The Waiter’s Myth
Long ago, when my wonderful life-mate Helen and I were just starting out, she worked as the administrator of a plumber’s and contractor’s trade association in Delaware. She did a wonderful job (as she did at any work she took on), and near the end of the year we attended an organization gala. Hundreds of members and their wives showed up—and there was my Helen, the only woman in attendance who wasn’t wearing a fur coat. Even though my pay as a newspaperman wasn’t terrific, I made up my mind to end that imbalance by Christmas—and I did. Helen got her first fur that year, and two more after that.
This isn’t the story of my struggle to pamper my wife. I was a researcher, then as now, and became interested in how plumbers could afford such luxuries for their sweethearts. A little digging showed me a surprising statistic: on average, at that time, plumbers in Delaware brought home bigger paychecks than lawyers. In fact, now as it was then, many occupations that don’t demand four years or more of college pay extremely well. Besides plumbers, electricians, arborists, heavy equipment operators, bricklayers, carpenters, and mechanics, add in beauticians and machinists—just to name a few more. The list is surprisingly long. These are all high paying, satisfying occupations that don’t require college degrees for entry. Many are crying for more applicants, yet restaurants and retail stores are filled with college grad employees who can’t find decent work.
Much has to do with the decisions these young men and women made about what to study in the ivied halls. The guys and gals waiting tables are rarely engineering, mathematics, or accounting grads. More likely, they pursued English lit, communications, history, or psychology majors. Now they have debt and a diploma, but few high-flying job prospects—especially if their GPA was far below three.
It’s fair to ask whether many (or even most) of these people should have gone to college at all. Why should everybody go to college? Before the 1960’s colleges were expensive and tough to get into. There weren’t a lot of loan programs, and competition for scholarships that existed was fierce. People who decided they had to have a degree—but lacked a family who could pay—worked full time at menial jobs and gave up all social life for years to earn one. Those who lacked such goals did without, and many did very well anyhow. About one in five went to college. Interestingly, that’s about the ratio for on-time grads today.
Then came the Vietnam War. Suddenly, a place in college became an instant deferment. The draft, which had been a rite of passage, no more than an annoying delineation between adolescence and manhood for most of us, became a threat to be avoided at all costs. Our parents watched the young men die on Walter Cronkite’s news every night, and vowed to keep us home somehow. Kids who would never have dreamed of college a decade earlier now found themselves in a dorm—and relieved to be there. Many got teaching degrees, because these required little math and no foreign language study.
Colleges embraced the increased student body, because they loved the money that came with them. From the mid-60’s until now, there has been a growing call that “everybody” should go to college. All this has brought us is weakened study programs and massive student debt. Remedial courses—the ones that re-teach what should have been learned in high school—are now standard for most freshman students. It’s been estimated that student debt alone has kept millennial households from buying their first home an average of seven years longer than their parents took.
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic may allow our nation to break from this wrong direction. Distant study takes most of the glamor away from college, and leaves only the work. Those who want to push through the work will embrace it. Many more who aren’t so motivated will drift away. The time spent by their children on their college work at home may come as an eye-opening surprise to many parents—who may begin to wonder whether what they are seeing is really worth all of that money.
Perhaps some of the disillusioned co-eds who have fallen away from their hollow collegiate tracks will take a look at some of the satisfying occupations that don’t demand diplomas. If that happens, everyone will be better off.