Category Archives: education

More black college grads are living life laid off

By Mariam Williams

About one week after I published my last post debating the merits of a four-year degree in today’s economy, CNN’s “Black in America 2” debuted.  The program featured a story on The Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn.  Although most of the students are black or Hispanic and come from disadvantaged homes, they defy statistics: every single student graduating from the school goes on to college.

The following day I saw this recap of the segment, written by Javacia Harris Bowser for the blog Georgia Mae:

“During the program the principal of the school said “education is the great equalizer” and this is a statement in which I truly believe. Most of the life experiences and opportunities I have had and the self-confidence I hold are all results of my education. …

But one of my buddies brought up a very valid point — today many college graduates are drowning in debt and unemployed thanks to our country’s economic downturn. So is education really the great equalizer or just a waste of money?”

I answered:

“I think my thoughts on the value/futility of education are well known, but I must add a couple of caveats to my usual rants: 1) … The current economic climate is a pretty unusual circumstance. 2) There is absolutely nothing else you can encourage children in poor or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds to do to emerge from poverty other than to get an education …” (read my full comment here)

A few days later, I opened my July 2009 issue of Black Enterprise (I know I was late) and found this statistic: the jobless rate for African Americans with four-year degrees was 7.2% in March 2009, up 4.5 percentage points since March 2007, before the recession hit.  (My, that seems so long ago!)  Compare that to a jobless rate of 3.8% in March 2009 and 1.6% in March 2007 for white Americans with four-year degrees, and you have to ask (again), is education really the great equalizer or just a waste of money?

As we can see through the above statistics, it’s neither, at least not in this economy.  The jobless rates in March 2009, without regard to educational attainment, were 7.9% for whites and 13.3% for blacks.  (In March 2007, the numbers were 3.8% and 8.4%, respectively.  Jump to the table at the end if any of that was confusing.)  Evidently, higher education does make people of every race considerably less likely to be unemployed, but certainly not equally less likely to be unemployed.

Reasons these statistics are what they are will be or have been debated on another blog at another time.  The real question for me is, should we continue to hype education, especially to black youth, the way we do? To commodify it as the single, strongest, most assured pathway to professional and financial success?

For some perspective, I turned to Andrea Houston, president of the Education First Foundation and founder of its main educational program, the Showcase of HBCU.  The Showcase is a college and career fair geared mainly toward African American youth.  “Educating students about the need to make education their first priority” is among the program’s objectives.

Houston called the lack of job opportunities for college graduates in the current economy an American issue, not just a black one.  Having recently discussed the subject with other local members of the National Association of Women Business Owners, she said, “the ladies of NAWBO are still sending their children to college, so we have to still keep sending our socio-economically disadvantaged students to college—those who are college material.”

Houston recommended that those who are not college material “do the Booker T. Washington thing and get a skill” but warned that a degree could be “the weed-out process for the next blue-collar generation.”  She said, “We’re not going to have a blue-collar generation; it’s going to be green-collar, and they’ll want to know that you have some type of education.”

And although that type of education will probably be through an associates degree or certificate program at a community college and not a four-year school, Houston can still head the Showcase with confidence.  Referring to children from at-risk populations, she explained, “You can’t just tell them to work hard.  You have to still show them opportunities.”  As The Capital Preparatory Magnet School proves by sharing its campus with a community college and allowing all students to take college-level classes, when you expose kids to opportunities, it occurs to them to take advantage of the opportunities.

I can’t quite call education “the great equalizer.”  It’s not the end-all, be-all for professional and financial success.  And even though I’m among the 7.2 percent of college-educated blacks over 25 who are living life laid off, I don’t think education is a (complete) waste of money either.  I had higher expectations of my degree, but I’ve also had more opportunities—some I didn’t take advantage of—and I’ve been exposed to more positive influences than anyone from my lower-class neighborhood who didn’t go to college has been exposed to.  I’m certainly a better researcher and statistician for my time, and perhaps a better writer too.  But to be employed in a job that requires a college degree and more than pays for the outstanding loans I took on to obtain it?  At this point, only that will erase all my doubts.  Until then, I won’t hype education or commodify it, but I still won’t tell youth from disadvantaged backgrounds anything different.

