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THE CASE AGAINST COLLEGE
All great truths begin as blasphemies.
--GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
Here is who belongs in college: the high-achieving student who is interested in learning for learning's sake, those who intend to become schoolteachers and those young people who seem certain to go on to advanced degrees in law, medicine, architecture and the like.
Here is who actually goes to college: everyone. That everyone includes the learning disabled and the fairly dumb, those who have trouble reading and writing and doing math, slackers who see college as an opportunity to major in Beers of the World, burned-out book jockeys and the just plain average student with not much interest in anything.
Think about your high school class. Now think about the 76 percent of those students (80 to 90 percent in middle-class suburbs) who say they expect to go to two-year or four-year colleges. You begin to see the problem?
Pamela Gerhardt, who has been teaching advanced writing and editing at the University of Maryland for six years, says she has seen a decline in her students' interest in the world of ideas. In an article in the Washington Post on August 22,1999, she noted: "Last semester, many of my students drifted in late, slumped into chairs, made excuses to leave early and surrounded my desk when papers were due, clearly distraught over the looming deadline. 'I can't think of any problems,' one told me. 'Nothing interests me.'"
Her students, she said, rejected the idea of writing about things like homelessness or AIDS. Five male students, she said, wanted to write about the "problem" of the instant replay in televised football games.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, people have been complaining that things used to be better, once upon a time, back when. I suppose it is possible that, thirty years ago, students were just as shallow and impatient with education as they are today. But I don't think so. It could be that a college education is wasted on the young, but it is more likely that a college education is especially being wasted on today's youth.
Of course, there was a period twenty-five years ago when Cassandras argued that college was a waste of time and money. Around the time that The Overeducated American was published, in 1975, Caroline Bird wrote a book called The Case Against College. Her book has been out of print for decades. But there are arguments that seem very familiar to me: that Madison Avenue sells college like soap flakes, that going to college had become a choice requiring no forethought; that students weren't really there to learn and that college was no longer an effective way to train workers.
But primarily Ms. Bird argued that "there is no real evidence that the higher income of college graduates is due to college at all." She cited as her proof Christopher Jencks's report "Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America," which pointed out that people from high-status families tended to earn more than people from low-status families, even if they had the same amount of education.
College, Bird pointed out twenty-five years ago, "fails to work its income-raising magic for almost a third of those who go." Moreover, she said, "college doesn't make people intelligent, ambitious, happy, liberal or quick to learn new things. It's the other way around. Intelligent, ambitious, happy, liberal, quick-to-learn people are attracted to college in the first place."
Or, as Zachary Karabell asked in the 1999 book What's College For?: The Struggle to Define American Higher Education, "on a more pragmatic level, does college truly lead to better jobs?"
He answered his own question with "Not necessarily. The more people go to college, the less a college degree is worth." He goes on to point out that the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes in its list of jobs that require a college degree "insurance adjuster" and "manager of a Blockbuster video store." Is that what you were foreseeing for Joey when you wrote that $25,000 tuition check?
Caroline Bird was outraged over the expense of college in 1975. A Princeton education, she said, would cost $22,256 for tuition, books, travel, room, board and pocket money--for four years.
Twenty-five years later, the price for that Princeton degree has grown to $140,000, including room and board and books, but not travel money and pocket change. It's even more than that, if you factor in the student's lost wages. Because of the low unemployment rates at the end of the nineties, anyone with the IQ to go to Princeton could make at least $15,000 a year with only a high school diploma, and perhaps more. So tack on at least $60,000 (if the student knows computers, make that $120,000) in lost wages while Jared or Jessica was busy at Princeton studying Shakespeare. That puts the price of a college degree from a fine Ivy League school at more than $200,000.
Is it worth it today? Perhaps even less so than in Caroline Bird's day, primarily because students no longer seem interested in ideas, and because it is so much easier to make money just by hopping onto the Internet.
"I agree that from the perspective of society as a whole, it would be better if fewer people went to college," Robert Frank told me. He's the popular Cornell economist, and the author of Luxury Fever and other books. "Economists often challenge this notion by citing studies that show significantly higher wages for college graduates," he said. "But all these studies say is that the people who attend college are better, on the average, than those who don't. They don't tell us how much value is added to them by attending college. From the individual's point of view, it still often pays to attend college, since employers so often use education as an initial screening device. Everyone wants the best-paying and most interesting jobs, after all, which assures that there will always be a surfeit of applicants for them. So employers who offer such jobs have every incentive to confine their attention to college graduates. But that doesn't mean that we'd be poorer as a nation if fewer people went to college."
An article in Newsweek (November 1, 1999) by Robert J. Samuelson said: "Going to Harvard or Duke won't automatically produce a better job and higher pay. Graduates of these schools generally do well. But they do well because they are talented." The article was titled "The Worthless Ivy League?"
