Send fewer students to college

In response to Marcus Winters’ call to send more students to college, Robert VerBruggen of Phi Beta Cons argues we’re sending too many as it is.

. . . when 40 percent of college students fail to graduate in six years, and when about a quarter of employed college graduates have jobs that don’t require degrees, it’s obvious we’re pushing too many kids into higher education.

About 25 percent of college graduates in their 20s are working at jobs that don’t require degrees, VerBruggen writes.

. . . the economy doesn’t need more generic college graduates — and in fact refuses to hire many of them. Rather, it needs highly capable people in certain fields. It would probably be better to encourage students acquiring useless majors to switch to these lucrative fields than to send more kids to college across the board.

After all, when you send more kids to college, you’re scraping closer to the bottom of the college-eligibility barrel. The new kids will be less able and motivated, on average, than the ones who are already in college — and thus even more likely to drop out before finishing and to wind up in jobs that don’t utilize their degrees if they do finish.

VerBruggen agrees that better schools would prepare more inner-city students for success in college, but “it will be years before we see significant results,” even if reforms go very well. For many of today’s high school graduates, he writes, “college isn’t working.”

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  1. This is a a very good point. There also need to be more alternatives to the four-year generic college experience (i.e. trade schools). While all students should be given the opportunity to go to college, college should not be rammed down every child’s throat.

  2. This is a serious question, because I really don’t know the answer. these fields that “don’t require a college degree”: have any of these commenters hired personnel in those fields or interviewed people who hire in them? I keep seeing the assertion that college grads are working in jobs that don’t require degrees, but I don’t see evidence of it, nor do I see evidence that those workers aren’t trying to move up or over.

    None of which is to deny that some people who go on to college shouldn’t.

  3. The problem is, a college degree is now equivalent (or perhaps even less) than a high school diploma of many years gone by. I agree that there are careers where a college degree is probably not necessary, but it will take major revamping of the k-12 system, so that students graduate with good basic knowledge (and that is understood by employers). It seems, though, there’s not a lot of “guts” to do the kind of revamping necessary.

    I am a college prof and I think it’s sad that trade schools and such tend to be viewed as “second best” in this country. I am sure some plumbers and electricians make more than I do, and probably, some days, would rate themselves as being more satisfied in their careers.

  4. George Larson says:


    I am one of those people. For the first 9 yesrs of my post graduation working life I had jobs that did not require a college degree.

    All of my working life I have met and worked with quite a few.

  5. Although I agree with the title of this post, I’d like to point out that sending more students to college doesn’t necessarily mean sending them all to Yale. More could be sent to community colleges:

    “‘I simply want to celebrate the fact that right near your home, year in and year out, a community college is quietly—and with very little financial encouragement—saving lives and minds,’ said Ryan. ‘I can’t think of a more efficient, hopeful or egalitarian machine, with the possible exception of the bicycle.'”

    I’d rather have ricki’s “major revamping of the k-12 system,” but in the meantime, I’d advise people not to look down on CCs and trade schools.

  6. The NR seems to have lost its rudder given that they have to resort to making statements like this:

    “I appreciate Winters’s faith that virtually all of humanity can learn complicated academic material, but I’m afraid I don’t share it.”

    I got all they way to this statement without a single word against government funding of college educations.

  7. If potential students and their parents were using their heads, they would send their kids to a community or junior college to get the first two years of basic core requirements out of the way (and perhaps earn an associate’s degree at the same time).

    In addition, there are a lot of programs which are trade related at these schools (including sonography/radiography, welding, HVAC, automotive, etc), so a student MIGHT find something that would turn into a long term career.

    After they do the two years, then consider transferring to a four year institution (you’ll save a bundle).

    In the current economy, many college graduates are working jobs which don’t require a degree, but the other issue is that if there aren’t any jobs in their field of major, why do students keep selecting these majors in the first place (interest is one thing, being able to earn a living with the degree is quite another).

