Is College Worth It?

UW-Milwaukee graduate Tara Cerfus hoped for a career in finance. Instead, she’s working as a server at the Mason Street Grill. Photo by Miranda Rosenkranz.

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A group of fifteen waiters and waitresses dressed in freshly pressed button ups and starched black slacks sit comfortably around a white marble bar. Fresh flowers in sparkling crystal vases don the counter and surrounding tables. A wood-fire stove crackles behind the bar and chefs in white aprons and toques shuffle around each other. The staff members share stories and jokes with the cooks. The chefs’ oversized bellies move up and down with each laugh.

Saucers clank and silverware jingles as a busboy hastily puts the items on a shelf. The smooth sounds of a jazz piano, cello and horn drift throughout the restaurant. This is the Mason Street Grille, a four-diamond, award-winning restaurant in Milwaukee.

Tara Cerfus, a full-time server at the Mason Street Grill, sits with her co-workers and discusses plans for her days off. As a server, weekends are almost never free and time off is a rarity. She prepares for her work day by laying out menus in the private dining rooms. The most experienced servers get to host the restaurant’s big spenders in these private oases.

Today, top financial advisors, attorneys and engineers from Johnson Controls have reserved the dining room for a corporate planning luncheon. Cerfus comes to this dinner party equipped with the business cards she will hand out to satisfied customers. “Tara Cerfus, Service Professional,” read the cards.

However, when Cerfus graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in Finance, she expected her card to read something else. She expected to be part of financial planning luncheons in the Mason Street Grill, not serving them.

“I deal with people that should hire me,” Cerfus said. “It is all business professionals.”

Underemployed and stuck with a pile of student loan debt, like many college graduates in today’s job market, Cerfus struggles to find a job in her field.

The Problem

Young adults graduating high school flock to universities more than ever before. Many believe an undergraduate education will lead them to a high-paying and satisfying career. However, recent data shows a college degree does not necessarily correlate with a high-paying or satisfying job. Studies by UW-Milwaukee Professor Mark Levine show nearly 80 percent of bartenders in Milwaukee have some college education. More than half of shelf stockers and servers in Milwaukee retail businesses and restaurants have a degree.

Since 2000, the number of college-educated individuals occupying retail jobs increased by nearly eight percent and by almost 14 percent for bartenders. These numbers cannot be attributed to the addition of more restaurant, bartending and retail jobs. Instead, the number of college-educated individuals in Milwaukee has grown.

In 2000, almost 25 percent of Milwaukeeans had a four-year degree, according to U.S. Bureau of the Census. Now, one in three individuals possesses a bachelor’s degree.

While this number is higher than the national average, with more graduates than ever before and bleak job prospects, should students hold universities accountable?

Jay Bayne, executive director of the Milwaukee Institute, thinks so. “We pump out way to many people without job skills for the 21st Century,” he said.

The Milwaukee Institute provides cyber infrastructure, storage and other technology needs for corporations and universities. Bayne sits on the Wisconsin Technology Counsel and gives technical advice to Gov. Walker especially as it relates to job creation. He supports initiatives to build Wisconsin entrepreneurship through education and is an adjunct professor at UWM.

Bayne pointed out a problem in modern higher education: most students in college are 18-24, some do not know what they really want in life and many are in college to try to discover themselves.

Unfortunately, self-discovery can cost around $6000 a semester.

“The value proposition of an education is really a critical decision,” he said. “Parents and universities should provide guidance as much as they can.”

A traditional university education does not necessarily match up with what employers look for, according to Bayne. However, is it the responsibility of the institution to change academics or of the consumer to seek out employment skills and education?

“Universities exist not to pick winners and losers in the market place,” Bayne said. “They are there to appeal to customers.”

Levine agrees with Bayne and said a University’s objective is not job training and placement but schools could include it in their focus. “Career counseling is not a real strong suit,” he said. “I think the University as a whole could generally strengthen that,” he said.

Employers look for different kinds of skills such as conceptual thinking, problem solving and writing. Individuals practice these crafts and more while in college. However Levine argues critics should not reduce a college education to vocational value.

“We go to college not just to develop skills for the labor force,” he said. “But to develop knowledge about various areas, to pursue intellectual curiosity, to grow as human beings, to become a knowledgeable participant in a democratic society and civic engagement.”

Although Levine believes the University should focus on academia rather than vocation preparation, some unemployed graduates would disagree.