(And as much as I would sometimes like to, I won’t follow this example and sue my alma mater either.)


Unemployment rate by race and educational attainment, pre-recession and during

March 2007     March 2009

Black college educated                                   2.7                   7.2

White college educated                                  1.6                   3.8

Black general pop                                           8.4                   13.3

White general pop                                           3.8                   7.9

All numbers reflect the seasonally adjusted rates

General population is ages 16 and up

Jobless rate by educational attainment available for ages 25 and up from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Black Enterprise cites the Economic Policy Institute for its statistics


© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.


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Filed under Economy, education, Unemployment

That old feeling of uselessness is back

By Mariam Williams

A few months ago I attended a business networking luncheon sponsored by an organization whose members were determined not to participate in the recession.  Each member even wore a button stating the sentiment.  Although I probably had an unemployment check stub in my purse, and I was neither the employee of a business that gives entrepreneurs loans nor of one that depends on referrals, I participated as actively in the meeting as I did (and still do) in the recession.

At some point, one of the officers of the group invited all members and guests to join him in a game.  He would throw out a scenario, and anyone whose business or skills applied to that scenario was to stand and explain how.  For example, if he said, “A family of four is relocating to this city,” the real estate agents in the room would stand and say they would help the family find a place to live; the contractors would fix or remodel the house; the interior decorators and furniture salespersons would help furnish it; the therapist would help the family adjust to the move; and the divorce attorney would be there if therapy failed.  (Seriously, someone stood up and said that.)

The final example – I don’t remember the second – was of a new restaurant opening.  I stood up among the commercial real estate agents, contractors, material suppliers, event planners, website designers, radio sales associates, and marketing specialists.  I could write, proofread or edit the content on the restaurateur’s website, come up with a slogan if he didn’t already have one, write the scripts for his radio commercials and write the press release about the grand opening event.  See.  Out of three scenarios, I could contribute something to one of them.

I could contribute something.

I’ve written about this before, about this feeling that I’m gifted in such a way that is useless to my present situation and quite possibly to the nation’s future.  The feeling came up again Wednesday morning as I heard CNN’s Roland Martin’s segment on the Tom Joyner Morning Show.  He interviewed Dr. Wayne Watson, Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, about the importance of funding two-year and community colleges.  The Obama Administration recently unveiled a plan to pour $12 million into community colleges.  While four-year colleges still have their place, Watson explained, stimulus money is going to green jobs and to shovel-ready projects, jobs many laid-off workers can be certified to perform within nine months through the abundance of retraining programs offered at community colleges.  Jobs that may start at $16 to $28 per hour, but that can pay $55,000 to $75,000 annually.  Other job-seekers could sharpen their skills for the jobs of the future with an associate’s degree and earn even more.  You graduate from a four-year college, Watson pointed out, and it can be several years before you even get close to a yearly salary of $55,000.

Do I feel cheated?  For all the reasons I gave here, yeah, maybe a little.  But the heavier feeling is that of uselessness, of being one among many thousands of unemployed writers (or unemployed-something-elses-turned-writers) trying to believe there’s something I can write about new construction and solar panels besides website content and press releases.

You know, something clicked for me when Michael Jackson died, or more accurately, when I saw news coverage of the memorial service and reactions to his death from people in London.  The day he died, a spontaneous dance party broke out in a public square I couldn’t identify.  Brits of all colors sang “Billie Jean” together.  The camera zoomed in on the crowd enough for me to catch a man of Middle Eastern descent, his head covered in a blue turban, dancing and singing in the middle of the party.  When singers at the memorial service performed “Heal the World,” our neighbors across the Pond, who were watching the service on outdoor screens, left their huddles of friends to link arms with strangers watching the service, and sang along.  I thought, “That’s what it’s all about.  That’s what art is supposed to do.”  It really can enrich the human spirit.  It truly can unite us in spite of our differences.  It is inspiring.

