College Overrated? Dare I Say More?

Heresy, right?

The reason I write posts like this is not to trash college but to challenge the conventional mindset that college must be purchased regardless of any cost benefit analysis. I write to give you a different perspective and I write to ask these questions,

  • Is it possible that the current post-secondary educational system is causing social damage to our nation and our world?
  • Is it time to reinvent the entire concept of post-secondary education?

At the macro level most statistics point to a favorable economic outcome for college graduates. But at the micro level, there is little evidence college graduation will produce individual economic advancement. Many students leave college buried in debt without meaningful employment.

Money Magazine asks, “Is College Still Worth the Price?” Tuition is rising twice as fast as inflation while salaries for graduates are falling.

In general, college appears to be a good economic investment, but it may be a poor investment for you.

Charles Murray is one of the few who are saying this. In The Wall Street Journal he writes “For Most People, College is a Waste of Time.” From the beginning he makes a point which is difficult to counter:

Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal. We will call the goal a “BA.”

You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that’s the system we have in place.

Is it also possible that the current system is injuring our moral foundation and our society as a whole?

I hope I don’t offend anyone with this analogy, but I believe it is entirely accurate. In fact, it isn’t just an analogy; these institutions (education and racism) were closely related through much of their history. Simply removing the racial laws and regulation has not solved the problem, because the institutions were designed to forcibly segregate and assign artificial value to groupings of human beings with the purpose of creating a manageable orderly society. They are still functioning as designed. At the top end we have the Ivy League, at the bottom the prison system.

When Mr. Murray says, “stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal” he is referring to what I call intellectual apartheid, a system which segregates vast swaths of our society, not by true ability or potential, but by their ability to perform for the bureaucrats who manage institutions designed to create artificial scarcity. Our current educational system was developed when scientific racism was the norm. It was a time when the elite believed (and some still do) in the scientific management of people and social interactions.

Mandela said,

The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity – Nelson Mandela

The greatest damage is done when the oppressed begin to believe they are inferior and when the oppressor believes they are superior. These beliefs are then reflected in our actions and persist for generations after the damaging institutions are removed.

22 thoughts on “College Overrated? Dare I Say More?”

  1. Terrific post Steve.

    Personally, I fully endorse your intention to challenge peoples’ conventional mindsets about education.

    Is it possible that the current post-secondary educational system is causing social damage to our nation and our world?

    I think that on balance, likely. The current system does perpetuate a society that forces a separation of “the educated” from “the uneducated” or “degreed” and “un-degreed” people. The lack of a degree disqualifies fully qualified people from entering careers they could otherwise excel in. An example: I was recently disqualified from an exempt-level position at my current company because I was honest on my application and stated that though I do have many, many college credits, I have no completed degree. What’s the kicker? The guy who got the job (I later found out) doesn’t have a degree and lied and said he did. The degree got him the job. It also turns out that he’s incompetent (in my opinion). The proof is all around us.

    The major reason we give for demanding the degree? We say it proves someone’s ability to complete something from start to finish, it’s a record of objective accomplishment. But even the most relaxed scrutiny of this reveals that it’s plain bullshit. It proves that: a) you could get into college, b) you could finance college, and c) you could manage your private life in a way that afforded you the opportunity to finish your class work in a timely manner so you could graduate. That’s it. What this has to do with most careers in this country is anyone’s guess. It’s an excuse to make a class division. Plain and simple.

    Is it time to reinvent the entire concept of post-secondary education?

    Sure, sort of. It’s been “time” as in it’s been necessary, for a long time now. It may not be “time” as in, it is actually possible to enforce a real change, now, or in the near future. That would require a somewhat radical shift in a lot of people’s beliefs, and it would require them to vote. I’m not so sure that’s on the horizon, anywhere unfortunately. But, by blogging about it as you have, you’re sure to turn some heads. You turned mine.

    I like your mention of scarcity. I like how you present it as a way of displaying how the system as it is right now works. We all know resources are scarce. So how do we dole them out? That’s what economic systems are for. Ours? We dole them out to the degreed in greater proportion than we do the un-degreed. But, the hidden assumption in this is what you’re calling intellectual apartheid. The implied little lie in society is that those who can attain a degree are smarter, have more ability, and will somehow “do more” with those scarce resources that are handed out to them. But that’s a lie. It just means they have a degree. And so, those sometimes wonderful, smart people, with tons of ability are essentially arbitrarily given fewer resources.

    What you’re asking for here Steve, is a meritocracy. And I’m an ally of yours when it comes to that. The system as it is right now is partly arbitrary. It does serve some purposes, but it also carries with it a very grave, very real injustice. Good on you to bring it up.

