Ben Bauermeister has been thinking about graduate school, a useful stop on his way to a career in architecture or advertising. But he already owes $2,000 in student loans, and graduate school has become so expensive that he must instead look for a job--any job.
Armed with a bachelor's degree this June from Occidental College, a small, well-regarded liberal arts school in this Los Angeles suburb, he will head for Seattle to find work, perhaps doing magazine paste-up. He worries about other college graduate friends who have become comfortable enough in stopgap jobs to consider discarding dreams of a better career. "I see how easy it is to get pulled in," he said.
Ten years ago, the majority of seniors gaduating from schools such as Occidental, Stanford University or Harvard University immediately entered graduate school. Today, according to campus officials who have been polling their seniors each year, most are passing up higher education, at least for the time being, in a development that some think threatens the vital U.S. supply of highly trained labor.
With the Reagan administration moving to cut off guaranteed low-interest loans for graduate studies, the trend is expected to accelerate.
Edward Bloustein, president of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, called the decline in financial support for graduate education "just plain dumb," forcing thousands of students, who need more technical education to compete with the Japanese or the Soviets, into entry-level jobs instead.
"It's going to be like it was in China during the Cultural Revolution," Bloustein said, referring to the days when Chinese students left the universities to work in the fields with the peasants.
Graduate school rolls have not dipped significantly yet, perhaps because of the large influx of graduate students from abroad. According to an official at the University of California at San Diego, half of the 2,700 doctorates in engineering in the United States last year were earned by foreigners.
However, after several years of steadily increasing graduate school enrollment, the number of students entering advanced degree programs in the United States dropped about one percent last year, according to Thomas Linney of the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States. With the Reagan cuts threatening loans that support half of the nation's 1.4 million graduate students, "it's going to be vastly more difficult" to finance such education, Linney said.
William Knutson, an English major at Occidental who is putting off graduate school to work for a computer firm and write free-lance articles, said he already owes $6,000 on his undergraduate education and the Reagan assault on graduate loans "is the talk of the town now." But interest in entering gaduate school immediately after getting an undergraduate degree has been declining for some time.
According to Occidental spokesman Rebecca Staitman, 71 percent of Occidental's graduating seniors entered graduate schools in 1968, when it was the most convenient way to avoid the Vietnam war. In 1972, with the draft much less a threat, 51 percent still went to graduate school, but the percentage has declined steadily ever since, to 43 percent in 1978 and 35 percent last year.
At Harvard, 73 percent went directly to graduate school and 14 percent went to work in 1966. But interest in graduate school declined and interest in work increased until 1978, when for the first time more seniors were going to work (43 percent) than to graduate school (37 percent). Last year 54 percent of Harvard graduates went to work, the largest percentage in the 22 years the university has been polling its seniors, while 34 percent went to graduate school. Smaller percentages of students said they planned to travel or seek other activities that did not involve either work or school.
John W. Pollock, associate director for administration and research at Harvard's Office of Career Services and off-campus learning, said seniors realize the enormous cost of graduate school. "Students come out of medical school $50,000 in debt," he said. "Also, it has become more respectable not to go to graduate school."
An official at Rice University in Houston said that college graduates with degrees in engineering or computer science can demand such high starting salaries that impoverished years as graduate students seem less attractive, even if they offer the opportunity to prepare for higher-level work in their fields.
Bob Beyers, director of Stanford's news service, said some businesses are also beginning to prefer graduating seniors, rather than graduates of advanced business schools, because they can pay them less, train them as they see fit and avoid bad morale among their veteran executives who dislike seeing young business school graduates entering at salaries similar to their own.
Business schools are also looking for more applicants with work experience, thus increasing the incentive for business-minded college seniors to go to work first.
Edward Hanley, legislative director of the U.S. Student Association, faults the proposed Reagan student loan cutbacks for making a bad situation worse, but some college officials suggest the change in trends may actually benefit graduating seniors.
Julie Monson, director of career counseling and placement at the University of Chicago, said some time spent on the job helps a student see more clearly just what he or she wants from graduate school.
"And with the cost of going to graduate school," she said, "what they have at stake there is going to be much higher and they'll probably do better."