The case against college

College degrees are overrated, writes Ramesh Ponnuru in Time. While college graduates earn more, that’s partly because those who complete a degree are smarter, on average, than those who don’t. Sending not-so-smart people to college simply boosts the dropout rate.

It has been estimated that, in 2007, most people in their 20s who had college degrees were not in jobs that required them: another sign that we are pushing kids into college who will not get much out of it but debt.

Making K-12 education more rigorous would boost the college completion rate, Ponnuru writes. But we’ll still have a lot of young people who have no interest in spending another four years in a classroom. There should be other ways for young people to develop skills and demonstrate their competence to employers.

Online learning is more flexible and affordable than the brick-and-mortar model of higher education. Certification tests could be developed so that in many occupations employers could get more useful knowledge about a job applicant than whether he has a degree. Career and technical education could be expanded at a fraction of the cost of college subsidies. Occupational licensure rules could be relaxed to create opportunities for people without formal education.

High school educators need to understand the skills and knowledge students will need to succeed in an apprenticeship or a vocational certification program at a community college. College-prep programs may be too hard for vocationally oriented students. In some cases, what passes for college prep is too easy. “College- and career-ready” is the new mantra. We need to define “career ready” in a way that will guide high school instruction for the kids who prefer moola moola to boola boola.

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  1. But shouldn’t we worry if family income is the major determinant of who is or isn’t “college material?” It strikes me that social and economic opportunities–rather than inborn ability–has been the major sorting mechanism for higher ed.

  2. Claus, there’s some real truth to your comment when you’re talking about selective colleges — although with respect to economic opportunity, more and more of those are coming up with financial aid that really lowers the barriers, especially for truly low-income students. Social disadvantage does lead to poorer high school preparation and lower test scores, (and thus less opportunity to attend competitive institutions) but there are thousands of schools that accept pretty much everyone. Many of my relatives attend/have attended these less competitive schools. However, many of these same relatives promptly dropped or flunked out. They had only matriculated in the first place because no one had told them in high school to aspire to anything other than college, when they really had no interest in doing what you do in college, or in any occupation that truly requires college. Some went directly to community college technical programs and did very well. Others went into apprenticeship programs. Several became employees of small businesses and are rising as they gain experience. But they still have student loans to pay off, and the college that many of them went to (a branch of the state college system) still has a graduation rate of way uner 50%. This doesn’t strike me as a good use of my relatives’ time and money. Or of the taxpayers’ money, come to think of it.

    PS some of these relatatives returned to school a decade later and did much better because they had developed motivation.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    In response to Claus’ assertion that we should worry if “family income is the major determinant of who is or isn’t ‘college material'”, I’d like to do a tiny little bit of logical analysis.

    So I think what Claus was implying was that we might worry that people are denied access to college because they are poor or don’t come from a good family or whatnot.

    But another way of reading his sentence is that being poor and/or not coming from a good family or whatnot ACTUALLY IS a statistically significant determiner of who is or is not “college material” where the evaluation of being college material is made on purely objective and entirely appropriate grounds.

    Put another way: we might worry that students be denied access to college because they really are woefully unprepared, and it may happen to be the case that they are woefully unprepared because poor families, as an empirical matter, are generally made of suck and fail when it comes to producing academically inclined and talented youth.

    One reason for this last fact may be that a child isn’t born “college material”. Some children are naturally smarter than others, certainly. But becoming “college material” is — or perhaps should or could be — a LONG TERM PROCESS that takes years and years and years of focused effort. Poor families don’t generally know how to perform that process, and may not have the resources to support it in any case.

    That doesn’t, however, mean that we should ignore who is and is not actually, objectively, “college material” when we are determining who gets into college.

  4. Okay, I understand that money is important. And I understand that careers are important. And as a teacher of freshman college math I am quite aware that there are plenty of students wasting their time and money in college. Indeed I tend to think that financial aid is too easy to get, not too hard. But won’t somebody say something for the intrinsic value of education? Whatever happened to the idea that learning is liberating, that a liberal education is liberating in a very real sense?

    I always told my kids to get an education so you won’t be a dummy. I still think that’s a pretty good perspective. College is certainly not the only way not to be a dummy, but I think it’s the best strategy for a lot of people.

  5. “It has been estimated that, in 2007, most people in their 20s who had college degrees were not in jobs that required them.”

