Is your college degree worthless? Blame your career counselor

by Christopher Paslay

Progressive career counseling theories may be contributing to high unemployment rates among Americans aged 16 to 24.      

Unemployment rates for our nation’s youth are at an all-time high.  So is student-loan debt among recent college graduates.  Town Hall columnist Victor Davis Hanson summed-up the situation in his article “The New American Helots”:

Ancient Sparta turned its conquered neighbors into indentured serfs—half free, half slave. The resulting Helot underclass produced the food of the Spartan state, freeing Sparta’s elite males to train for war and the duties of citizenship.

Over the last few decades, we’ve created our modern version of these Helots–millions of indebted young Americans with little prospect of finding permanent well-paying work, servicing their enormous college debts or reaping commensurate financial returns on their costly educations.

Student-loan debts now average about $25,000 per graduating senior. But the percentage of youths 16 to 24 who are working (about 49 percent) is the lowest since records have been kept. The cost of a four-year college education can range between $100,000 and $200,000 depending on whether the institution is public or private. Only 53 percent of today’s college students graduate within six years. Student time spent writing and reading in college has plummeted.

Simply stated, Americans are spending more money on higher education and getting a smaller return on their investment.  Too many young adults graduate with impractical degrees like those earning a bachelor’s in Women’s Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst or those getting a master’s in Ethnic and Multicultural Studies from Minnesota State University (any college major that has the word “studies” in it is an indicator of its worthlessness—for example, majoring in “Math Studies” instead of simply majoring in Math).         

There are those folks, however, who believe practicality has nothing to do with education, that knowledge is its own reward.  Although there is some validity to this argument, young men and women should graduate college with at least some marketable skill or training that puts them in a position to find meaningful employment. 

Unfortunately, over the past decade, too often this has not been the case.  College grads are not finding jobs, and have amassed over one trillion dollars in student loan debt.  The Great Recession is partly to blame, but is not the sole culprit.  Underneath the rocky economy is a bigger, more worrisome problem perpetuating youth unemployment and obscene student loan debt: disgustingly progressive career counseling theory.    

Here’s a brief history of career counseling in America:       

In 1909, a guy named Frank Parsons, the father of career counseling, formulated the conceptual framework for helping a person choose a career.  His approach, known as Trait-and-Factor Theory, was straightforward and had three steps.  First, a person seeking a career took a test to indentify his skills, abilities, and interests.  Second, the person was given a list of career opportunities that matched his skills and interests.  Third, the counselor helped the person find the best fit between the two.  Trait-oriented theories, for the first half of the 20th century, worked well.  People found careers, paid taxes, and contributed to society. 

In the 1960s, career counseling theories began to expand into a new direction; finding a career was no longer simply about working to pay the bills, but to express yourself.  A guy named Donald Super pioneered “Developmental” career theories, which taught that career aspirations, like a person, develop over time.  Self-concept was the central principle of Super’s new career theory.  According to Vernon G. Zunker, a noted scholar on career counseling, “The major practical application here is that individuals implement their self-concepts into careers as a means of self-expression.”     

In the late 1970s and early 80s, “Social Learning” and “Cognitive Theories” came to the forefront.  It was around this time that John Krumboltz proposed his Learning Theory of Career Counseling (LTCC).  This theory developed the idea that making career decisions is a learned skill—that simply matching a person’s interests and abilities with available jobs is archaic and limited—and that each individual’s unique learning experiences over the lifespan are what lead to proper career choice. 

Finally came the 1990’s and the height of cultural diversity and political correctness (and the birth of identity politics in career counseling).  The new career counseling perspective was that the values of the dominant white culture were broken and oppressive.  According to Zunker, “The point to consider in this context is that individuals from different cultures develop their own set of values and work needs that were shaped in their unique environment.  Values that differ from those of the dominant white culture are to be recognized and appreciated.”  Apparently, universal human values—such as respect, work ethic, honestly, personal responsibility, etc.—do not cross cultural boundaries. 

Zunker goes on to say that “Career choice, for example, may be driven by goals of family as opposed to individual aspirations.  In the individualistic cultures of Europe and North America, great value is placed on individual accomplishment.  In the collectivist cultures of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the individual focuses on the welfare of the group and its collective survival” (his choice of the word “welfare” is curious, no pun intended).  Zunker does a nice job of stereotyping every race and culture while warning future counselors not to stereotype.  He also says that white counselors “are to increase their awareness of their own culture in order to change their racist behaviors.”