    Oh, and

    @ Aiden – Get over yourself. It’s a typo. I have enough credit hours to fulfill a Ph.D. or two, have no degree of any kind, and I make typos every day. I bet you do too.

  2. @ Dereck. It’s an exceptionally ironic typo – worthy of commenting considering the topic of the post. Before spouting the virtues of X, it’s probably best to make sure one is not contradicting themselves by doing Y.

  3. Nice post Steve, though I’m not sure what all the big words meant. Don’t know nuttin’ ’bout no MACRO systems (but then again, I’m not a college grad) :-)

    I particularly liked the Charles Murray quote. I have a brother-in-law who got a BA in history then went to work in pharmaceutical sales. To the pharma, it didn’t matter what the degree was in as long as he had one. It might as well have been in ballroom dancing!

    Another thing I dislike about colleges and, for that matter, the education system in general is the fact that conventional schooling emphasizes learning by rote, going along with “standard” procedures and beliefs without questioning the status quo. There is absolutely no emphasis on creativity or individual thought. In fact, the system discourages students from having original thoughts.

    Good article. Definitely something educators as well as prospective students would be wise to consider.

    I’m not against higher learning at all. I just believe, as you stated, that it is often more cost effective to get the education in other than “conventional,” higher learning institutions.


  4. Before spouting the virtues of X, it’s probably best to make sure one is not contradicting themselves by doing Y.

    I’m sorry, maybe I misread the article. Where was the virtue of perfection mentioned?

    Let’s face it: you were being snarky and I called you out on it. You were subscribing to the beliefs that the article argued against. The “exceptionally ironic typo” you shed light on was used by you to secretly say that those who commit typos, something an English major might have less misfortune to do, aren’t qualified to write on the topic of education.

    I just disagree.


  5. @Aiden,

    It’s a typo. Formal education has nothing to do with making typos. I see people with BAs, BSs, MSs, MAs, Ph Ds, make typos in their communications. They write bugs in their code. Other people find them, like QA engineers and editors, then they fix them.

    If I had a little more time to proof things it probably wouldn’t have happened. But I’ve got more important things to do.

    I think your comment reflects exactly what I was writing about in this post. College doesn’t make you perfect. No need to be a grammar/spelling nazi. It’s a blog post for chissake. You knew damn well what I meant.

    I appreciate you pointing out the typo. But to assume that if one had a degree one would no longer make typos is absurd. If that were true then people with CS degrees would write bug free code, QA would be unnecessary, and editors would go the way of the typewriter.

    I probably have typos somewhere in this comment, but I don’t really care. I’m going to go make my kids breakfast instead of re-reading it.

    Okay*** I’m back from breakfast and I fixed a few of my typos (likely not all). See how that works.

    Typos are really more about being detail oriented than educated.

  6. Steve,
    I had recently read this article in the American Scholar I think you will find interesting.

    It’s written by an Ivy Leaguer and his own realizations about the “elitest” educational system.

    “But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college. (If I’d gone to Harvard, I would have learned to say “in Boston” when I was asked where I went to school—the Cambridge version of noblesse oblige.) I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.”

  7. @everyone – FYI, I’m not against higher education, quite the contrary, I am for constant and never ending education. I’m just questioning our current definition of higher education and the bureaucracy and stigmatization which follows it. I’m saying it is time to redefine ‘educated.’

    About the typo thing…

    I have an ironic story this whole thing brought to mind.. I once knew a guy who didn’t have a degree who was terrified of having typos in his emails. He didn’t want to look stupid (probably because of the stigma of not having a degree), so he was anal about his writing and rarely made a mistake. Many degreed people I know constantly make errors in their communications and no one thinks they are ignorant. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because they have a degree.

    I don’t think people who make typos are ignorant, I think they are sloppy and ADD. I’m sloppy and ADD. What can I do? I’m not going to fear the typo nazis.

    Sometimes I do think people are ignorant when they misuse a word (or commit a bunkerism). But I’m not much on PC stuff, so I actually find bunkerisms funny. Norman Lear is a brilliant writer, and BTW, he’s a dropout.

  8. This is totally rude, but I can’t help it. I can’t believe I didn’t see it the first time. It’s an awesome kind of justice, truly.

    Um, Aiden? You have a major grammatical error.

    Before spouting the virtues of X, it’s probably best to make sure one is not contradicting themselves by doing Y.

    I think you meant to say:

    Before spouting the virtues of X, it’s probably best to make sure one is not contradicting oneself by doing Y.

    I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself.

  9. While I must agree that the requirement of a degree for so many jobs is ultimately unfair, I don’t think it’s just to point a finger at the universities. Where does the real social damage begin? The root of the problem, in my opinion, is the ridiculous failure that we call public education. With so much importance placed on standardized testing (preparations taking the precedence over normal subjects for a good portion of the school year), the lack of individual attention, and misbehavior so prevalent in the classrooms, how can we expect a high school diploma to mean anything anymore?

