Is Your College Degree Past Its Expiration Date?

The Great Recession has taught many lessons, and as someone who has not escaped unscathed, here are two conclusions I’ve reached about college:

Not all college degrees are created equal. Yes, I know, this is obvious. I see Microsoft and Amazon workers at the mall blithely buying iPads (well, maybe not these unless it’s on the sly) and $200 Nikes, and I wonder whatever possessed me to get a journalism degree. I console myself that maybe I’m better off than those who tried humanities or women’s studies, but let’s face it, I should have stuck with math.

College degrees have an expiration date. When you’re handed your shiny, new degree, you don’t really think about this. I sort of figured the process worked like high school, where you use your diploma to get into college and then you stick it in a box somewhere. I thought a college degree would start you on the job path and then fade into the past. But what if your job doesn’t offer constant updates to your skills and credentials? Or your career changes course? Then your 20-year-old degree may end up not worth the expensive paper it’s printed on. How do you know if this has happened? Below are my top ten ways to tell if your degree has reached its expiration date:

Top Ten Ways to Tell if Your College Degree has Expired

  1. Your deferred student loan payments are now larger than your house payment. This isn’t as hard to achieve as you’d think, since the average student loan burden has ballooned to around $25,000. Overall, U.S. student-loan debt has surpassed credit-card and auto-loan debt, and now stands close to a whopping $1 trillion dollars. (Federal Reserve Bank of New York) If you want to scare yourself, you can track the overall numbers here: Student Loan Debt Clock
  2. You’re embarrassed to tell anyone your major.
  3. You now realize that a bachelor’s degree is only a stepping stone to grad school. In 2009, someone with a bachelor’s degree could count on mean earnings of $56,655, while someone with a high school certificate brought home $30,627. Those who went on to a master’s or a doctorate degree did much better with $73,738 and $103,054 respectively. More important, they’re now the ones with the jobs.
  4. The alumni association no longer hunts you down to ask for money.
  5. Putting your degree on a resume brings more questions than answers.
  6. You can remember the name of the campus pizza hangout, but you can’t remember any calculus.
  7. You tell your kids you walked 10 miles across campus in the snow to get to class.
  8. You visit the campus, and your major is either housed in a shiny, new building or the basement of the most distant building on campus.
  9. Job descriptions look like they’ve been written in another language that you need a teenager to translate.
  10. You tell your children what you majored in, and they laugh.

So here is my updated career advice. Stay current and don’t stop building credentials once you’re out of college. If you switch careers or are forced to sideline your job for a while, keep taking classes and the occasional contract job to keep your resume relevant. And when you think a career in the arts sounds like your calling, take a computer class instead and enjoy your hobby while you collect a paycheck.

How has your degree fared? Has it been worth the high cost and loans?

Who Could Share Your Doomsday Bunker?

1950s fallout shelter from http://www.archives...

After the last three years trying to survive in our ailing economy, I totally get people who build doomsday bunkers, which I understand are now big business. Not because I believe the end of the world looms, but because you never know when the unthinkable might happen: the Republicans and Democrats might work together, software developers might let a year go by without an upgrade or old rockers might retire instead of scaring people on reunion tours.

Two TV shows are devoted to the bunker builders: National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers” and the Discovery Channel’s “Doomsday Bunkers.” And several articles point to the new popularity of preparing for the apocalypse:

Books and magazines tell us how to survive. Even the Colbert Report has added its take on doomsday with a piece on bargain bunkers.

All this reminds me of an exercise we were forced to do in junior high (maybe all students end up with this ethics exercise at some point or another). We had to decide who we would allow into our bunkers during a nuclear war. Our choices included little kids, old people, teachers, artists and housewives among others. The supplies would cover only 10 individuals, who might then be called on to restart the human race.

So I have decided to update my choices for today’s world. I have upped the numbers, because today’s bunkers are not the same as the one-room concrete shelters of my youth.