So where has 100 years of progressive career counseling theory gotten us?  Besides $1 trillion in student loan debt and a 51 percent unemployment rate among youths aged 16 to 24, not very far.  Today’s career counselors might want to consider going back to the basics of Frank Parson’s good old Trait-and-Factor Theory.  Work isn’t always about self-concept and self expression, but about the dignity of having a job and making a meaningful contribution to society.

6 thoughts on “Is your college degree worthless? Blame your career counselor

  1. Chris,
    I see you are trying on your future career counselor’s hat;)

    I tell my youngest son who is attending college “if he thinks education is expensive, he should try ignorance.”

    Addressing the overwhelming cost to attend college is a financial decision that more counselors should spend time explaining and helping students understand. Teachers and counselors should be versed in financial literacy skills and pass this knowledge on to students and their families.

    You raise some critical arguments; should college mainly provide graduates with skills for the workplace or provide them with liberal knowledge to understand how the world works.

    Fundamentally, I think young people should attend college to learn how to live as opposed to learning how to make a living. –we should also provide other training and apprentice programs for those young people for which college is not a good fit-

    Buyer bewares! If we fix our economic and education policy, the employment situation would improve and provide young people jobs and opportunities to repay the enormous student loan debt they are carrying.


    • Sam,
      I’m not advocating that colleges provide graduates with either skills for the workplace or liberal knowledge of how the world works–it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” situation. I think college should (many already do) provide BOTH. I think there needs to be a better balance between practical, realistic, and useful training so students can graduate and have a viable skill, and liberal arts knowledge so they can be free thinkers and interpret and understand the world. I guess what I was trying to get across was that too many colleges today are too big on the knowledge/social justice/political indoctrination part, and forget the viable skill part; a trillion dollars in student loan debt is too big an investment for graduates (and society by default) to get short-changed and left with no workplace skill. Even in today’s economy, skilled workers are still in high demand.

      You said it right, though, when you stated, “we should also provide other training and apprentice programs for those young people for which college is not a good fit.” And how. College isn’t for everybody, and career counselors must have the skills and experience to help young people follow the best path that will lead to some form of job satisfaction and success.

      Chris Paslay

    • Sam,

      My formative years would be classified as a classical education. After preparatory, I attended college earned a BS in chemistry and entered a field that had little correlation to my secondary education. I became a paramedic. I followed this with vocational training as a welder, machinist, and mechanic.
      I own a successful machine shop and own a large farm. I would not say my degree in chemistry is useless. That said, I believe there is some sort of educational disparity in this country, where well meaning people believe that education for the ‘sake of education’ is what college is for. That is utter tripe.
      The greatest men and women in history often had no formal education and college has little or nothing to do with learning ‘how to live in the real world’. If that were the case, the best of us would be college professors. Instead, academia is littered with has-beens and those incapable of making it in the real world.
      So, I must ask, how do you believe modern academia prepares our youth for anything other than decades of debt?


      • Bob,
        You ask a great question. My sons tell me college is shame. But attending college transformed my life. And I was not overburden with too much debt. That’s why I think that financial literacy is so crucial during secondary and post secondary school.

  2. I really appreciate your survey of the trajectory of career counseling history which I think people need to know; especially how liberal thoughts and actions have messed with America’s future in this way. Thank God my sons are into engineering.

  3. As a career counselor who has spent the last two+ years working with trained, educated professionals struggle with getting a job and being told they’re overqualified, let me respond to the article, and some of the other Replies.
    First, the whole notion of “attend college to learn the world if nothing else” is like saying, the only REAL way to learn to drive is if you buy a Lamborghini. It IS a great way to learn, but at what cost?!!
    In this economy of shrinking salaries and employers looking for very targeted, specialized training/education, it’s a bad time be discovering yourself. And if Mom and Dad can afford to lose $60-80,000 and not miss it, go for it! On the other hand, even if they CAN afford it, it will have a much better ROI put in a money-market or in savings for the grandkids education.
    Sam’s premise that the only GOOD education (assuming I suppose, one that = money, fame and fortune) is a 4-yr. COLLEGE education, is now a myth. He needs to spend some time in my shoes. Let me introduce you to solid bachelor’s and master’s recipients who are flipping ‘jacks at IHOP. Chris is right, “skilled workers are in high demand”; that means skilled in the trades, healthcare, manufacturing and other industries not requiring a degree. It’s a new economy and the game has changed. BIG TIME.


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