  10. @mahjong_kid – I agree with everything you wrote. My argument is not with the university. I love the university, in all honesty, I have been attending them since I was 7 or so. My argument with the post-secondary education racket is complex. It is a self-serving industry whose mission isn’t to educate, but to fatten itself. Higher learning is a must. However, our current system is… well… stay tuned…

  11. Excellent article, and a topic of much discussion in our home and academic circles. We have been homeschooling for reasons of academic freedom and possibly social rebellion for a dozen years. With a high school junior, we have been exploring not just the opportunity for dual enrollment (community college classes for high school and college credit) but have been investigating and planning apprenticeships in considered careers. My daughter, an 8th grader, is already researching careers of a more freelance basis, where portfolio and experience matter more than an Ivy League degree.
    It baffles me how many of my son’s traditionally schooled friends have never even spoken to anyone in their major of choice, let alone spent time shadowing them in their future career. While college is still the plan, we feel more confident that our children will make fully educated decisions.

  12. I don’t agree with opinion which considered college as an investment. Most people think that college is a way to success and rich. It doesn’t always work that way. Many people get success although they never go to college. I think college is a place where there are people who will teach and educate us about knowledge and insight. Outside the college, we still have opportunity to learn and know what is tought at college. But, harder effort is needed…However I think it is all depend on the person willingness to learn.

  13. Every society needs classes.
    Just because a job doesn’t pay much doesn’t mean you can have morons doing it. Plus the fact that there aren’t enough morons to do all the low-paying jobs.

    There are ways of defining classes, and every society has several. It can be done by race, by caste, by legal status, or by education. Monopolies do it by limiting membership in compulsory unions such as the Bar Assoc. and the AMA. Gov’ts do it by requiring licensing, permits and granting monopoly standing to unions. I’m sure there are other ways of doing it, but for Liberals, education is the one of the most palatable ways.

  14. My mother has 3 MASTERS degrees and she NEVER made more than $30k a year. She was a teacher, needless to say. I one time said to her, “Mom, after seeing all that you have acquired by getting all those degrees, you might as well take those diplomas of yours & wipe your butt with them!” You know, I could see her getting all those degrees as being worthwhile if she made a 6 figure income, drove Mercedes-Benzes or BMWs, had a $200 or $300 grand home, etc. I work as a delivery driver and I make $30/hr. I get about 20 hours overtime each week. I make way more than my mother ever did & I am a community college dropout. In fact, I make bank each payday! Just how is that all possible, all you “enlightened” college students & grads? You are the so-called educated! Tell me how I did that!? I saw the whole scam that was taking place early on in my time at community college. See, they make you take all these bullshit classes which have absolutely no pertinence at all with what you were majoring in just for the sole purpose of sucking more tuition money out of you. They tried to give me the BS saying to me, “It’s to make you a more well-rounded student.” I said to them, “Wasn’t that what high school and grade school were for?” Don’t fall for all the hype, people! If you want to continue your education, go to a trade school but DON’T give those colleges another cent of your $$$$!!!!

  15. Bachelor’s degrees are not overrated. MASTER’S degrees are!!! I went to college and I learned a lot, although all of you must read my real story:
    I went to college for a bachelor’s degree in music. While I was there, I felt the music program fading, so I switched my major to behavioral sciences. So, I have my bachelor’s degree in behavioral sciences. GREAT!
    After college, I went back and took more piano lessons from my old teacher who taught me while I was in high school. One day, I asked her, “do you really think I am ready to play in a bar??” I was quite surprised. Her answer was “yes.”

    Now, I play piano in a bar for tips. I tutor English (in a community college, ironically), and get my salary from that. But all I had to do was practice the piano on my own, and look for a bar that would take me in. I found one, and play for tips every Saturday. I would only go back to college if I got paid to go!!!

  16. I am so passionate about this subject that I created a forum dedicated to spreading the truth about college degrees.

    The fact is we have way way too many college graduates and not enough jobs. The bubble has essentially burst. We now have young adults straddled with debt for life. Not the exact scenario that makes you want to get married and have kids.

  17. I think the obsession with college over the past decade or so has created a wealth of opportunities in the trades sector. Worldwide there is a shortage of youngsters entering the trades and a lot of jobs up for grabs for those interested in careers as an electrician, plumber, carpenter, mechanic or the likes. In my opionion these jobs are a return to basics, working outdoors, with your hands to solve problems which I feel is much more rewarding than being stuck in an office in front of a computer for 10hours a day…

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