  1. My family—Hey, it’s my bunker. What’s the point if you can’t save your husband and kids? Actually, I might have to think a minute about the teenager. Why didn’t someone ever warn me that parenting a teenage daughter could be so challenging? Sadly, I guess I’d have to leave the dog out, because it would be hard to play fetch in a bunker.
  2. Dr. Phil—I’ve never actually watched Dr. Phil, but how many of us start fantasizing about remote cabins after only a weekend of family togetherness? I imagine living in a few rooms underground for several months might generate some conflicts. Anyone remember Biosphere 2?
  3. The MythBusters—This is a no-brainer. Why would you not take two guys who can build an outrigger canoe out of duct tape?
  4. James Cameron—Not only could he document the whole bunker experience on film, but he had the toughness to get to the deepest place on earth and enough science to understand it.
  5. Stephen King—The man is our generation’s Charles Dickens. He understands human nature better than any other writer out there, can tell a terrific story, and he’d know what to do when the zombies arrive.
  6. My neighbor Bob from up the street—The guy is eighty, but tough as nails and an ex-mechanic who can fix anything. He can trap, shoot and grow good beans.
  7. Hillary Clinton—I didn’t vote for her, but I have a reluctant admiration for the woman. I figure she could do a kick-ass job negotiating with the other bunkers.
  8. Yo-Yo Ma and Florence of Florence + the Machine—What’s a bunker without entertainment? Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most diverse artists around. I include Florence because I love her music. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Machine will fit, but she’s an adaptable composer.
  9. Bill Gates—We’ll need to wire the bunker. Of course, we might want something more reliable than Windows, but the man has transformed the world.
  10. Tom and Julie Johns—They are the people behind my favorite vegetable seed company, Territorial Seed Company in Cottage Grove, Ore. Their seed catalogue is an entire course on vegetable gardening, and the company constantly experiments and improves its offerings. With their know-how, we’d never go hungry.
  11. My kids’ pediatrician—The woman has never been stumped by a disease or rash in 16 years, and she takes a laid-back approach to treatment and parenting. The fact that she’s beautiful, impeccably dressed, unfailingly nice and able to juggle a career and family without obvious stress is a little intimidating, but no one’s perfect.
  12. David Giuntoli—Don’t tell my husband about this one. Giuntoli is the star of the NBC TV show “Grimm.” What can I say? He’s easy on the eyes, and he might be able to spot any hidden monsters.

So we have a few spots left. Who would you nominate for the bunker?

4/1/12 update–I saw this ad in the Seattle Times on Saturday, March 31. You know a topic has gone mainstream when you see it in Walmart. Now you will never have to run out of butter powder:

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty on a budget isn’t easy. Beauty with no budget is even tougher. For example: cutting your own hair is tougher than it looks. While I first tried to forego haircuts altogether, eventually I couldn’t stand the thicket of hair over my eyes and seized a pair of scissors. I thought the results quite fetching, until I scored a coupon for a $4 haircut and the hairdresser blurted out, “Who in the world cut your hair?” I mumbled something, but we both knew the truth. I vowed to seek other ways to keep my hair in check.

My new gray hair posed a bigger problem. Potential employers shy away from the Cruella De Vil look. So I figured I’d be better off if I got rid of the gray. Checking out the prices at the local salons was a shock, and I learned the color would need re-doing every six to eight weeks.

Then I saw a free trial offer from They promised salon quality, help from on-line hairdressers, and delivery to my door for a fraction of the cost. Why not? I thought. How hard could it be?

I filled out the online questionnaire telling them my hair goals (to look like Kiera Knightley), my hair type (neglected), and my preferred color. I bogged down on this last. They had dozens of color variations from violet to icy to copper to auburn. Did I want “gold brown” or “dark brown”? Reddish? Blonde? Ash?

After carefully studying the sleek models showing every permutation of brown, I boldly selected medium brown and sent off my request. Soon a package arrived in the mail with detailed instructions, two bottles of chemicals, gloves and a small brush. I waited until I had the house to myself and set up. First direction: clip your hair into four equal sections. I don’t own any hair clips. But being an innovative sort, I figured I could use paper clips. Next, mix the chemicals. The directions didn’t mention that they smell bad. Think of a week-old diaper pail.

Undeterred, I proceeded to the next step. Take a section of hair and get the goop onto the gray. I chose to use the little brush. Here’s where I discovered the next problem. I’m nearsighted. I can’t even see people in front of me without my glasses. After I found myself applying dye to the bathroom door, I put the glasses back on and decided my frames could use a new tie-dye look.