  8. When my kids were in high school in an affluent suburb, there were kids who took some classes in community college and/or began their college career there. However, the academic level in the community college tended to be quite a bit lower than even the state universities in the area, and the classes reflected the different student population. It was not common to see honors/AP level kids take their regular academic classes during high school or start college at the community college, because the high school classes were much more challenging. Some did take classes, especially in the summer, at local universities. That is not to say that more challenging options could be developed, if the demand was there.

  9. Mike, let me give you a personal example: legal secretaries. There is absolutely no reason why a legal secretary needs a college degree, yet the majority of the legal secretaries at the firms I’ve worked for are all college graduates.

    What it is, and has been for at least several decades, is a selection process–because employers can’t give IQ tests to prospective applicants (thanks, U.S. Supreme Court!), employers have to use other methods to determine how bright an applicant is. One of those methods is to look for people who have been graduated from college.

  10. Mike wrote: “I keep seeing the assertion that college grads are working in jobs that don’t require degrees, but I don’t see evidence of it, nor do I see evidence that those workers aren’t trying to move up or over.”

    One of my husband’s relatives graduated last June with a B.A. in History from the University of Delaware. He’s working as a cashier at Target. My husband kept telling him to double-major in something marketable like business but the kid wouldn’t listen. Fortunately he doesn’t have any student loan debt but it’s still a waste of a degree.

  11. “Waste of a degree”? Is that all education means to you, a ticket to financial rewards? I pity you.

  12. On the larger point, I agree with Rex — a college diploma is in part evidence that somebody can stick with a job to the end. High school diplomas used to mean that, but the push to have everyone graduate and give everybody A’s just for breathing has destroyed that.

  13. actual point should be tosend more children to college adequately prepared to succeed: it’s not enough just to get them into college. Ball in still in the K-12 court on college readiness.

  14. CW,

    Is he doing anything with his interest in History? I’ve heard the CIA really likes hiring History majors.

  15. I’d really like to see a flood of complaints running from HS teachers to MS to ES about the flood of kids unprepared to do grade-level work. The problem starts with the early ES years; the kids who don’t get a good foundation just keep falling further behind. Passing these kids up to MS and HS without the skills and knowledge they need is educational malpractice, but the education establishment doesn’t acknowledge the concept.

  16. As most students remain within the same school district, there’s no pressure on the education establishment to acknowledge the concept. The average tenure of a superintendent is what, 5 years? And districts with several schools like to move principals every so often? By the time today’s first graders are in middle school, it’s someone else’s problem.

  17. “Waste of a degree”? Is that all education means to you, a ticket to financial rewards? I pity you.

    College degrees are financial investments. If you spent a ton of money and a ton of time and then wound up with the same job you could have had before, then you made a poor investment.

    It’s good that they broaden the mind and challenge the intellect (or ought to). It’s good that you learned a lot and enjoyed yourself. But ultimately you can get all of that for a lot less money than with a college degree and the years you missed are years you could have been working your way forward.

  18. wahoofive says:

    Jeff, if that’s true we’d better rething K-12 also. After all, if you’re going to be a grocery bagger or a yard maintenance person or a housewife you don’t need to be literate, so why waste good money teaching reading?

  19. Wahoofive, your last comment jumped the shark. The basic skills everyone needs to understand to make our democratic republic society successful is what a High School Diploma is all about; a College Degree is supposed to be about careers and raising the quality of life, another matter entirely.

    However, you do make a good point about broadening people’s minds and the joy of learning. Of course we want everyone to do that! But, many of today’s college majors don’t translate into marketable jobs, and are in subjects you can learn just as easily (and free) using Google and Wikipedia. Like History, for example.

    So, I end up agreeing with Jeff The Baptist. A College Degree, unlike a High School Diploma, is a big financial investment – an investment which must pay off with a better-paying job and a raised standard of living to be worth the time and effort.

