Thursday, July 7, 2011

Is college a scam?

John Stossel has a new gripe: “… [F]or many people, college is a scam.”

First, getting a college degree doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a job that will pay off your student loans, let alone provide a better income than you’d get as a high school graduate. Second, people who graduate from college tend to do better because they’re generally more disciplined, and would likely succeed if they never stepped foot on a college campus; Stossel leads his article off with names of famous men who either never went or dropped out, like Bill Gates and Peter Jennings. And many professors aren’t there to teach; teaching students actually takes away from their main source of income, research.

I can add to the indictment. According to Stossel, “A writer called [entrepreneur Peter] Thiel’s grant [$100,000 to drop out of college and start up a business] a ‘nasty idea’ that leads students into ‘halting their intellectual development ... maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich.’” But for many college students, “mind-broadening” consists solely of learning college progressivist cant; they may learn many facts they never knew before, but they’re not necessarily any better thinkers than they were when they left high school. Besides, people who don’t take to the world of abstractions naturally won’t become abstract thinkers under social compulsion.

Okay, let’s grant all that for the sake of argument. It doesn’t immediately change the fact that more businesses are requiring degrees just to get your résumé or CV looked at by HR, even for positions for which a college education should not be necessary. (For instance, I know of one DFW-area employer who requires a four-year degree for a telephone customer service job.)

When I first started contemplating this fact many years ago, I’d thought it was a by-product of the declining standards of public education; the high school diploma, I argued at the time, had become little more than a certificate of adulthood, conveying no real sense of actual accomplishment or development beyond learning to play the academic game.

As true as it may be, though, this argument doesn’t take a full look at why businesses are requiring degrees. Hiring a qualified employee has always been a chancy thing at best, even when the pool of available candidates is very limited. The internet, however, has expanded the pool for many jobs; where once I had to spend most of my day crisscrossing town in my only suit to put in three or four applications, I can now send my résumé to a half-dozen prospective employers before I finish my first morning cup of coffee, without changing out of my sleepwear.

Now faced with blizzards of paper and hundreds of applicants for handfuls of positions, employers need processes that will allow them to circular-file as many hopefuls as possible to get down to the few people they really want to consider further. They don’t want wild, creative forces of nature; they want people who will show up on time and stick to their tasks.

Employers know that people who get bachelor’s degrees are more disciplined. If you’re a creative thinker, that’s fine, as long as you show up for the job and don’t create problems … otherwise, they’d just as soon hire someone who thinks inside the box. This is why many more businesses are also looking at credit scores; a person who pays his bills regularly is likely more responsible in other areas of life as well.

But this is where the idea of the university and the reality of the student collide. So far as universities are designed at all, they’re designed for the pursuit of knowledge itself, not to act as workforce training centers. Seventy-five percent of graduates end up in fields unrelated to their majors — Stossel’s degree, for example, was in psychology not journalism — because many employers aren’t looking for specialized knowledge, just “time served”. And while many students pursue curricula with hazy ideas of ending up in a related field that interests them, they’re mostly playing the academic game just as they did in high school, taking the tests and passing the classes because that’s what’s expected of them.

The last twenty years or so have seen the rise of the business and community colleges, offering two- and four-year degrees at a fraction of the price, with teachers paid only to teach and offsite options, to meet the needs of the student who just wants the effing degree so he can get a halfway decent job and isn’t interested in scholarship or having his mind broadened. Frankly, if I were a father, just wanting my child to get a degree and concerned about the hedonistic campus culture found at most major universities, I’d push my child in this direction and not worry about the loss of the prestige that attaches to names like Harvard, UCLA or Texas A&M.

This is not to denigrate the university as a place for scholarship. We need scholars as much as we need workers. For myself, if I won a massive lottery tomorrow, I’d happily go back to school for the rest of my life; that’s just how much I enjoyed the intellectual challenges and the life of the mind.

Nevertheless, for the majority of students, college is simply another set of hoops to jump through before their lives become their own. With no goal in their eyes beyond getting the degree and getting out, no clear idea of what they want to be four years from now, and no structure or supervision, it’s no wonder they seek refuge in sex, alcohol and campus activism.

College isn’t a scam. But it’s easy to pay too much for what you want, like renting a condo to use as a dog kennel. Better student guidance and preparation would result in more students attending smaller colleges better suited to their needs at better prices.  Meanwhile, traditional universities should either maintain their focus on academic and research professions or create new programs to meet the “non-academic degree” need.

What do you think?