Prospering after prosperity: A new battlefield in higher education is dawning
TRUCKEE, Calif. andamp;#8212; andamp;#8220;Soldiers of misfortune.andamp;#8221; That’s how John Steinbeck remembered his young job-hungry compatriots during the Great Depression. And he knew them because he was one of them. He was part of a generation that spent its youth and young adulthood skipping dentist visits, hoarding canned food and, if they had pets, avoiding the vet bills.For it wasn’t sickness that killed his dog Tillie; it was the vet’s $25 bill.andamp;#8220;We just couldn’t raise it, and Tillie took about two weeks to die. If people sitting up with her and holding her head could have saved her, she would have got well,andamp;#8221; Steinbeck wrote in his essay andamp;#8220;A Primer on the ’30s.andamp;#8221;Now Steinbeck’s generation, despite the distance in years, seems to be so much like the one emerging, stocked with cash-strapped young adults, all hoping for that elusive J-O-B. And if the Great Depression had soldiers of misfortune, perhaps the Great Recession has soldiers in misfortune, this generation coming into its parents’ broken economy.College couldn’t be more at the forefront of the economic battle, the fighting ground between childhood and unemployment. Teens must choose whether they can afford high tuition fees, whether they need to wait a year or two or whether they should simply look for trade-specific schools promising high odds on immediate employment.Sarah Jahr and Becky Faulk, a pair of Truckee High School seniors, have seen it better than most as they prepare to enroll in college by taking college-level English at Sierra College in Truckee.andamp;#8220;You think that the economic trials are affecting some people, but they’re affecting everyone,andamp;#8221; said Jahr. andamp;#8220;We’re seeing houses being foreclosed on and my friend’s business aren’t doing well. It’s just a bummer.andamp;#8221;Jahr and Faulk are part of the new generation facing this drought of a job market, an era where kids grow up with field trips few and far between, with teachers lobbying parents for copy machine paper, crayons and volunteer hours and where terms like andamp;#8220;foreclosure,andamp;#8221; andamp;#8220;layoffsandamp;#8221; and andamp;#8220;bankruptcyandamp;#8221; are all within the teenage lexicon.The unfortunate proof is in the numbers. In California, unemployment is 12.1 percent, up from 12 percent in July; in Nevada, 13.4 percent, up from 12.9 percent in July.Jahr and Faulk say the constant bombardment of economic news has dampened their economic outlook on the job market but not their spirits.andamp;#8220;There’s just not that many opportunities as there used to be, and it seems like the economy is going to get worse before it gets better andamp;#8212; and then our generation is going to be stuck with it,andamp;#8221; Jahr said.Faulk said she’s just tired of listening to all the hollow suggestions, teachers and media outlets full of sonorous advice on topics like the next great career, the next great industry or the abracadabra andamp;#8220;the-jobs-will-just-be-thereandamp;#8221; answer. andamp;#8220;All these jobs that they say are going to benefit us, really, we can’t figure them out, and it’s just not working,andamp;#8221; Faulk said.Everything amounts to a question about higher education itself. Can college still be seen as it was during the nation’s more prosperous times, as a milestone, a place to come of age?
Still up to his elbows in the Great Depression and feverishly hunting work of any kind, Steinbeck was called by the San Francisco News to chronicle the movements of a new migrant people. They’d been popping up in tent cities andamp;#8212; Hoovervilles, as they called them andamp;#8212; displaced from farms and dying of starvation. Steinbeck went to investigate, much of which sprouted up in his novel andamp;#8220;The Grapes of Wrath.andamp;#8221;andamp;#8220;I liked these people. They had qualities of humor and courage and inventiveness and energy that appealed to me. I thought that if we had a national character and a national genius, these people, who were beginning to be called Okies, were it,andamp;#8221; said Steinbeck.Again, the nation is calling for a national character, a type of genius, to carry it through its hardships, a burden placed on the new generation to figure out.Matthew Segal doesn’t claim to be a genius, but he does have faith in youth.Segal is president and co-founder of Our Time, a national nonprofit that markets and promotes political and financial opportunities for people under age 30. He can be seen dressed in a black suit and tie on C-Span, CNN and MSNBC talking politics, talking jobs, asking viewers to support youth by hiring young.andamp;#8220;College is a decision that young adults and their families have to prepare for andamp;#8212; in essence it is a decision of cost,andamp;#8221; said Segal, in an email to the Sun. andamp;#8220;One might consider the amount of loans necessary and resources available to the individual and their family, and then have a careful discussion on whether it is worth the desired career goal or outcome.andamp;#8221;Viewed in the light of an investment, Segal said college isn’t for everyone, and it has nothing to do with IQ so much as it does with goals.A trend he observes today is more and more young people considering their plans at 15 to 16, rather than 18.Another employment option is entrepreneurship Segal said.andamp;#8220;You don’t have to be a tech genius or a Harvard college graduate to start your own business,andamp;#8221; Segal said. andamp;#8220;We’ve been exposed to young restaurant owners, liquor shop owners, clothing and retail companies, garage sale-type business all run or started by young people.andamp;#8221;Segal lists Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Verizon Wireless as the biggest youth hiring players in 2011, with AmeriCorps and VISTA coming in third.
