Forget the High-Priced Ivy League Schools, Here's Some Better Ideas for Your Education

You don't need a $100k degree from Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Princeton to cure an ailing planet.

Once it was a given: Follow the Ivy League road and you will arrive at a glistening Emerald City -- a place where you can be a president, CEO, or influential economist with an improved brain, passionate heart and the courage to go after big jobs with that impressive curriculum vitae. There's no place like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown.

But with the recession and devaluation of the $100k degree, some are wondering if it isn't better to take an alternative path to success, one that doesn't require competing for that finance job to recoup your college investment. Those jobs usually involve serving the corporate complex to overproduce resources and aiding an economic recovery plan designed around one goal: Getting Americans to spend and consume more.

There is no argument that a college degree is still highly beneficial. A recent U.S. Census survey says the median pay for college grads is more than $20,000 higher than the earnings of those who only graduated high school. It also reports the unemployment rate for people with bachelor's degrees is almost half the rate for people without. In addition, college is a growing social and academic experience many consider to be among the greatest years of their lives.

But if earning is the goal, the outlook is upsetting. The number of unemployed college grads now stands higher than it has been in 25 years at 14 percent. According to Education in Review, those who managed to score paying jobs in 2009 earned a starting salary that was 3 percent lower than the previous year.

That's bad news when you consider that college tuition keeps rising and many students need good jobs to pay back hefty loans. In 2008, nearly 70 percent of all American high school students attended college and the cash loaned to flip the bill rose 18 percent from the previous year to $81 billion. The U.S. Department of Education reports the average tuition went up 6.5 percent in the fall of 2009. Two-thirds of all students finished college in the red with outstanding loans of which the average debt is a heavy one: $23,200.

This is probably why so many Ivy Leaguers now plan to go straight to grad school. Harvard's annual survey shows the number rose from 21 percent to 25 percent last year and continues to rise with the class of 2010. Students are eager to get started in their careers and often choose graduate programs that let them earn real life experience to check off on an application for a job.

While most job applications say the position requires a college degree, it is no longer a deal breaker because of several factors: the deepening of the recession; collapse of financial institutions that had offered great avenues to kids with impressive degrees in the past; and a renewed interest among students in health care, teaching in underprivileged sectors, the arts, and green fields of alternative energy and conservation of resources. "In a softer market, more employers are seeking applicants with valuable work experience, and that is harder to pull off when you are a full-time student in a pressure cooker environment where jumping through the hoops does nothing to prepare you for the kind of jobs our planet needs right now," observes conservationist Brad Hoyt.

Progressive green thinkers argue we should focus on water, energy and food as our main concerns, developing sustainability in these critical areas by joining research being done on how to use our resources most effectively. Creative students might seek one of these beneficial areas of growth: Organic and biodynamic farming, green social networking on the Web to increase awareness, or development of renewable, alternative energy. Other green fields include sustainable packaging, healthy and organic delivery to food deserts in big cities, green prefab housing companies, fair trade production to bolster developing economies, solar and wind energy training programs.

"You don't learn these things in most colleges, but rather how to become good consumers and get lots of money," says Hoyt. "Employers who are employing people in complex, high consumer industries need to become dinosaurs. We need to figure a way to do it peacefully and calmly, rather than in a panic once we wake up and see petroleum exports have stopped and engineered food is making us sick."

Apart from fields like law, medicine and engineering, prospective employers and job placement agencies say the best and the brightest would benefit from taking the road less traveled -- attending a reasonably priced school, perhaps a community college for two years and then transferring to a desired university, and working in your field of interest while earning that degree.

That degree might come from a school with an excellent environmental sciences program -- one like the University of California at Berkeley which offers practical experience through entrepreneurial internships in the field and research opportunities.

According to Keith Gilless, dean of the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley, his department has tripled in size since he started 26 years ago, aided greatly by green networking, which provides links to those making inroads in the fields of agriculture and forest and wildlife management.

"We set up a site this year for connecting our 1,900 environmental studies undergrads with 400 graduate students, faculty and professionals, and it has spread like wildfire," says Gilless, adding that the networking is especially beneficial at a time when the recession has caused his faculty to be reduced by half.

Even an online education can offer an affordable option for some high school grads who already have a foot in the door of the workplace.

The truth is, the planet is begging for young, passionate minds to take the helm in the new wave of industry and development, and this includes the area of health care -- the source of so much debate among our leaders.

Many of those Harvard hotshots who once sought the finance route to being a good, productive citizen, are now opting for health care with the number of grads entering the field doubling last year. Meantime, a record number, 14 percent, applied to Teach For America, a program that enlists bright young people to commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools in low-income communities.

You don't need a Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Princeton education to cure an ailing planet. It doesn't take $100k to figure out why McDonalds is cheap and organic is costly, that solar produces power with less impact than coal, that we don't need to risk bleeding the Gulf with spilled oil or invade countries so our cars can drink.

You need to think out of the box. In the film The Graduate, Mr. McGuire advised Ben that the one word he needed to know for his future was "plastics." Today, the word is "less." Or as conservationist Hoyt puts it: "The mad rush for more has to stop."

Luanne Bradley is the senior editor of She is a contributor to AlterNet, the Examiner and Divine Caroline, and her eco articles have been featured at Huffington Post.
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