Brigid McMenamin wrote a blistering piece in Forbes magazine (December 28, 1998) called "The Tyranny of the Diploma." Beyond listing the usual suspects in the computer field who did not complete college--Bill Gates, Michael Dell--she pointed to the young digerati who are making $50,000 to $80,000 a year and more at age sixteen. At a time when most kids in college say they are there "to get a job," these kids may wel1 skip college in order to jump in on the booming Internet business.
Moreover, as Ms. McMenamin recounts, almost 15 percent, or 58 members, of the Forbes 400 (a yearly listing of the most successful business leaders), had either, as she put it, ditched college or avoided it altogether. In terms of wages, she said, brick masons and machinists had it all over biology and liberal arts mayors. As a capper, she stated: "A hefty 21 percent of all degree-holders who work earn less than the average for high school grads." She didn't even bring up plumbers, electricians and car mechanics.
HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUTS
Almost half a million teenagers drop out of high school every year, according to the United States Department of Education. In New York City, half of the entering freshmen don't graduate from high school. There is every reason to be alarmed about high school dropouts.
Yet there is nothing stopping a high school dropout from becoming a plumber, or a computer programmer, and earning a great deal more than most holders of a degree in European history. One sixteen-year-old New Yorker, Cooper Small, dropped out of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in his junior year--over a bad grade in English, even though his GPA of 97.4 ranked him, he said, third in his class.
By that point he had begun working as a computer programmer, making $175 an hour. He then enrolled in Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, as a freshman in college without a high school diploma.
That's the millennial example: a seventeen-year-old who is off to college without a high school diploma, making more than his professors and doing it through building web pages.
OK, so those are the computer geniuses, the ones who may not even need a college education. But what about the kids who want to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers? Fine, they should go to college, though I'll tell you, in the course of this book, about a medical school in the United States that takes students straight out of high school. Meanwhile, parents should be aware that in 1990, 75,000 people with college degrees were working as street vendors or door-to-door salesmen, 83,000 college graduates were working as maids, housemen, janitors or cleaners and 166,000 college grads were working as motor vehicle operators, according to the July 1992 issue of the Monthly Labor Review.
Jennifer might get that expensive degree in marine biology, but she also might just as easily end up a waitress/ski bum in Aspen who picks grapes in the south of France during the summer to pay for her room and board.
THE MIDDLE-CLASS BURDEN
Future doctors and lawyers constitute only a small portion of the students going to college. Going to college is epidemic, especially among middle-class families, whose students have nothing more in mind than just...going to college. These are students who have a sense of entitlement about the enterprise. They may enroll in business classes because that seems to be the way to get rich, or they may major in communications with some vague idea of getting into broadcasting.
They may buy term papers on the web (hey, dude, check out www.cheater.com, where term papers can be downloaded for free), argue with their teachers when too much reading is assigned in an English course and argue with their teachers again when they get a grade lower than a B-minus. These are the students who see their college degree as getting their ticket punched, so they can go out in the world and get a good job and become the consumers they have been raised to be.
Listen to Sarah Williams, who recently left a high position in marketing at Unilever to take a flier on an Internet start-up. "I found high school in Greenwich, Connecticut, pretty boring," she said. She enrolled in the University of Colorado and then dropped out. "I would never use 60 percent of what I needed in order to graduate," she said. "Jobs want people who are specialists," she concluded. "Not people who are well-rounded."
Or, as Mr. Karabell says in What's College For?, "Today's students represent a generation of pragmatists who want knowledge that they can apply to their lives." Mr. Karabell, who has taught at Harvard and Dartmouth, wrote that today's college students are looking for usable skills. And if they think that way at top schools, imagine the attitudes prevalent at the local community college.
Despite the fact that half of all college students matriculate at community colleges, which essentially offer training and remedial education, Mr. Karabell said, "The public still retains romantic notions of college and still sees a college degree as a special achievement."
Those romantic notions of success through college mean that parents treat all education up until college as mere prelude. Many middle-class parents buy homes in school districts where they are assured that 85 to 90 percent of graduates go to college--and where no guidance counselor would dare suggest otherwise.
At New York City's selective public high schools like Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and (in the humanities) Townsend Harris, the number of students heading off to college is close to 100 percent. And then there are the private prep schools, either day schools or boarding schools, for which parents pay up to $20,000 a year to guarantee that their children get into good colleges.
But here's a thought. College professors tel1 me that three-quarters of their freshmen have no business sitting in a college classroom. The professors were not talking about open enrollment, or remedial classes; they were primarily talking about spoiled, immature and lazy middle-class kids, the kind who are filling even some of the best college classrooms and who have no interest in studying what is being taught.
Saying that "everyone" needs to go to college (that is to say, everyone in the middle class) at age eighteen is just as arbitrary as saying that everyone at eighteen should become a race car driver or a concert pianist. Many kids just aren't ready. Some may never have the aptitude to do college-level work. And a surefire way to make sure that your reluctant son or daughter will never graduate from college (or experience the pleasure of learning for learning's sake) is to insist that he or she go to college "just to see what it's like." What they will see is that, for them, it's like hell.
From the Hardcover edition.