    In the case of that B.A. History guy above, I’d say this: If he graduated with huge student loans, then he screwed himself over. But, if he didn’t graduate with any student loans, you could at least call it a wash…

  20. Jeff the Baptist- exactly! Delaware costs $8500/year in tuition for residents. My husband’s relative could’ve spent one semester’s worth of that on books and a trip around Europe and learned about history. Why spend all that time & money on college just to wind up working at a job he could’ve gotten straight out of high school?

  21. Why spend all that time & money on college just to wind up working at a job he could’ve gotten straight out of high school?

    You’re assuming he’ll stay there. You’re also assuming that reading without discussion will teach him all he needs to know about history. The least informed people about history tend to be those who took it in high school but didn’t take it in college and read popular history books. They know facts, but don’t understand them. They’re nostalgists, rather than historians.

    All that said, a student with a history major coupled with an appropriate minor and a good relationship from the first semester with the college career center will generally do fairly well.

  22. –Waste of a degree”? Is that all education means to you, a ticket to financial rewards? I pity you.

    Education does not require schooling, not even college level schooling. Learning can be done from books, if one is motivated.

    Most college degrees don’t provide that learning anyway. They don’t offer rigorous liberal arts anymore; what few liberal arts degrees they offer can be fulfilled by taking classes where they study film and television. They offer “studies” majors–women’s studies, gender studies, film studies, development studies; they offer communications degrees. They offer drivel.

    College education would mean far more if colleges actually enlightened their students. There is little reason to believe that is happening, so yes, the degree is a waste, as is the time and the opportunity cost, not to mention the tuition for whomever footed the bill.

  23. Wow. Even if I were working at Home Depot I’d be happy I went to college. I wasn’t always the best student, but the degree requirements forced me to learn about all sorts of things I might not have pursued on my own. I certainly would not have learned calculus or c++ from a book (although others may). Even literature classes — which really are just reading — contextualized and provided new ways of looking at lit and formed the foundation for future reading.

    Then again, I’m an English teacher — they very opposite of anything prgragmatic (and quite happy about it).

    Go Fighting Blue Hens.

  24. He graduated in June of 2008? And he’s employed? Congratulations! You know, I’m hearing horror stories of recent graduates–in all majors–not being able to find jobs. Somewhere around 90%. It has something to do with this worldwide economic crash we’re having. You all might have heard of that?

    The market sets the value of the college degree, not blog chat. Judging by the decades-long increase in tuition rates which colleges have enjoyed, a completed degree, even if it isn’t in Engineering, is a valuable possession.

    Completing that degree puts him into a fairly elite group. Many students begin college. Far fewer students complete it.

  25. Bill Leonard says:

    Look: We are in a recession. That means there are more job-seekers than jobs — it is an employer’s market. Why would any employer want a high school graduate when he or she could have a college graduate for the same price?

    One younger man of our acquaintence has a film degree from USC and substantial graduate credits in black studies. He’s working in a micro-brewery. His academic credentials are in what I consider essentially useless areas of endeavor, but at least they tell an employer he has some modicum of intelligence and the ability to see a project through to some conclusion.

  26. Charles R. Williams says:

    The law makes it impossible to screen applicants for jobs using inexpensive and valid tests for cognitive skills and content knowledge. So employers use the BA degree for that purpose. They may also prefer to hire slightly older candidates and may look askance at a candidate who chooses not to go to college but prefers to work – no matter what he knows and no matter what his skills.

    We could save billions by applying the disparate impact standard to the BA degree – which in itself means little in terms of what a job candidate can do – and encouraging the use of valid paper and pencil standardized tests to screen job candidates. But then, functionally illiterate college graduates would be making the minimum wage and our vast, bloated higher education system would collapse.

    I have my grandfather’s 1918 high school textbooks. They are beyond the capability of the typical university graduate today.

  27. Well, in 1918, around 17% of 17 year olds graduated from high school.

    It was a different world.


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