Generation Y Finds Diminishing Returns

April 10, 2012 | The Philadelphia Inquirer |

In these tough times, young people need to go to college - not because it pays so much, but because high school graduates earn so much less, said Tamara Draut, vice president of Demos, the think tank.

Economists calculate that a college graduate makes about $1 million more in a lifetime than a high school graduate.

The Obama administration sees community colleges as filling in the gap. But community colleges are in crisis, with overcrowded classrooms and low graduation rates.

Others try to get certificates or degrees at for-profit colleges. But many such institutions have enormous tuitions - sometimes twice that of nonprofit schools - and low graduation rates.

For high school graduates, it's vital that they get to some form of post-secondary education to earn a certificate or degree, experts say. Not necessarily a diploma from Stanford. But something.

Certificates are no small thing. Nearly 30 percent of people with postsecondary licenses or certificates earn more than the average bachelor's recipient, according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

For students attending four-year colleges, what's needed is an intervention, of sorts, said Van Horn of Rutgers. Someone needs to step in when a sophomore is taking lots of philosophy or poetry classes to advise her to pick courses that will get her a job.

What can't happen anymore, experts insist, is a baby-boomer-inspired ideology that encourages young people to drift through college without a plan.

"'Follow your bliss?' " said Barbara Ray, a researcher, author, and millennials expert with Furstenberg's Transitions to Adulthood group.

"Are you kidding me? These kids will be following their bliss right into debt. I'm not sure they realize this is a high-stakes game, but we are still playing by the old rules."

Ray says we're facing a do-it-yourself economy in which people will battle school debt, constantly change and reconfigure their jobs, find a way to educate their children and to finance their own old age.

Starting right now, millennials should learn to lower their expectations.

"They'll be taking their second-choice jobs, not their first," Van Horn said. "Many won't have economic success, and they'll have to redefine what they need to be happy.

"Or they'll be very unhappy."

Ray agrees. "Young people are bright and optimistic," she said, "but they're heading into very heavy head winds, and I don't think they've realized it quite yet.

"They think things will work out. But I'm not so sure they will."

Basketball makes sense. Dribble, set, shoot. One thing follows another in a logical progression.

The game can be a salvation, and for Cahlin Spearman, it's good that something in his life is simple.

The 27-year-old from Philadelphia's West Oak Lane neighborhood has had it tough. No father, harsh neighborhood, a pitiless beginning.

Still, he made straight A's in high school. He worked hard in school because his neighborhood offered few savory choices.

"Being a young black man, people are not necessarily going to give you a chance," he says. "And no one's going to put faith in someone without qualifications."

So Spearman got some.

He graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and, last year, got his master's in education from Lincoln University in Philadelphia. Spearman works as a health and gym teacher at a West Oak Lane charter school and is looking to earn a doctorate in psychology. His only worry is increasing his student debt load from $60,000 to $90,000.

While Spearman likes teaching, he fancies himself an entrepreneur: He wants to open a 24-hour basketball gym so he can make money and work with disadvantaged children.

Growing up, he had always heard that all you needed to get ahead was a college degree.

But as a graduate searching for work, Spearman quickly realized that that was outdated information.

"Who knew college wasn't enough?" he said. "Who knew a master's wasn't enough? I had never read the fine print, and that fine print is crazy. It tells you that every degree has its limitations."

Spearman says his grandmother worked as a secretary for an insurance company for 30 years. She has a pension now and pays all her bills.

But, he said, "everything has changed, and there's more competition. It makes it harder for me. But that's why I keep getting more educated."

On a recent day, Spearman was at a park near his home teaching some neighborhood kids the finer points of shooting.

On the court, it's all smooth pivots. If only life were that way.

"You just have to scrap and claw and find a way," Spearman said. "It's got to get done."