Next, I realized I’d forgotten the gel you’re supposed to apply to the skin around your hair to keep from looking like a tanning-booth victim. Too late. All I managed to do was smear the gel into the already dyed section of hair. The whole process was taking too long. I had visions of each quarter of hair turning out a different color.

I hurried through the first two sections and then had another realization. How are you supposed to see the back of your head? Did I even have any gray hairs back there? How would I know? I tried to find a mirror, but no luck. By now, I was sure the front of my head must be turning black. I hurriedly raked some goo onto the back sections, turning my neck and ears brown in the process, and set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes. I didn’t dare leave the bathroom. What if I got dye all over the house?

The instructions suggested the next step take place in the shower. I then had my next realization: I had no way to get my clothes off over my head without dyeing them. I tried. The paperclips got stuck on my pajamas. More minutes went by while I wrestled my way out. I was sure my hair must be dissolving by then.

I got into the shower. The next step was “shine.” I was supposed to mix water into the remaining dye until it was foamy, pour it back into the bottle and then apply it to the rest of my hair, lathering for two minutes. Again, no glasses. Big dish, little bottle. Not possible to pour it back in. Instead I decided I’d pour the dish on top of my head. Some of it actually made it onto my hair. Most ended up down my back, over my front and all over the shower.

I shined on and then spent the next 10 minutes rinsing the goo from my hair, my ears, my feet and shower. Here I learned lesson number six. Don’t rinse brown dye from your hair in a shower with beige grout.

I emerged with no gray hair looking like a Pygmy. My bathroom looked like I’d slaughtered a brown-blooded animal in it. If anyone ever goes missing in my house, I’m in trouble.

Hairdressers everywhere now have my complete respect.

Despite this experience, it is possible to be cheap and look professional. Dollar-store eyeshadow seems to work as well as more expensive brands. I haven’t gone blind yet or developed any rashes. And my homemade soap takes off makeup and keeps my face clean, although a Mary Kay lady warned me soap would wither my face like an apple doll. So far, so good, unless you ask my daughter.

And I’ve found Goodwill a reliable source of professional-type clothing for those times when I have to leave my office and actually meet people. This last comes with a caveat. Inspect the clothes carefully. They may have been donated for a reason.

This summer I went to a writing conference to meet agents for a novel I’ve written. I felt very spiffy in a $3 pair of black slacks and a jacket from Goodwill. To my horror, right before my agent appointment, I discovered the reason the pants were so cheap. The zipper was broken. I’d been wandering around the conference with a major draft. I raced to the hotel desk and got a sewing kit and ducked into a restroom. No safety pins. Standing in a stall, I sewed the zipper into the up position, (not easy when you’re wearing the pants) and dashed to my appointment, sliding into my seat just before the doors closed. The agent did request a look at the book, but going to the bathroom the rest of the day required something resembling the limbo. At least my hair wasn’t gray.

Hey dudes, I’m Poor Now

I get junk mail, therefore I am.

I’m staring at my mail basket and thinking, “What the heck? When will these people get a clue?” In front of me sits the following:

