Out of love with college

Americans’ love affair with college is fading, writes Andrew Yarrow of Public Agenda. “Squeeze Play,” a new survey, shows parents suspect they’re not getting their money’s worth; most doubt college is accessible and affordable for bright students from poor families.

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  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    For many, a degree means you are high class enough that you didn’t have to go to work right away. So much useless crap was added to the curiculum during the Vietnam war to keep dull normals away from the draft colleges never recovered.

  2. There’s also a question of how much you’re paying for an education. While in-state tuition rates in most states are still fairly reasonable, the runaway costs of private universities ought to make any sane person reconsider their options.

  3. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    Tom – To be honest, I’d question in-state tuition rates as well. For my money, starting at community college, while frowned upon with disdain and contempt by the elitist snobs, was extremely sound financially. I saved a fortune by going to one for the basic curriculum. I remember well the days when I would get a full-time tuition bill from my community college – which I would pay off with a credit card that I would write off in full after 55 days – instead of paying 3 times as much for the same classes at the university I later transferred to.
    But then, as you allude to, that is the genius of competition. 🙂

  4. Catch – you won’t get a debate with me on the potential merits of community colleges; I started at one myself and now am a tenured faculty member at another. However, the range of educational expectations at two-year colleges is very broad and its not hard to understand why community colleges sometimes develop a poor reputation based on the shortcomings of some schools. I take pride teaching at an institution that promotes and encourages high standards.

  5. There’s a poetic justice to the situation.

    Colleges have led on the issue of “affordable education” supporting any policy or law that directs more funding in their direction. Trouble is, their prices have risen as well, in response to the greater funding pouring into the higher education marketplace without a commensurate increase in the value of the education. A doubling of tuitions, made possible by all the public funding, hasn’t resulted in graduates who are twice as qualified.

    That disconnect between price and value was bound to become unignorable at some point. A college education has a good deal of value but not infinite value. That suspicion, or realization, will undoubtedly have greater impact as time goes on.

  6. Higher ed is just waiting for an entrepreneur to figure out how to do high-quality education without expensive facilities and infrastructure. Maybe some combination of distance-learning, offshored grading and such to bright Indians, and lots of scattered small campuses in office parks where students do things that don’t lend themselves well to Internet?

    My guess is it will happen within the next few years, and the big losers will be expensive non-top-tier private schools.

  7. superdestroyer says:


    It has already been tried with University of Phoenix and have a lousy reputation. A mail order school is something for students who did not have many other options.

    The problem with universities is that they promise much more than they deliver. Less than 50% of entering freshmen ever finish and many of those who do finish have degrees in American studies or sociology. Coupled with rampant cheating, grade inflation, and picking easy majors, many people probably feel cheated out the end of their college experience.

  8. Bill Leonard says:

    Superdestroyer tells us the University of Phoenix has a “lousy” reputation. Perhaps so; I do not claim to be a competent judge.

    Anecdotally, however, my former brother-in-law, a now-retired head of a high school English department, teaches undergrad English at the regional U. of Phoenix campus. His take: the students are older, usually employed at day jobs, and motivated by specific career goals and expectations. Since basic undergraduate English (the Egnlish 1-A so many of us encountered) is part of the graduation requirement, they take it — and they work at it. He does not dumb down anything. He finds it rewarding, mostly because the students overwhelmingly are motivated to pass, and to improve in those areas in which they may need assistance.

    I fully understand why the traditional academic world sneers at and discounts operations such as U. of Phoenix: it is threatened.

    The other side of the coin, anecdotally: back in the ’70s, after Watergate and while I still was working as a reporter, I would visit the local state university at least once per semester to talk to reporting classes about what I did as a bureau reporter, what the expectations were, the challenges and satisfactions, and so forth. I usually allowed about 20 minutes for questions, because the class assignment typically was to cover me as a guest speaker. I often had an opportunity to look over the results of the in-class assignment (coverage of me, in news story form, as a guest speaker.)

    It was appalling. Most of those kids couldn’t write for free seeds.

    But in department terms, it really didn’t matter. It was the post-Watergate era; everyone fancied him- or herself a budding Woodstein, and most of all, heavily increased enrollments (at least as compared to department size a decade or so earlier, when I was an undergrad) meant more faculty jobs, with all that entailed.

    I do not believe the situation has changed since, except for the worse. After all, we now have all the ethnic studies programs, in which students get to graduate with a major for being ethnic. And enrollments remain high, and faculty jobs generally remain secure.


  9. superdestroyer says:


    I suggest you look up http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/education/11phoenix.html?ex=1328850000&en=5c8573d57de4bffe&ei=5088

    The students may be older and hard working but with a graduation rate at less than 16%, it does not seem to really matter.

  10. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    Superdestroyer – What could be wrong with picking an “easy” major? Besides, that is a quite relative term. I knew engineering majors who were having an easier time of it because they enjoyed what they were doing – having that passion made a technical, demanding subject easier – indeed, fun, for many of them. They looked in sheer horror at me, the history major, especially when I explained to them just how much reading and writing went into the discipline. Of course, as I enjoy both reading and writing, the history degree for me was “easier”.
    I see absolutely nothing wrong with playing to one’s strengths.

  11. superdestroyer says:


    Here is the test of an easy major. How many people quit engineering to major in history, political science, or business? How many people quit majoring in history to major in chemical engineering? very, very few.

    If you want to find an easy major, just look at the GPA expected to get into graduate school. An engineer can probably get in with a 3.0 or less. I doubt you could do that is Psych or political science.

