TEL AVIV — A record number of undergraduate students will get their degrees this year. But what awaits them isn't pretty: job insecurity, bosses who are indifferent to what they studied, a shortage of jobs that match their education and talents, and big debts accumulated during their years at university. All of this suggests that perhaps we should rethink the conventional wisdom that a bachelor’s degree is necessary to get ahead in life.
There are nearly 300,000 students registered in Israel’s higher education institutions. Some (medical and architecture students, for example) have no other choice because the profession they’ve chosen requires a degree. But most students aren’t studying for a specific profession, but just to get a degree so they can say they have one.
Meanwhile, the vast majority don’t have full-time jobs but instead live at the expense of their parents, earning only minimal sums with student jobs. Parent seem to understand, if not welcome, the idea that times have changed. Getting a college degree today isn’t like it once was.
Without the support of parents and the mega marketing efforts by the 69 universities and colleges, today’s youth don’t seem to be giving enough consideration to the economic significance of often destructive academic conformity.
This article was born of sadness, of the desire to challenge the perception that college studies offer professional security. It was born because of growing testimonies from young people who are educated but lack any sense of economic security.
Some people enter the unsafe Israeli labor market at the age of 30 because they had to invest more time in their studies to obtain a certain advantage over other candidates. That’s when reality sets in and they discover what they missed all those years they didn’t work, didn’t contribute toward their retirement, and didn’t obtain any serious professional experience. Suddenly, what they thought was a security card is now a debt that cannot be redeemed.
Many people reading this won’t like it, simply because it is contrary to everything they have been educated to believe. Others may agree but believe they have no other choice, that the Israeli labor market favors people with degrees. They will say that only entrepreneurs can afford to skip an academic path.
To understand how undergraduate studies in Israel have morphed from a secure investment to a financial gamble, we have to go back 20 years. Then, there were only universities that trained students for a few different jobs and gave them a good general education.
The level of education in those universities was considered to be very high, and students worked hard. At that time, these graduates found jobs quite easily.
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Tel Aviv University — Photo: Ron Almog
But because of several factors, that situation changed at the beginning of the 1990s. First, the appearance of colleges made higher education more accessible but did not necessarily retain the same quality. Suddenly the market was flooded with young graduates with degrees that were not always taken seriously. According to an OECD report, Israel has the third-highest number of university degrees per capita in the world.
Second, Israeli society has undergone deep changes. The most significant among them is a steep increase in the cost of living. These changes have prompted many young people to choose curriculums that open the door to jobs with big salaries. This is why 15% of Israeli students study business administration.
All of this has created a vicious circle, which is to say that if everyone has degrees in law or business administration, then those degrees aren’t worth anything anymore. Thus, many young students prolong their studies toward more specialized degrees with the idea that it will given them an advantage.
Professor Ran Spiegler, head of the Graduate Studies Program at the School of Economics at Tel Aviv University, believes strongly that academia itself is responsible for the unfortunate situations in which many young students are finding themselves.
I suspected it during my studies, but the first time I understood clearly that what matters most for employers is not what you studied but through what filtering mechanisms you did so, was shortly after I graduated university with two degrees and a very big hole in my pocket.
At the time, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but like many of my friends, I knew that whatever I would do would have nothing to do with my degrees.
Universities don’t like to think that their main role is to filter candidates to employers, but in fact “this is what happens,” suggests revered scholar Charles Murray, senior research fellow at the prestigious American Enterprise Institute. “What happens is that in many cases the employers themselves have studied at the universities from which they recruit,” he wrote in a recent article.
Oz Almog, professor of sociology at the University of Haifa, says he hears young people telling each other that a degree will help, no matter what it is. “So many want the degree more than to study and learn, and meanwhile every institution of higher education is lowering their requirements to be attractive.”
Since most employers are more interested in people and less what they have studied, and given that more and more students are entering academia only for that same employer to employ them, maybe there is another way to filter that would cost less money and time?
One possible solution is to bring back the concept of the apprentice or trainee. Why not create settings where young people would start work along with a professional — a lawyer, teacher, engineer, accountant or even a doctor — for a few years, at the end of which they would go through the relevant professional exams? Students would acquire the academic and theoretical parts of their education during a concentrated year of study at the end of the internship period.
The advantages are clear: Young people would begin to earn money sooner, and their contribution to the market would be of a larger scale. They would know how their future looks much sooner, and not after many years of studies. Those who regret their choices could switch course earlier in their careers.
Furthermore, students from weak socio-economic backgrounds who cannot always allow themselves three to four years of full-time study could earn a job more easily this way. After all, how many young people from less-fortunate backgrounds can, for example, allow themselves nine years of training (studies and part-time internship) before becoming a psychologist?
One last and very important advantage of this new approach to education is that university resources would go more toward training researchers and less toward mass teaching. Only good could come from more university-level research, and it would help us all cope with the ongoing brain drain.