Education: a prisoner’s dilemma

By Rosalie de Vries

Knowledge is power and power is money. These associations are often made and have led to the widespread encouragement to ‘get yourself an education’. A quick search of the Dutch employment market on google – via job searching database Jooble –  shows that there are (only) roughly 70.000 job vacancies for people without a degree, as compared to 360.000 with a degree. The employment website Indeed does not even have the option to search for jobs without a diploma! In the US more jobs require a higher education, too. For example, between 1992 and 2016 the necessity of a bachelor’s degree to qualify for a job interview increased from 18% to 25% of the USA’s total job vacancies. 

You get the gist, a degree is presented in our current society as the minimum must-have accessory to decorate your CV with. But is it enough for the students of this era to give them financial security and independence? After all, graduates would need a killer career to face up to their student debts worldwide, and they risk entering an economy too weak to allow them positive financial prospects. So, is that one piece of paper and the graduation ceremony really worth it for the students of our generation?

Students from this generation are facing a different labour market than their parents: globalization has provided many new opportunities, but also opens up the job market to worldwide competition. Businesses, although the level of competition differs per sector, thus have the luxury of choosing the most qualified applicant to hire. Besides the obvious need for a degree in the appropriate field, students are now stuffing their CVs with extracurricular activities. Cole et al. identify academic competence, extracurricular activities and work experience as three important components of a CV that employers look at. According to logical expectation, they found that the more extracurriculars and work experience a student has besides their diplomas, the more hirable an employer views a candidate. The interplay between these three categories of CV content is displayed by Cole et al. in figure 1 below.

Nevertheless, to even have a chance of getting a job, one must first be selected for an interview. Cole et al. found that having academic qualifications increases the very chance of being invited to a job interview. Thus, even though one can compensate for the lack of schooling with activities from the other two categories, getting a degree does seem like the most straightforward way towards employment. 

According to Roulin and Bangerter, since higher education is flourishing, students are using these extracurricular activities to gain a comparative advantage. They even note that the increasing use of extracurricular activities by students symbolizes the declining value of ‘ordinary degrees’ because everybody has a degree… This has been labelled Degree Inflation by the Harvard Business School.

What are the costs then, of this urge to stand out when entering the job market? According to the Center for Prevention Stress and Burnout (NCPSB), 82% (!) of the Dutch youth, predominantly students, are facing a near-burnout from the high pressure. ISO has investigated the burnout complaints among students more elaborately. They found that 77% fear that a degree is insufficient to find a job, causing these students to take on too many other activities until a burn-out is lingering in the shadows. Burnouts have become an apparent problem in other countries, too. In the UK, for example, 1 in 5 students are diagnosed as being ‘clinically anxious’ halfway through their course.

Getting a degree as a minimum asset to get a job thus takes a severe blow to students’ mental health. But after that, a stable career and good financial conditions compensate for all of the enduring stress! Right…?

Socio-financial security is both a state of being and a mental state. According to Auer and Cazes, on average young employees are being employed by companies for shorter lengths of time. This has contributed to high levels of socio-economic insecurity. It should be noted that this development is specific to younger people, as Auer and Cazes found that the length of an employment period for employees in all age categories on average has not decreased. Nevertheless, the perceived feeling of job insecurity has remained high, which has a negative impact on people’s health. Analysts such as Paolo Gallo, have pointed out that most of the new jobs created in advanced economies do not offer permanent contracts, and thus do not provide the social safety nets, like insurance, healthcare, and paid holiday leave. 

Another global issue challenging those starting out in the labour market is student debt. In the United States, the student debt makes up a staggering total of 1.6 trillion dollars. In the United Kingdom, the total number amounts to 140 billion pounds. In the Netherlands, student debt makes up more than 21 billion Euros. Furthermore, rising tuition fees are leading to an increase in the average student loan debt, effectively deepening an already severe crisis.

So is it worth it? After reviewing the utility of an education, its net value does not seem so great anymore. Stressing yourself out until you burnout, to pay off a gigantic student debt while hopping from one job to the next for the following decades of your life. But then again… This degree is expected in order to have a chance at getting a job at all. It is a real prisoner’s dilemma: individually we feel the need to follow an education and fulfil all the extra expectations, while as a group together we are worse off due to our own competitive behaviour.

But we’re all in this together, right? There must be ways to alleviate the burden a little together. Communication and trust are the two ingredients that can break through the prisoner’s dilemma. That way we can share the burden and find a little relief. 

There are already several student-led organizations to unify students, usually in a national setting. Some examples from the Netherlands are the LSVB, Coalitie-Y, and ISO. One of the major campaigns they have organized is the #nietmijnschuld campaign, which has the goal of providing everyone with the possibility to study debt-free. Moreover, it is a continued unified signal put forward in order to pressure politicians to finally include students in their governance plans. Having students represented as a unified group shows that the issue is societal one rather than the problem of individuals. This unified pressure on politicians is a good first step as it seeks to address the underlying issues rather than just the symptoms.

Leading from this is my personal hope that we can share our stories and personal worries. This regardless of whether they are the pressure to stay out of debt, the shock of your current debt, the juggling of too many activities, fear of entering the flex labour market, or a rejection for a job application even though you tick off all the requirements on the list. Sharing our experiences with each other will let us know that the problem is not an individual shortcoming. Perhaps that way we might also feel more comfortable saying no to all the extracurriculars, with no other reason than ‘I need some time for myself’, ‘I feel like taking a rest’ or perhaps even ‘I don’t think this extracurricular activity will be a satisfactory way to spend my time’.

Edited by Maurice Wedner-Ross, artwork by Holly Thomas