Saturn in Sagittarius: Lights Out for Higher Education?

I teach a course at Brooklyn College, which is what you’d call a good school. There’s an impressive list of people who’ve taught there (Alan Ginsburg is my personal favorite) and an equally impressive list of alumni. A few months ago, I congratulated a former student on graduating.

She frowned, and said only, “I didn’t get into graduate school.” When I pointed out that graduating from Brooklyn College was something to be proud of in itself, I was taken aback by her response.

“What is a B.A. without graduate school?” she asked, answering, “It is nothing. It is garbage.” Okay, the graduate was being a bit sophomoric. But I’ve heard a number of students voice similar sentiments recently. And graduate school is hardly the answer...

Linked-In knows that I’m involved in higher education, and they send me weekly articles on the topic. Recently, the articles are anything but encouraging. Titles like “Don’t Go to Grad School!” are the norm. That particular article made the point that graduate schools teach you things that will be outdated by the time you get into the workforce, and give you a skill set that is not valued in the real world (that illusive construct that is always somewhere else, where we need to go but never want to be).

So, a bachelor’s degree without graduate school is useless, and graduate school is useless, too. True, maybe the article, like my student, exaggerated things a bit. But with tuition having gone through the roof a long time ago and the economy in a near-stall for half a decade, something has to give – and if higher education isn’t providing tangible results, it’s going to be on its way out.

The last time Saturn went through Sagittarius (1985 - 1988) we saw a major change in the thinking about higher education, if not a massive change in its structure. Saturn’s visit at that time overlapped with both Uranus and Neptune, so a lot of work was being done on Sagittarian areas, which includes higher education.

It’s a complex story, but there were two major take-away lessons. The first is that finishing college in four years became an option. In fact, with drop-out entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates redefining the path to success, finishing at all became an option. The field of computer programming in general reset the standards of skills, as having a diploma was irrelevant if one had the requisite abilities. Many of my friends who went into the computer (and business) worlds never finished college: they didn’t need to because they had skills that were needed and valued.
When Pluto went through the sign, the prestige of higher education eroded, and monetary success replaced education as the credential of choice. Having a lot of letters after one’s name became less impressive (alas for me!) than having outward signs of wealth. Even high-prestige jobs that require advanced education lost much of their luster, and today even physicians and attorneys have been brought down more than a few pegs – many simply have jobs rather than a profession, and not necessarily very good jobs at that.

The second major lesson of Saturn in Sag back in the 1980s was that colleges became more like technical schools. The aim of liberal arts education essentially vanished, and today students have no qualms about proclaiming how little they know outside of their very narrow major area. Just as no degree is needed if you have the skills, no degree is wanted if it doesn’t provide for a job. The situation has intensified in the subsequent decades, and Pluto’s passage through Sagittarius polarized the situation dramatically.

There are all kinds of fallout from the lack of liberal arts education. Writing skills have evaporated, political discourse has diminished in quality, and so on. But colleges and universities are asking for big money, and their students have thus become consumers, entitled to demand a tangible product for their tuition dollars.

As tuition has soared, so has student debt from loans taken to pay for college and graduate school. That is going to be a hard lesson for people who have gone into deep debt to get a degree and have no job to show for it. But it is going to be an example for the generation that was born with Pluto in Sag (1995 - 2008), many of whom will be college age when Saturn traverses the sign of the archer (late 2014 to 2017).

What are we likely to see with Saturn in Sagittarius? For one thing, a continued decline in the necessity of a college education. Apprenticeship programs and career-oriented technical schools will continue to grow, probably many of them connected to corporations. Two year colleges will probably also increase in popularity - teaching basic writing skills and focusing on pre-professional education.

Online education is sure to change, as well. It’s already been demonstrated that quality education can happen in an online environment, and the appeal is sure to be strong because the online programs reduce cost to schools. Ironically, many of the programs now taught online are likely to disappear, as they are less vocationally-oriented. There will be concerns about professional degrees online, too – especially as professional licensing is often done at the local level (would an online program based in California make you eligible for license in New York?).

A kind of Great Courses on Tape approach may develop, with certificates rather than degrees, for people who want to delve into various nonprofessional topics, such as history or sociology. Rather than doing one course, a concentration of several courses might be taken.

Many university departments are at risk for being closed, including many liberal arts mainstays and several social sciences. As schools continue to staff themselves with adjunct faculty – a trend that began with Pluto in Sagittarius – full/part time faculty ratios will further decline. About 75% of college courses are now taught by part-time faculty, and in a 2012 study, 69% of college presidents in the United States said they preferred to hire part time over fulltime staff.

Women began enrolling in college in much larger numbers as a result of the Women’s Movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. Today, women are more likely than men to complete higher education degrees across the Western world, and that is a trend that is very likely to continue.

Saturn in Sagittarius is going to be a big deal for higher education. Remember that the ballooning of college enrollment is really quite new. For the first half of the 20th century, college was more or less reserved for the wealthy. That changed in the 60s and 70s, but escalating tuition may make it the reality once again. As it passes through a sign, Saturn demands that we make a realistic assessment of things signified by the sign, and asks us what price we are willing to pay to continue on our course in those areas. With costs soaring and the material benefits of higher education deteriorating, the answers to those questions may be hard indeed.