Algarve coast

Image by MeckiMac via Flickr

  • A glossy 144-page magazine on “Virtuoso Life: The Traveler’s Guide to Inspired Pursuits,” graciously sent to me by an on-line travel service. This is the Europe issue, giving me the “50 Reasons to Go Now” and “Exploring Southern Portugal’s Algarve Coast.” Now trust me. I’d love to discover the Algarve Coast, but my plans this year are more in line with exploring beautiful, downtown Tacoma and convincing my kids that camping in our spider-infested tree house will be fun.
  • An invitation to the BMW Mission to Drive Sales Event. Apparently, now I can enjoy an “on-road combination of raw power, unrivaled efficiency and total refinement all at once.” Somehow that doesn’t sound like King County Transit. Or the ’88 Toyota pickup–although the screwdriver holding up the window adds a classy touch.
  • No fewer than three credit card offers. I’m tempted to send these in and list my food stamps as income. Or to fill one out for the dog and discover if she can get a credit card. I guess I should be glad our credit rating is intact, but these ads don’t reassure me the debt crisis is over.
  • Pleas for money from charities, magazines and  organizations like the Pacific Science Center, who wonder where we’ve gone. I regret dropping some of these. But they might need less money if they’d purge their mailing lists. We cut our magazine subscriptions and memberships three years ago, yet it’s a rare day when we don’t get mail or calls begging for us to come back. It’s like some horrible zombie movie with a horde of telemarketers pawing at the door with special return offers. Yesterday a Comcast dude knocked as I was writing. He asked me about our cable. I told him we didn’t miss it a bit. He stepped back and cleared his throat and asked about our long distance and Internet. I told him we were happy with our stripped-down service. In the end, we chatted about the pouring rain for a minute, and he shambled down the driveway. Now that I think about it, his arms were at an odd angle.
  • A catalog for, my favorite on-line seller of stringed instruments. I took up violin for my mid-life crisis several years ago, and I buy my strings from Shar. But I haven’t played lately, because my daughter is using my bow until we can afford to replace hers. The dog howls less now, but I miss the music. And I can’t go play on the corner until I get that bow.
  • Next is a renewal offer from the AARP. My mid-life crisis notwithstanding, I have months until I qualify for AARP, and I want every one of them! Although the discounts might be good. But a renewal!! Not even the free insulated travel bag is worth the indignity.
  • And finally, my favorite of the day: the 2012 National Agricultural Classification Survey. This one may have come because of our food benefits, which also originate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Or because we live on an acre. The survey is used to “make policy, business and funding decisions affecting U.S. farming and ranching operations.” Participation is required by law. Do two goats and four chickens constitute ranching? The form asks for the largest numbers of layers, pullet and roosters in my flock at any one time. That number was six before the coyote incident. But then the survey asks what is the primary type of layer/pullet operation. There’s no check-off for “pets.” Nor do we have any bees, and we eat or donate all our crops. So in a few months or a year, you can feel good knowing your tax dollars went to inform you of the number of bee keepers in the country.

So I guess the mail does reflect my old life pretty well. What will I get in the future? Check cashing offers? Coupons for Tacoma? An offer for the dog? I can’t wait to find out.

Stick-Your-Head-in-the-Sand Day

Monday morning. I’m now through my second cup of coffee and have scanned the headlines to learn the following:

  • Iran is close to having nuclear capability, causing the U.S. to ratchet up its threat of possibly talking about sanctions.
  • Ocean acidification is destroying the marine food chain and endangering the future of shellfish farming, the seafood industry and the spread of Red Lobster.
  • The federal deficit-reduction panel can’t agree on anything (no news here)–including whether to cut some $200 million to promote the sales of American crops overseas, because one credit-rating reduction wasn’t enough.
  • More deadly virus has been detected in Northwest salmon, which means it’s only a matter of time before we need to be vaccinated for the salmon flu.
  • The earthquake in Oklahoma is part of a puzzling jump in seismic activity in that state and Arkansas, leading to fears about the safety of fracking and concerns that our West Coast faults have become passé.
  • A 1,300-foot asteroid will pass between the orbit of the moon and the Earth tomorrow at a range of about 201,700 miles. It should miss, but the Apophis Asteroid may slam into the Earth in 2036.
  • My morning coffee could lead to hip fractures, depression and fatigue, causing scientists to wonder about the bean’s value as a stimulant.

That leaves out recent information that the world will end next year (since it didn’t on Oct. 21), that new viruses capable of decimating human populations lurk in the rain forest; that Obama, Romney, Herman Cain or . . . is poised to win the White House; and that global warming will soon destroy coffee and chocolate production.  No wonder I’m sitting here with my hands trembling and my teeth clenched–oh no, wait, that was the coffee. But I have decided one of the biggest ills of our society is information overload. And I propose to do something about it: National Stick-Your-Head-in-the-Sand Day.

On this day, we’re all forbidden to read a headline, connect to the Internet or turn on the TV. This may mean staying at home, since we’ll also want to avoid traffic congestion, protestors, warning signs and places like the mall, where we run the risk of finding out our social lives are doomed unless we buy $50 kits to remove, re-shape, re-draw and re-texture our eyebrows. It also might be best to hold the holiday on a weekend, so we can sidestep our children’s schools and worries that they’re not keeping up with the Chinese; and work, where we might hear rumors of layoffs or pay cuts.

Instead, I plan to sit at home with my family and a cup of tea, play a game or two, pet my annoying cat and be grateful for another day.