Folks are still talking about billionaire Robert F. Smith’s generous benevolence last month in giving $40 million to pay off the student loan debt of Morehouse College’s class of 2019.
When I first viewed photos of the jubilant graduates celebrating after Smith announced this grand gesture, I immediately thought about one of the traditions at commencement ceremonies at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). I am an HBCU alumna and the pageantry of our graduations frequently includes speakers recognizing students who earned honors, starting with summa cum laude, those with the highest distinction. After the cum laude graduates are acknowledged, the speaker will add some flair to the Latin pronunciation of “laude” and say something like, “All right, now if you’re graduating “Thank you lawdy please stand!” A grateful shout then fills football stadiums. You can best believe that a whole lot of “Thank you lawdies” went up when these newly minted Morehouse alums found out they were leaving college debt free!
As news features continue to be published on the impact of Smith’s gift to Morehouse grads, discussion has also centered on the escalating problem of student loan debt. Many college graduates across the country will begin their careers saddled with debt that can range from a little over $39,000 to six figures for those who graduated from elite, private schools. Student loan debt is now $1.5 trillion. This is particularly bad news when it comes to rates of underemployment after college graduation.
A 2018 study released from Burning Glass and the Strada Institute shows that 29 percent of all college majors are underemployed in their first job and still underemployed after five years. Some majors fair better than others. For example, 36 percent of education majors are still underemployed after five years compared to only 18 percent for both engineering and computer science related majors. Overall, at least 70 percent of engineering and computer science majors were not underemployed in their first job compared to 50 percent of education majors.
The statistics in the Burning Glass and Strada Institute report, along with similar research such as the 2018 “Buried in Debt” analysis conducted by Student Debt Crisis, all point to the pressing calls for reform in higher education. As an educator, I have given much thought to the struggle that so many of my students have taking out loans. One small but significant factor that I believe can help tackle the debt problem is rethinking the conventional approach in advising students regarding their careers.
College students are often counseled to look for high paying jobs in “growing sectors” in our “post-recession economy,” but another eye-popping stat from the Burning Glass and Strada Institute study is that more than 40 percent of graduates are working in positions that do not require a degree. Many of these jobs pay well but some do not. I believe we need to shift our focus in how we advise students to search for jobs by providing more guidance in helping them identify their inherent gifts.
In college, we cannot teach inherent gifts to students, but we can show them how to refine the talents they were born with. When discussing the ballooning student debt in my freshmen English composition class this year, I shared some words of wisdom from the late Dr. Myles Munroe, who was a renowned international leadership consultant and minister. In advising young people, Munroe always emphasized not pursuing a college major solely for economic fulfillment. He pointed out to them that their “gift” is their “source of value” and that when you discover what you value that will be “the source of your wealth.” In relaying this point, I encouraged my students to be strategic and to take courses and electives that will allow them to manifest their innate abilities.
With $1.5 trillion in student loan debt and thousands of recent graduates who are within that five-year underemployment slump, we need to seriously reevaluate how we are preparing students for success. I do not want my students to regret earning their degrees years later. Just as Smith used his wealth to position Morehouse graduates to succeed, as a teacher I will motivate my students to seek their gifts and pursue what they value in life. If they can maximize their gifts, they will not waste time and money while in college.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. @JjSmojc