An Honest Commencement Speech

The future is not necessarily bright for recent college graduates. Students often leave college with enormous debt and mediocre education. If a university chancellor were to be honest with his students about the state of affairs, I think this is what he would say at their commencement.

Congratulations, graduates! You’ve worked hard to earn your degrees, and you deserve the lucrative, fulfilling life that was promised to you. Now you are probably expecting to hear a speech that motivates you—that puts stars in your eyes and fire in your hearts, that makes you see the world in a new way, and that helps you discover new opportunities.

But I can’t give that speech—not in good conscience. Instead, I am here to apologize. I want to apologize on behalf of the faculty, the administrators, the high school counselors and teachers, the media, and the politicians. We all lied to you. You will not be getting what you were promised, and for many of you the hard part is just beginning.

When you were in high school, you were told you would be going to college, and you didn’t question it. Your teachers and counselors all reassured you that college graduates earn more than mere high school graduates, and that college was a no-brainer. You accepted those numbers, partly because high schools don’t teach kids to scrutinize statistical claims, and partly because only lazy, unintelligent, unsuccessful people don’t go to college—or so you were told—and you didn’t want to be one of those.

Late into your junior year of high school, you started applying for colleges. You didn’t have any idea what you wanted to study, and even if you did, you had no idea what profession you wanted to work in after you graduated. How could you know? You were 17. All you knew was that your parents beamed at you with pride, for no one in the family had ever attended college before—you would be the first.

You asked your counselors for help deciding which colleges to apply to and which major to join, and in response they had you search your soul: “Identify your passions and pick a field of study that interests you,” they instructed. This would be the first of many times you heard the slogan, “Do something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” (the irony of this statement would dawn on you late into your college career when you started struggling to line up a job post-graduation).

You decided that psychology was interesting to you, so you researched and compared psychology degree programs at different colleges until you found some reputable programs at schools nearby. All these schools had attractive websites that sucked you in with prominently-featured statistics such as “85% of our graduates are employed.” Again without scrutinizing these numbers, you wasted no time applying.

Over the next few months, you started receiving some acceptance letters in the mail. You visited some colleges, and they wooed you with a slew of amenities—extravagant fitness facilities, luxurious dormitories, grand concert halls, a student center replete with shops, restaurants, and recreation—all of which make your college experience more expensive, but not more educational. Nevertheless, you were eventually drawn to this school, falling in love with its nineteenth century architecture and beautiful campus scenery.

And here is where you spent the next four years of your life. You were a good student, you kept your grades up, and now you’re graduating. No doubt you feel optimistic and prepared to start the next phase of your life.

But you’re not prepared. Higher education has failed you. It failed you from the very beginning, and for that, I want to apologize.

I apologize that, when you were a junior in high school, no one bothered to tell you that plumbers, electricians, steelworkers, and other skilled tradespeople earn as much or more than graduates with many popular four-year degrees. I apologize that no one told you about the massive talent shortage in the United States, with almost half of all employers reporting difficulty filling positions, mostly in the skilled trades.

I apologize that, when you were choosing a major, none of your counselors thought earning potential or job placement were important criteria in the decision. No one mentioned that, “although psychology is a noble, exciting field of study, a mathematics and computer science graduate with a salary at the 25th percentile will still likely out-earn a psychology graduate with a salary at the 75th percentile.” This is not to say that salary should be considered more important than your passions and interests, but it should have at least been brought up.

I apologize that politicians were complicit in this scheme by devoting massive subsidies to higher education and artificially suppressing interest rates for student loans (which is another form of subsidy for higher education). With this endless stream of subsidized income, schools could continue to offer unmarketable niche degrees like fine arts, social work, and counseling psychology.

I apologize that, when you were deciding which school to attend, the attractive websites never told you that their graduate employment rate of 85% was achieved by counting any and all jobs—not just jobs in your field of study or good-quality, full-time, high-paying jobs. I apologize that almost half of you will end up in jobs for which you did not need a bachelor’s degree; among this group, over a third will have unskilled, low-wage jobs like bartending or cashiering, and over a fifth will only find part-time work.

I apologize for the fact that, on average, each of you is graduating with over $37,000 in student loan debt, a debt that each of you will be paying roughly $350 each month to service for the next 21 years. Over one in ten of you will default on your debt, and you will be unable to get out from under your student loan debt through bankruptcy.

I apologize that all you have to show for taking on this burden is a level of general, cultural, and historical knowledge that is only on par with that of mere high school graduates in 1955.

In sum, I apologize that we—the education establishment—tricked you into going to college, choosing a low-salary, low-job-security major, taking on enormous amounts of debt to do so, and not even receiving a spectacular education. Graduating from college was supposed to be liberating. In reality, you’ve stepped into a trap from which you will spend a good portion of your adult life trying to escape.

For all this I am sorry.

Because commencement speeches are supposed to be about the future, though, I would like to offer some advice to help spare future generations from these problems:

If and when you have children of your own, teach them to question the idea that “everyone needs to go to college”; working in a skilled trade and obtaining a more technical degree are perfectly legitimate, respectable options.

Urge your children to consider more than just their passions and interests when choosing a major; earning potential and job placement should weigh heavily too, especially if taking on debt is likely.

Finally, scrutinize any politician who promises to make college “affordable” by subsidizing it. Colleges usually capture these subsidies and raise tuition instead of lowering it.

If we do all this, there may in fact be hope for students and our system of higher education. Thank you, and good luck.

An Honest Commencement Speech