My gifts aren’t worthless.  They’re just not worth any stimulus money.  And it’s damn hard to find an employer seeking someone with these skills.


© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.

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Filed under Arts and Culture, education, stimulus bill, Unemployment

If you missed it …

If you missed the discussion from April 8, 2009 on living life laid off, education, jobs in Kentucky, disillusionment, the arts, politics, the future of our country, and my ambitions and inspirations (wow, we covered a lot in an hour), click here to listen to the on-demand broadcast of “Staying Creative and Upbeat While Living Life Laid Off.”  Scroll down to “on demand episodes” and hit the play button.  There’s about 5 minutes of music first.


Filed under Arts and Culture, Economy, education, Me in other media, Mental & Emotional Health, Unemployment

Before you make higher education your sanctuary from living life laid off, consider this

by Mariam Williams

It’s the secret all those colleges and universities who flood job expos will never tell you: The well-educated are among those living life laid off, and they might be doing it longer than those with less education.

I had to address this after hearing Wednesday’s Talk of the Nation.  Gustavo Arellano elaborated on his recent op-ed for the LA Times in which he stated that his parents’ generation of Mexican immigrants who “came to this country with nothing” and remained in the unskilled labor force all their lives is, “in many ways better positioned to weather this recession than the sons and daughters they encouraged to educate themselves and aspire to better lives.”

I heard a similar opinion four days before hearing this one.  The first opinion came from Pietra Rivoli, an economics professor at Georgetown University.  She was on NPR’s This American Life addressing economic and business correspondent Adam Gibson’s concern about DJ, his 25-year-old cousin who decided to drop out of college.  Angered over his cousin’s decision, Gibson said, “There is one thing I have learned with absolute certainty, and that’s that the competitive advantage of the United States and our citizens, the way we will succeed in this global economy going forward is through skills, education, knowledge.  In other words, stay in school, get a college degree and you’ll be in a much better position … in the global economy.  And if you drop out of college, then you have basically consciously decided not to participate in the economic growth and possibilities in the coming decades.”

Gibson expected Rivoli to agree with him.  She didn’t.

She described the jobs in DJ’s work history as “non-tradable.”  Unlike the positions of people who went straight from high school to factories, then were laid off after 20+ years on the job when their work was shipped to China or Mexico, DJ’s jobs – laying telecom lines, carpentry, truck driving, etc. – aren’t going anywhere.  DJ was primed for a life of body aches, but for a good life nonetheless.  The segment concluded with the experts noting that the educated classes are more stressed about the recession and about their lives in general.

I was as surprised as Gibson when I heard Rivoli say this, but hearing it again has left me feeling taken aback, in disbelief, disturbed, concerned, and maybe even a little alarmed.  Actually, the best word might be unhinged.  Although I noticed years ago that a college degree didn’t guarantee success, riches, or even a job, I’ve always thought it better than the alternative.  A college degree would shield me from having to be a domestic, work in a fast food restaurant the rest of my life, drive a bus, work temp jobs, and whatever else women whose highest education level is a high school diploma do.

A degree goes beyond the concrete circumstances I wanted to avoid.  To roam the halls of academia and imbibe the wisdom of some of the great scholars and thinkers of our time; to dialogue with and live among students from different cultures and countries, to etch your way into adulthood away from the comforts of home and to be entrusted to establish your independence are privileges not extended to the majority of the world.  And as a descendant of people who were whipped or whose eyes were gouged or burned out for learning to read; a member of the gender still denied education in many parts of the world; and a self-described nerd, to stop my education at high school never occurred to me.

It also never occurred to me that I – or my country – might one day be unable to use my education.

The 44th President of the United States is a Harvard Law School graduate.  Those of us baffled by the two elections of a blubbering imbecile and the vice presidential candidacy of another have delighted in the return of oratory excellence and critical thought to the nation’s highest office.  President Obama fought throughout his campaign to appeal to the “Average Joes” and “Joe Six-packs” of the heartland.  And yet, the people who should be most excited about the immediate effects that his stimulus plan will have in their respective states are highly specialized engineers, construction workers, or ditch diggers.  That’s DJ’s current job.