  12. I fully understand why the traditional academic world sneers at and discounts operations such as U. of Phoenix: it is threatened.

    That’s one reason. The other is the same reason community colleges are routinely maligned by those in the academia: they are elitist snobs who dislike poor people.

  13. College, best 7 years of my life.

    I can’t fault parents complaining about the cost of education, my 4 years from 1970-74 cost me all of 8K. Had a Pell grant, partial scholarship, and made about 1500 a summer working in the mills. Remember them? Didn’t owe a dime upon graduation. Eight thousand is probably what books cost these days.

    As to the easy major, in my fraternity we called Engineering Pre-Business. 🙂

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    I have a friend who commented that the Maytag repairman wants $85 to knock on the door.
    We recently gave the rotorooter guy about $325 for an hour’s work.
    Our remodeling contractor….don’t ask.

    IMO, sometime in the late nineteenth century, the academics who had thought themselves superior found the industrial magnates surpassing them in wealth and status. Thus, virtue had to be defined as being directly proportional to accumulated classroom seat time. But most people don’t want to be poor while being virtuous, so it has been an article of faith that college grads earn more than high school grads. This may be true, but it might not be if the high school grads were divided into two classes, one which had the self-discipline, limited as it is, to finish college although they didn’t, and those who didn’t. The self-discipline strikes me as the differentiating factor. Intelligence, as well, and people skills.

    Some time back, in a journal for Armor officers, I read of a training program an armored cavalry regiment put together for duty in the Balkans. One test was an armored personnel carrier tasked to clear a road for a humanitarian convoy comes to a road block. No telling which side, of several, the guys are from. Could be from the black marketers’ enforcement group. If the humanitarian aid gets through, black market prices go down. But, while trying to get the guys to clear the road, the US vehicle is engaged from the flank by a machine gun. Can’t tell who’s behind the MG. Firing at the road block? The US? Drunks who found a machine gun?
    The objective. Clear the road, destroy the machine gun, don’t get any US soldiers killed. Don’t commit war crimes.
    For extra pizzaz, there is a pretend-butthead from the BNN (Blackhorse News Network) who is always trying to provoke stuff along for the ride.
    The guy in charge of the vehicle would be a mid-level NCO, whose college, if any, is a matter of courses here and there, bits and pieces.
    Sure like to see the academic elites handle that one.

    That said, some version of liberal arts–not the marxist post modernist type–makes for a better citizen. But that could be done if high school. More history, for example.

  15. no gandhi says:

    The real puzzle is why employers don’t work harder to punish schools that grade inflate. Or to reward graduates of programs that grade hard and produce talented alums.

    The truth is that there are many jobs and grad schools (especially med schools and law schools) which prefer to take students with bad degrees and inflated A’s over bright engineers with too many C’s on the transcript. This is a well-known and well-studied effect that leads to still more grade inflation. [For example, MIT grads have a harder time getting into med school than Yale grads despite having on the average higher test scores and having gone through a more rigorous science curriculum, all else being equal. Only their grade point averages are different.]

    Until companies regularly say — We would rather take the high GRE, C student in chemical engineering from Wonka Tech over the straight A sociology and Amazon studies major from Bozo U, the tough grading, honest curricula of tech subjects — which includes math, stats, math econ programs, and the natural sciences, there will always be a tendency of the lazy or the ambitious to go for the easiest A compatible with success.

    Ironically, the humanities used to be hard grading. There was a time before WWII when many Latin or history programs had standards that were just as rigorous as those in the sciences. But since the 60s, the idea of flunking people and giving out C’s to those who can’t write well in English seems to have faded away.

  16. KateCoe says:

    The UC’s claim that any student with a B average and enough credits in the Community Colleges can transfer. But it’s nearly impossible to actually get those credits in a timely fashion, due to over crowding, under scheduling. My son is short 2 sceince classes, and this summer, finally got into one, only to be booted due to a “lottery” method of cutting down the class size.
    I don’t want to hover, but I told him to tell his counselor that that’s an unfair way to do it–if you’ve working on your 7th semester at a CC, you should get priority.

  17. ng…”The real puzzle is why employers don’t work harder to punish schools that grade inflate. Or to reward graduates of programs that grade hard”…think how many different colleges there are, and how many major fields available in each college. Gathering the data to measure grading policies would be hard, and except for the very largest corporations, probably impossible to get enough data. (Unless some kind of pooling could be done)

    “Ironically, the humanities used to be hard grading. There was a time before WWII when many Latin or history programs had standards that were just as rigorous as those in the sciences”…I think this is correct. What seems to be happening is that all subjects are being converted into “social studies”–more rapidly for the traditional humanities, more slowly for the hard sciences.

  18. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Any company that fails, within the probationary period, to separate the performers from the BS artists is in trouble. In my Army we had good ROTC and 90 day wonders, and bad Pointers. Glitter helps in the front office, less so in the back.

  19. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    Superdestroyer – I still disagree. You do much factoring of numbers, but not passion to any degree. To wit – computer science. I knew comp-sci majors who simply loved it and were flying through the program at well above 3.0. The ones who either 1) hated it and were taking it to get a better paying job or 2) expected it to be one thing but turned out to be another dropped it like a bad habit. And I have seen history majors, poli-sci types and others quit their programs, for various reasons. I have seen some drop the program because they had NO IDEA how much reading/writing was involved!
    What is hard for some is much easier than others. To go back to the point about engineers – the ones I knew back in the day I regarded as geniuses for their mastery of mathematics. They regarded me likewise because they simply could not begin to imagine the reading and writing that went into a single one of my papers/research projects.