In hard times, when nothing amounted to much andamp;#8212; and much was close to nothing andamp;#8212; Steinbeck said he and his friends would do what they could with whatever they had. They’d celebrate small successes, enjoy simple things.andamp;#8220;But mostly we made the best of what we had because despondency, not prosperity, was just around the corner. We were afraid of that more than anything else. That’s why we played so hard,andamp;#8221; Steinbeck wrote in his essay.For thousands of youth, college is making the best of what they have andamp;#8212; and that can add up.According to 2010 statistics from the US Bureau of Labor, the average weekly earnings of someone with a bachelor’s degree, $1,038, is nearly double someone with only a high school degree, $626 per week.andamp;#8220;A college education is a lifetime investment which provides the holder of a college degree with the keys to a better, higher-paying job and often with enhanced quality of life due to the greater likelihood of being a life-long learner,andamp;#8221; said University of Nevada, Reno, President Marc Johnson.Richard Rubsamen, president of Incline Village’s Sierra Nevada College, agreed.andamp;#8220;I think in general people are realizing more than ever that an undergraduate degree is not a luxury or item that you can contemplate; it has become a necessity in order to be competitive in this job market,andamp;#8221; Rubsamen said.Yet, pessimists might argue andamp;#8220;That’s great for a single profession, but what happens if a career turns obsolete or over saturated?andamp;#8221;Both Rubsamen and Johnson have calculated multiple career paths into the equation. In fact, Rubsamen estimates that in a lifetime, the next generation will have seven different careers, not just jobs.This is where Segal and both colleges say a liberal arts education could be critical.andamp;#8220;What a liberal arts education gives you is general human capital (skills for multiple occupations) that you can apply to many situations, many different careers, many different jobs, that is a great thing to have when jobs are being deleted and added at a rapid pace,andamp;#8221; said Lynn Gillette, SNC’s executive vice president.Of course, the collegiate Catch-22 has always been money: giving it to have it. Tuition comes at a cost, a sacrifice for families already burdened by the downturn. Yet Gillette and Johnson said tuition cannot be weighed only on a graduate’s salary coming out of college. Rather, it’s a lifetime investment andamp;#8212; just like a new home.andamp;#8220;Loans make college possible now with payoff over a long period of time just as the house can provide a living space now and throughout the life of the house, and beyondandamp;#8221; Johnson said.
andamp;#8220;I wonder you don’t lose faith in my future. Everyone else does. For myself I haven’t brains enough to quit,andamp;#8221; wrote Steinbeck in 1932 to his agent Amasa Miller. He was at a low and joked he’d be struggling at his desk for 30 years more. Actually, it would be three, when his first success would publish, andamp;#8220;Tortilla Flatandamp;#8221; (andamp;#8220;Cup of Gold,andamp;#8221; his first novel written in Tahoe, and previous books weren’t sellers).Similarly, Faulk and Jahr joke they may have to work for 100 years before they can retire.Kim Bateman, dean at Sierra College, empathizes. She’s worked with students for quite some time. She cares about them, she really does. Doubters can attend SC graduations for proof, as Bateman’s hugs are a hallmark of the ceremonies. She cares and respects the challenges facing graduates.andamp;#8220;You know, the kid who mixes your paint at the hardware store could be a business grad from UC Santa Barbara; the kid who rents you a video could have a degree in film from the San Francisco Art Institute. You just look around and you see these highly qualified people, perhaps even bussing your table,andamp;#8221; Bateman said.As the recession has deepened, she’s seen adults coming to school for new skills, high schoolers like Jahr and Faulk enrolling to ease college courses andamp;#8212; some even able to earn their associate’s degree before graduation andamp;#8212; and then throngs of college students, about 90 percent at Sierra College, easing tuition costs through community college.Bateman said she understands dealing with the challenges of college andamp;#8212; and after andamp;#8212; isn’t easy.Asked for the best advice she could give to students, Bateman said she tells them to do what they love, leverage their skills and andamp;#8220;not to be afraid of the long haul, because it’s worth it.andamp;#8221;Despite the economy, Jahr and Faulk are undaunted and both intend to pursue a college education.andamp;#8220;You can’t look back, you have to keep looking forward,andamp;#8221; Jahr said.As their generation goes into the workplace, they know there will be obstacles to surmount, that the future is a lottery ticket, a juggle, a lot of work and guessing. They know this is life and reality is hard. Yet, in the wise words of another great American writer, Kurt Vonnegut, andamp;#8220;So it goes.andamp;#8221;
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User