Canary in the Coal Mine: Will anthropologists be the first to go?

Posted on November 17, 2011


Dr. Janice Happer, an anthropologists herself, wrote a very interesting opt. ed. “Why Florida Gov. Rick Scott Was Right To Slam Studying Anthropology“. Which is quite a different response then other anthropologists to Governor Rick Scott’s comments. She does point out, as I have, that the numbers provided by the Department of Labour are crap and brings up some great issues like the time it takes to complete a degree, job prospects, and over saturation of the job market. Again, all issues I have discussed here in great detail. She sums it up –

“Governor Scott’s concern that anthropology and the other social sciences are not preparing students for jobs is very much a valid concern, regardless of how worthwhile an anthropology education is, or the skills of anthropologists are to the workforce.  And I would further argue that the economic value of any college education, when considered in terms of how much money is invested in it and how many years students devote to their studies, rather than to participating in the workforce – is increasingly questionable in our rapidly changing economy. “

The problem is that this is an over simplification of the problem. A quick side story, most of my work on job conditions and wages for archaeologists has been driven by a paper I have been writing trying to answer the question of economic value of an archaeology and anthropology degree. This involves looking at tuition costs, time it takes to get a degree, and potential student loans for each individual school. Then comparing this against job prospects and wages which vary by region and by school. A very complex problem to say the least.

To add to this complexity, in some states, if you are an instate student, all of your tuition is paid for. There is a huge range in tuition rates from $50,000 a year to $1500 at different schools. Also, it should be pointed out that federal student loans are now capped at %10 of income, student loan interest in tax deductible (up to $2500 and for up to 5 years starting in 2013, currently set for forever), and federal loans can be forgiven after 20 years. Potentially, one could be paying a 10% of their income for 15 years and that would be it. Add in deferments and the time one pays loans could be even less.

On the flip side it is nearly impossible to get rid of your loans by declaring bankruptcy and private loans will not be forgiven after 20 years. A person could potentially by paying off $100,000s in student loans for the rest of their lives. So there is a wide range of possible outcomes for anyone going into anthropology or archaeology.

I am still running the numbers but the outcomes are mixed. Some schools are better than others but it differs on individual circumstances. Some scholarships pay students a living stipend to attend university. Some of these living stipends are more than the student would make working at McDonald’s. Of course scholarships have to come from somewhere and forgiven loans means the government picks up the tab. So money is still being spent and the value of what is achieved for the money needs to be questioned.

The problem is that people are asking the wrong questions and attacking symptoms of the disease but not the actual disease.

We should not be asking is an anthropology degree is worth Z money but why can school X produce a walking, talking, and competent anthropologists/archaeologists for $2500 while school Y does it for $200,000?

We need to flip how we look at degrees and costs. Instead of constantly pushing the boundary of how much student loan dept students can take before it breaks them and makes their degree not worthwhile, we need to look at a degree as a wow moment. “Wow! I got a degree for xxxx $, that’s like 100 cups of coffee.” “Wow! 18 months and now I have a BA.” We need to lower the costs of getting a degree, for everyone, to the point that no one cares if they can not get a job in anthropology with their degree. “Ah crap, I can’t find a job, well I guess I should get a degree in engineering real quick cause people are hiring them. I bet my anthropology skills will come in handy one day.”

If you lower the costs to the point that it is ok for people to make mistakes and choice a degree that does not have good job prospects then not only do you not ruin the rest of their life but you also teach them a valuable life lesson.

Unfortunately, with the really really poor pay conditions and lack of job opportunities for archaeologists and anthropology, we are going to be one of the first disciplines squeezed. Prices for degrees are rising across the board, even taking into account all the individual circumstances I listed above, and pay is still very low. Anthropology and archaeology will be a canary in the coal mine of universities as it were and Rick Scott’s attack will not be the last one. Either, we wait till individual universities are picked off one by one as the costs to attend raise beyond the reach of anthropology careers and programs are closed, or we, as a discipline, look to tackle this issue together.

I have to say, it was a good thing that Rick Scott questioned the value of an anthropology degree, he just didn’t question the right thing. But we now have the opportunity to ask the right question about anthropology, not is an anthropology degree valuable (the resounding answer has been yes) but can we do better. Can we give more value, economically speaking, for an anthropology degree?

I hope after some soul-searching the answer is yes.