As I’ve said before, I have accepted that it could be a while before people like me come back into demand.  I also know that there’s a positive correlation between adult enrollment in higher education courses and unemployment, and when my state made the top 15 in unemployment numbers, graduate study began to look more attractive.  But to hear Arellano admit that he has a master’s degree but can’t afford a house and knows that his journalism prospects will continue to remain in jeopardy, it hurts.

It hurts because I want to be an advocate for higher education.  I’ve been helping with a college fair for the past several weeks that focuses on getting more minority students to graduate from high school and enroll in college by showing them that success is possible for them and equipping them with the tools they need to succeed.  Now, I don’t believe college is for everyone.  I’m thankful for the DJs of the world; they do respectable, honest work that’s possibly more essential than anything I’m capable of, and I know they can make a good living doing it.  I also know that Bill Gates’s degree is honorary.  I know Steve Jobs dropped out of college.  I know that in Rich Dad Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki advises people who want to be rich to learn a little about a lot and not get more and more specialized in higher education.  He saw his very well-educated father teach for pennies and eventually have to leave his home because he couldn’t afford the property taxes.  I know that some people who want to play basketball or sing or dance or rap or act or write or direct professionally actually get to do it without giving college much thought, and that a few of them can make about a tenth of what Bernie Madoff stole.  But I feel that to advise minority students to go after that instead of higher education is to raise a collective middle finger to history and stain our own hands with our ancestors’ blood, even in this economy.  Yet these conversations have me wondering, what is the goal of college?  To get a job?  If so, am I helping to lead these students down the right path?  Are they better off without the “privilege” of a good education?

DJ and Arellano’s parents have an advantage because they aren’t “unskilled”; they’re adaptable.  They’re good at working with their hands, they learn how to do the work quickly, and they’re not too spoiled to do it.

It wasn’t having classes outside on the perfectly manicured quad, the imported tulips that lined the sidewalks every spring, the Starbucks coffee in every eatery, or even Angie, the kind housekeeper who mopped and vacuumed the floors in my suite twice a week my sophomore year, that spoiled me.  It was the diligence I put into studying, the faithfulness in anticipation of a reward that did it.  To not only not receive the reward, but to also still be paying off the loan I took out to do the hard work to gain the reward as I face the fact that I might have to – again – do something that has nothing to do with the hard work, is a cruel joke.

I’m trying to be humble and flexible, but I have some quirks that make some of the most obvious options unrealistic.  I vowed several years ago that I would never go back to retail, not clothes, not cars, not furniture.  I can work with teenagers in certain settings, but Starbucks isn’t one of them.  Teaching or tutoring children of other ages-or trying to-convinced me not to do it again.  I was great at math and science ten years ago, but I just don’t like them that much, and I don’t remember enough of those crucial subjects to become an engineer who can come up with green energy solutions.  My germaphobic tendencies, lack of natural caregiver instincts, and disdain for blood and human smells nix nursing.  I guess I could go for non-retail sales, but what exactly are people buying right now?  And even though manual labor jobs aren’t traditionally filled by women anyway, I’m just not cut out for them.

So what happens when business owners who have more letters after their name than I do lose their shirts and can’t even draw unemployment because they were business owners?  What do I do if my own hard work turns out to be useless for finding a job, and so for all present intents and purposes, meaningless?  At that point, I will rationalize my disappointment by remembering the words of another writer who discovered that everything really is meaningless, and I focus on all the important parts of life outside of whatever job consumes most of my days.  Until then, I’ll keep doing what I have been: praying for guidance, exploring options, applying for jobs I want, networking, and reinventing myself while honing in on the gifts and talents that are blossoming.  I also give myself one good “that’s not fair” tantrum and then remember that while some are better equipped than others to weather the economic storm, all storms eventually pass.


Some links and things to make you think:


© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.


Filed under education, Layoffs, Recession, stimulus bill, Unemployment