if I could go back and do it all over again, I would specialize in a certain degree field” such as agriculture or finance, says Brett Lutmer, who recently received a master’s degree in sports administration and leadership from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D.

He applies for an average of one or two jobs a day. “To be honest, I am looking just for a job to get experience,” he says.

Some are going back for a second career after failing to launch a first.

The story also discusses another young person with two master’s degrees, one in “pop culture,” who remains underemployed and forced to live with her mother.

Degrees in sports administration and pop culture? Higher education seems to have drifted so far from its fundamental charge that, today, apparently anything can qualify for degree status.

What an injustice this is to students, who innocently believe that if a university thinks a subject important enough to make it into a degree, then they will be well-served by enrolling in it. There are those who blame such students for their bad choices. I am not one of them. I taught in universities for many years and I know the deference paid by most students to the standards articulated by their institution. After all, these are still kids, for the most part; offering them degrees in “pop culture” is perilously close to child abuse. Any academic or administrator who truly believes in both the employability and intellectual respectability of a degree in pop culture is both deceived and deceiving.

There was a time, not that long ago, when universities had a proper reverence for the life of the mind, a reverence that would have made them ashamed to offer such empty-headed degree programs to their students.

Apparently, that time has passed.

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