For Hire: 2012 UWM Graduate

With a freshly dry-cleaned shirt, neatly combed hair and resume in hand, Seth Newman starts his car, pulls out of his parking spot and drives into the job hunt.

Newman graduated from UWM in May 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy. Aside from a stint as an office assistant for his father’s company, Newman has been unemployed and desperately looking for work.

Today, Newman drives to the east side of Milwaukee to hand-deliver some resumes to local law firms. As he drives through the neighborhoods he called home when he was a student, he reflects on the ups and downs of his first year post-graduation.

“I started in Milwaukee applying at the top law firms,” he said. Newman wanted a paralegal position. He aspires to go to law school but wants to work in a firm to make sure law suits him.

“I got one automated response from one firm,” he said. “I called everybody back, left seven voicemails, talked to three people in HR. They said they weren’t hiring but would keep me on file. Called back again and didn’t get anything.”

After months of unreturned phone calls and unsuccessful interviews, Newman expanded his search.

“Then I tried not the top law firms and migrated out of the city to places like Brookfield,” he said.

“I was looking in Beloit at a few things, then up to Winnebago county and even Rockford Illinois,” Newman said. “I probably applied for over 75 jobs. I’d say about a third called me back and about 12 actually gave me an interview.”

“Zero people hired me.”

The rejection stung and left Newman feeling low.

“I was just realizing how tough it was out there. I was casting the net as wide as I thought I could while still having some dignity about it but no one was biting,” he said.

Because of dried up funds and no job in sight, he moved back home with his mom.

UWM left Newman with $17,000 in debt and with few job prospects. However, he enjoyed his experiences.

“My major in philosophy was very enriching because I was able to entertain ideas for much longer than I ever had in the past,” he said. “It was so nice having an environment that was fostering towards that and brought out the best in people. It was great to have those educated conversations that I had never had before.”

Newman’s spirit keeps him from giving up the search. He even reached out to the Career Development Center at UWM for resume tips and job search help.

UWM Vocational Resources

The Career Development Center helps students connect their major to a career and develop job search skills to prepare for employment in that field. The office walls of the center are lined with shelves of self-help literature. “Writing your way into a job,” reads a bright orange packet. “Cover Letter and Resume Writing Guide,” states another.

Dim fluorescent lights flicker from the ceiling. Only the sound of shuffling papers and ringing phones fill the empty center.

Cynthia Petrites, the Career Development Center interim director, worked as a counselor in the center before obtaining her current position. Her cramped, cluttered office with mustard-yellow walls peeps over the reception area.

Petrites works with the CDC to organize events such as the “Just in Time Job Fair” and “Diversity Job Fair” for UWM students and alumni.

The center also works to gauge employment rates of UWM graduates. Currently, according to a CDC study, 61 percent of 2010 graduates work in full-time positions. Only 9 percent are looking and currently unemployed. The students in between are either employed part-time, furthering their education or not currently seeking employment.

Although these statistics seem good, the numbers do not accurately reflect the entire 2010 graduating class.

“This report gathers information from multiple post-graduation surveys,” Petrites said. “Graduates have the option to respond but are not required to respond.”

The survey in the CDC report also does not factor in the fields in which the graduates work. Former students could work more than 40 hours a week in a bar and still be counted as employed full-time. The university has no way to accurately track graduates’ employment status or advanced education completion rates.

“The University is working toward a comprehensive tool that will gather and disseminate post-graduation outcomes,” Petrites said. “When this is complete, this information should be useful to all populations, including students and prospective students.”

Although some of the employment data shows disturbing trends, Professor John S. Heywood, a labor economist, said not attending an institute of higher learning can impede an individual’s net worth over the course of his or her life.

The Alternative

While the market seems rough for college graduates, those without higher education fare even worse.

According to Heywood, in 1980 a college graduate earned 35 percent more than someone with only a high school diploma. This wage gap has widened even more since then.

College graduates earn on average 75 percent more than those with just a high school diploma Heywood said. “So that change has occurred both because more college graduates are in demand and also fewer high school graduates are in demand.”

This increase is a national average. However, the statistical trends can be extrapolated locally.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for every one job opening in a Wisconsin manufacturing firm, there are at least three unemployed candidates for the position. For a job in construction, where little education is required, there are 14 unemployed candidates for every position.

Less-educated individuals not only struggle to find jobs, the amount they earn has also declined. On average, workers in Wisconsin have seen a 1 percent drop in wage growth. However, in production jobs that do not require a degree, there has been an almost 5 percent drop in wage growth.

