How Long Can the Planet Survive $100K College Educations?


As Harvard seniors prepare to don those prestigious caps and gowns and hear the golden advice of class speaker, Christiane Amanpour, we recall this hopeful image from last year’s commencement when the class flashed a poignant sign of the times: “No Layoffs!” Poor brainiacs. They got duped like the rest of us.


We’ve created a society that assumes securing anything above menial labor requires a $100K degree from a credible school, and many of us have become depleted wage slaves trying to foot the bloated bill or pay back student loans. Yet the growing devaluation of a basic college degree among employers and demand for applicants with work experience spells rejection for hundreds of thousands of graduates entering a softer, less conventional market.

The $40 thousand-a-year college on that resume may look impressive when answering a Craigslist ad, but is no longer a must stop on the road to success. Pulverized financial recruiters like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, which aggressively went after Harvard students in the past, cannot promise a way to recoup that enormous college investment of blood, debt and beers. Besides, the finance sector, which ballooned in the 1980s and 90s, has seen the biggest decline in hiring, along with professional services like accounting and engineering.

The effect has been a decline in interest in these areas. Instead, working in a desired field while earning that degree or a strategic straight shot to grad school are the new directions young people are taking – rather than depending on that pricey degree to get a foot in the door. Others are taking advantage of online education options or cutting higher ed all together to secure the American dream. But can we change our thinking, too?

Rising Tuition and Softer Market

College tuition keeps rising and we keep pressuring students to pay the tab to get through, even weaker ones who might be better served finding other options. Why bother?

In 2008, nearly 70% of all high school students attended college and the total amount of cash loaned went up 18% from the previous year to $81 billion. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average tuition cost rose 6.5% in the fall of 2009 and two-thirds of students finish college with outstanding loans of which the average debt is $23,200.

While the tuition-loan debt rises, so does the unemployment rate for recent graduates which now stands at a record high of 10.6%. This has prompted more students to seek higher degrees to get started in their careers, figuring they need something extra to check off on an application to be attractive to employers now looking for more.

According to the Harvard Crimson’s Annual Survey, Harvard grads planning to go immediately to graduate school rose from 21 to 25% last year, and will probably rise higher in 2010. Obviously, it also helps if you can distinguish yourself with “real world” work experience you accrued while earning those degrees.

That worldly experience over a watered down degree also might make more sense for a world trying desperately to set the clock back to a greener time, living the way our grandparents lived by drastically reducing consumption and conserving resources.

Certainly, college degrees are necessary for careers in law, medicine and engineering and school offers a stimulating social and intellectual milieu for curious minds and passionate souls. And don’t forget those rites of passage like keg parties with vomiting over balconies and pulling all-nighters aided by Adderall to cram for exams.

But creative students’ time might be better spent on getting a foot in the door of a beneficial area of growth: Organic and bio dynamic farming and cooking; Creative and journalistic web writing and design; Development of renewable, alternative energy.

“You don’t learn that in college, but rather how to become good consumers and get lots of money,” says eco economist Brad Hoyt. “Employers who are employing people in complex, high consumer industries need to become dinosaurs. We need to accept that, and figure a way to do it peacefully and calmly, rather than in a panic once we wake up.”

The green issue surrounding college has us asking if our planet can continue with this system, where hundreds of thousands of people graduate colleges each year focused entirely on recouping investments, and that usually means serving the corporate complex in some way.

Why can’t we afford it? “We need three planets to produce the resources we are producing and there is no end in sight,” observes Hoyt. “The economic recovery is designed around one goal: Getting  people spending again, and the planet cannot afford it anymore.”

So what are the alternatives?


Conservationists point to food, water and energy as our main concerns, and argue young, passionate thinkers can help develop future sustainability methods in these areas, especially by joining research being done on how to move our resources around. We have used oil for the last century to expand our population worldwide. It has allowed us to produce cheap food, surviving with McDonald’s, and to make travel cheap, while locally grown and sustainable organic fare has come at a higher price.

We all know the stories of successful entrepreneurs like Ted Turner who circumvented the expensive college route after getting rejection letters. For our planet, stories like these are a blessing in disguise.

In the green fields, this can include new moving companies with sustainable packaging materials or food trucks delivering healthy fresh produce to dessert communities in large cities forced to feed on trans fats and factory beef. There are prefab house companies (Warren Buffet is investing in them now), fair trade companies to be founded in third world countries and green job recruiters for energy development throughout North America and overseas. There are solar and wind energy training programs to learn about the emerging alternative. The planet is begging for more of this, and students have the energy to devote to a new wave of innovation and industry.

In addition, education and health care are becoming more attractive fields than get-rich jobs, and you don’t need to spend $100k to get a good background in these fields and make yourself employable. Just ask those Harvard grads who spent a fortune or are buried in loans. A high percentage admitted if finances were not a concern “the arts” was a dream field, along with – crucially – public service and education.


Last year, the number of Harvard grads entering the health care field doubled, while a record number- 14 percent – received applications from Teach for America, which has a mission to enlist promising future leaders from all backgrounds to commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools in low-income communities.

Who qualifies for these opportunities?

Teach for America says in addition to college grads, many corps members have been coaches of athletic teams, directors of community organizations and team managers at their work. They show leadership in a variety of areas, not just in school.

While it is true many postings – even from Green Businesses – still say they require a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, it might make sense to seek a cost-effective education at a community college. If you feel you need to go on, you can transfer to a university that offers what you and employers are looking for.

Community colleges: a better deal

Businessweek tells us that while junior colleges once struggled to be viewed as offering other than a second-class education, the reality is that more business students are starting off there to save money while working towards their education and career goals. Some students taking advantage of the two-year jump start say it is such a good deal it is almost a scam to pay more for all four years.

It’s good, green logic when you know that at least half of all students who attend junior colleges do end up transferring to four-year-schools.  As long as society continues to view degrees as requirements, even for skills not cultivated in college, the money-saving approach makes a lot of sense. And when you do choose the four-year or graduate school, opt for one that is more experiential than academic so you can get that practical experience that will make you even more viable.

Images: Anne Oeldorfhirsch, Harvard Education, College View, Green for All

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.