Optimism, pessimism, and the college graduate

On Wednesday night I participated in a roundtable with some soon-to-graduate college students. It was the final chapter of the News Cut on Campus project in which we focused on how the economy is affecting the outlook of students.

The roundtable will be broadcast on MPR’s Midday one of these days, but I don’t believe it’s been scheduled yet. Find the broadcast here.

I was asked to provide some observations about what I learned during the project. Here’s a few I tossed in along with a few I didn’t.

  • People must really be in a bad frame of mind if I’m the most optimistic person in the room.
  • At one point, host Jeff Horwich noted that the people who grew up around the Depression share a lot with these kids because they really had to struggle as they set out in life. True, but as a colleague mentioned to me, “these kids sound like every soon-to-graduate student in history.” It’s not a new phenomenon that people can’t take a direct route to their dreams.

    It’s supposed to be hard to make the transition from college to the working world. The dream has never been accomplished by taking one giant step, but by taking a series of small steps, some of which can be missteps. That’s just the way it works. It’s the late ’90s that were the exception. Don’t make me tell you about my first $110-a-week-six-days-a-week job I got out of college.

  • Raise your hand if life has gone exactly the way you thought it would. That’s part of what students are experiencing — in many cases for the first time. It’s also what old-timers like me are experiencing as we get into the retirement “red zone.” It’s not going exactly as we thought it would. But why should this phase of life be any different than the other ones? It doesn’t go the way you think it will and sometimes — most often, actually — that’s a good thing.
  • Jeff asked about advice from parents and several of the students made reference to parents discouraging kids from certain career choices. I met a very nice woman in Ely who gave up her dream of being an artist because her family said she couldn’t make any money as an artist. Her comments have stuck with me for the last two months as did the comments of the students on Thursday evening.

    Part of the reason for that is I’m giving the same sort of advice to my youngest son, who isn’t far away from graduating. I’m not going to advise anyone not to listen to Mom and Dad, but here’s the thing: As we get older, we grow more conservative and more risk averse. But you’re far too young to be 50.

    Your mother was a hippie and wants you to be more concerned about settling down than she was? Fine. Ask her if she’d be a hippie again if she had it to do all over. It’s all part of the journey and we parents forget that you should make your own, regardless of what might happen.

  • You won’t be the first generation to have to move back home for a little while. Trust me. I don’t like it any better than you do, and neither do your parents. It’s part of their journey, too.
  • The media isn’t responsible for the economy the way it is, but we are partly responsible for keeping it the way it is. It’s not our job not to tell you how bad things are, but it’s not our job to tell you how bad things will be because….
  • We could be wrong. Anyone who’s watched Jon Stewart’s dismantling of CNBC over their consistently lousy predictions of a rosy economy, should understand that we all could be equally wrong with predictions that you’ll have to learn to live as if it’s 1933.
  • I have no clue how you’re going to repay your student loans. Good luck with that.
    • Ellen Mrja

      A brilliant post. This should be read at every college and university commencement this spring.

      I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you at Minnesota State University, Mankato. (I’m a 50-something professor there who also happens to have a daughter who’ll be needing this advice soon. I think I’ll print this off for her.)

      Just a nice series idea overall. Congrats.

    • Eleanor Franklin

      Yeah, Bob. I especially like that last bit about repaying student loans. After all, why should anyone take crushing student debt and touchy credit scores into consideration when they are deciding whether or not to be a young hippie? “Good luck with that.” Very helpful. It must be nice to be a baby boomer with all the lofty perspective of someone whose basic college education didn’t cost an obscene amount of money. Sure, “it’s supposed to be hard” – but a hard transition between college and the working world and the modern-day equivalent of that first $110 a week job you had out of college look a lot different when you owe $300-500 a month to Sallie Mae for the next 20 years because your parents weren’t wealthy enough to pay your way through school.

    • Bob Collins

      What you’re going to find in about 20 years, Eleanor, is people you thought were stupid really had some wisdom that you could’ve used at a younger age.

      In a later post, you’ll see that I showed that student loan debt today as a percentage of expected earnings is actually lower than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

      So it really isn’t different. People really have done this before and they can help you. But first you have to leave the “I wish the older generations weren’t so much dumber than me” behind.

      Check back with me in 30 years and I think you’ll understand it better.

    • Hannah Rank

      Recently my high school English teacher, when he and I were discussing college, told me to stay in school as long as I could, so I can put off dealing with the economy as long as possible. I think that even though he does have a point that college serves as a cushion for many young, soon-to-be professionals, Bob Collins also has a point when he discusses the uncertainty of leaving college and stepping out on your own, and the necessity for it. I have not yet experienced what it feels like to rely on myself to bring in an income for support, and although I feel a lot of worry and doubt surrounding thoughts of my future professional carrier, I am also antsy to roll up my sleeves. Perhaps I am naïve to feel excited thinking about the prospect of debuting on the “real-life” circuit, which may in part have to do with the fact that I am at the age where everything I am about to do is new and exciting, but a part of me really wants to have that responsibility so that I can finally test myself and see if I can trust myself to live on my own. The world though, whether Bob agrees with me or not, has changed in 30 years. The business world, in my inexperienced eyes, has become much, much more competitive, especially with new markets in technology opening up every day and companies expediting work to other countries. The spectrum has widened, which helps give more opportunities, but it also makes young, wily professionals much more hungry for success.

    • buggsy2

      I’m sympathetic for the college kid who has no other option than to move from home and take out loans for tuition and living expenses. The kids I know could remain at home and go to perfectly good 2- and 4-year schools locally. Instead they insist on moving out, creating either a large debt or a crushing expense for their parents.

      The American economy has been converted over the last few decades into a huge money mill for corporate benefit. Pack your lunch to work? No, go out to lunch. Cook dinner? No buy take-out on the way home. Buy a small home closer to work? No, buy the bigger home and new cars to commute. The college finance grind is just part of it.

      For instance, why not have open-source textbooks? Does undergrad subject material change every couple of years? Hell no. The feds should start a project to have a few experts in each undergrad field write an open-source textbook. The colleges and professors could use it as-is, change a chapter, or whatever. Use it online for free or commercial services could print a nice soft- or hard-cover version for $20. But instead, we have the college textbook scam.