“Is [higher education] a good investment? The answer is, on average, yes a very good investment,” Heywood said. “We know that, the rate of return on a college education is probably two or three times what you can get in a bank and these days with interest rates so low probably ten times.”

If the statistics show education is worth it, why are so many people underemployed and unemployed?

According to Heywood, students in college have the opportunity to improve both their hard and soft skills.

“Soft skills could include working on your ability to be a good team member and working on the way in which you present yourself,” Heywood explained.

“Hard skills you could take a training class and learn to do something very specific. We tend think of training being more specific than education,” he said.

Students can learn hard skills through internships, work experience and particular classes. Both sets of skills make graduates more desirable in the work world.

Gazelle Arga, a UWM May 2012 graduate, said she worked as an office assistant and at an internship in hopes of preparing herself for her career.

Turning a diploma into a job

Arga graduated with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies with an emphasis in public relations and a minor in photography. She also had an internship at the UWM Planetarium.

“I did a lot of social media, and advertising and graphic design for them,” she said.

Currently, Arga works for the Bradley Foundation. “I do a lot of event planning. I will do travel arrangements for them I will help with invitations, the mailings, things like that,” she said.

The Bradley Foundation, located in the Lion House on Franklin Avenue, makes and provides grants for philanthropic programs. The old building creeks and whispers as people walk across its floors. Only muffled conversations are audible in this comfortably quiet office building. The house, built in 1855, still has original sculptures, woodwork and architecture.

Arga works in the lower level of the center. One other person occupies the cubicle next to her. Otherwise, the floor is silent.

“I am on the wellness committee at the Bradley Foundation,” Arga said as she showed off her “Wellness Board” in the staff kitchen. Articles about healthy diets, stress-free living and exercise tips don the blue bulletin board. “I will research what places in Milwaukee we can go and visit as a part of the staff. So we will do yoga classes, or we will do mediation classes, we have plans to do a Milwaukee boat tour,” she said. “Just so many different things.”

According to Arga, her education and internship at UWM helped her with her current position.

“There are things people will tell me to do in Excel that I learned at UWM. And a lot of times I will get a project at the Bradley Foundation that will require Photoshop that I know I learned at UWM,” she said.

In addition to Arga’s hard skills, UWM also cultivated her soft skills such as communication, writing and teamwork. “Definitely people skills as well and learning how to work with people,” she said.

In addition to a full-time position at the Bradley foundation, Arga owns her own photography business called Studio GA. “I started taking classes in Milwaukee for photography and I really enjoyed my classes,” she said. “Then I bought a camera and now I have just been doing freelance work. I’ll do everything from maternity to newborn photography to fashion photography, anything really.”

After graduating, Arga’s internship at the UWM Planetarium lasted the summer. “I was definitely really scared to get out there. I knew the planetarium was only for the summer and I really had a deadline,” she said.

Arga said she scoured job websites every day and applied for at least 12 different positions. Although she landed interviews, Arga suffered her share of ups and downs.

“The main thing I was disheartened about is I would get so far along in some of the interviews and I would get so excited about something then I just wouldn’t get a call back,” she said. “It would really hurt.”

Although setbacks frustrated her, Arga said she knew she had to keep trying. “I thought that ultimately I was getting more practice for each interview. By the time that I landed the Bradley Foundation interview I walked out of it and I was like wow I thought I did really well,” she said.

After nearly nine months at the Bradley Foundation, Arga says her practice interviewing and degree paid off. She advises current and future job-hunters to remain diligent and never to give up.

If at first you don’t succeed…

After failed attempts at finding a professional job, Seth Newman, out of options and running out of money, contemplates going back to school.

“The job market made me feel like I need more education,” he said. “I know that a business degree, any kind of a computer science degree or even criminal justice is preferred in the market out there right now for everything I want to do.”

With law school in the distant future, Newman plans to improve his short-term employment desirability by going back to school for a business degree.

Tara Cerfus also faces quitting the employment search. After nearly a year of dead-ends she has few options left.

“I have been looking for jobs since last June,” she said. “I don’t know what to do at this point except go back to school which I can’t do because I can’t afford to take out any more loans and cut back my hours at work.”

“If I could go back in time I would have just gone to a technical school,” Cerfus said. “I never would have gone to college considering I’m $60,000 in debt.”