    This is such bad writing by Ponnuru that I am frankly surprised that it has been linked at all. This statement provides no data or backup- just a lazy assertion that he hopes will buck up his argument. “It has been estimated” and “most people” are such weak and unsubstantiated phrases that he should be ashamed of himself.

  6. Public education has become a system to teach to the middle, and this philosophy that all kids are college material is causing it. I am a 20 year veteran high school math teacher. In my years of teaching I have seen the Texas education system change from only needing 2 years of basic math to graduate to now requiring all high school graduates to take 4 years of math up through Algebra II! The ideology behind it is that all kids should have the opportunity to go to college. However, in order to get kids who do not have the ability or desire to comprehend Algebra II to pass, we have to water down the curriculum. Then the kid who never planned to go to college anyway passes, but the material has been made so simplistic that the kids who do want to go to college have to take remedial courses because they haven’t been adequately prepared. So who is helped with this type of “college prep” program?

  7. I would have to say that after watching a report by John Stossel (ABC news) via youtube on ‘Stupid in America’ and ‘is college worth it?’, it is completely insane that everyone needs to go to college.

    Marty Nemko has stated that the bachelor’s degree is the most OVERRATED product in America, and I agree (the figure about a college graduate earning approximately 1 million more in earnings over a lifetime is also inaccurate, it’s more like 400-500 thousand.

    I graduated from high school in 1981, and I can tell you that what passes for a bachelor’s degree today is probably the equivalent of a high school diploma in the 1960’s, as more and more students who need one or more courses in remedial education are being admitted to college.

    A segment by Mr. Stossel shows a documented fact:

    A student who graduates in the bottom 40% of his or her class will never complete a degree program of any sort.

    Another fact is that many students would have been successful without going to college in the first place, or by learning a trade or vocation (plumbing, HVAC, automotive repair, etc).

    Here is the youtube link to the news segment:

    makes for interesting viewing.

  8. Don Bemont says:

    One problem is that we are so deeply conflicted over the purpose of higher education.

    By one tradition, the good life has everything to do with being knowledgeable about the world – history, literature, the sciences, philosophy – what has been done, and the diverse reactions to those doings. College is not the only way to gain such knowledge, but it has long been the most accepted way, largely because this endeavor, like any, is most congenial when done in a community of like minded people. Further, there is a general sense that people who have gone through this process have more flexible minds and will be better able to adapt to change during their adult years.

    By a second tradition, the good life has everything to do with employment that pays well. Thus, specific skills learned in college can prepare the individual for a better, more productive life.

    Both of these traditions contain a measure of truth, but, in practice, they turn out to be bitter rivals, snarled together into a tangle of confusing rhetoric.

    I think it would be fair to say that the first tradition has long dominated the thinking of the elites, and the second tradition dominated the thinking of the masses. So the college experience (high school, too) was always sold as job training, while the reality was skewed (sometimes more, sometimes less) towards broader knowledge. While this might not have been the worst compromise, the public has been rebelling against it since the 60s and the call for relevance.

    Let’s face it: all high school students and most college students spend a lot of their time on things (The US Constitution, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche) that most of us want them to know, but are not closely linked to their short term employability. Even this oversimplifies it, because there is a distinct mid-level of knowledge where would be computer workers learn about the inner workings of computers and computer languages, and would be teachers learn about the history of education. One doubts that this mid-level knowledge is closely linked with five year employment success, either.

    However, it is highly questionable whether we want our country to fall further in these more generalized kinds of knowledge, and, I think for this reason, we have often turned a blind eye to the illogic of the linkage between degrees (or diplomas) and jobs. Like most compromises, it does not make perfect sense, but we hope that by requiring students to get some general knowledge along with job skills, we are strengthening our society.

    However, both conservatives and liberals are schizo about this arrangement. Liberals have little compunction about requiring people to learn general knowledge for the good of society, but they want to be able to excuse the downtrodden from this requirement, in order to gain more egalitarian results. (And they get to decide who is downtrodden enough to deserve this special dispensation.) Conservatives champion individual choice and bristle at governmental manipulation for egalitarian purposes, but are appalled at the outcomes of individual choice: the rapid decline of standard English, ignorance of American history, and a belief in Hollywood values. (They get to decide on a definite set of core teachings that can be the exception to individual choice.)

    In an era when so many good jobs did not require any degree or even diploma, the phonied up educational competition for employment could command enough of a consensus to survive. But the numbers have changed and decent jobs have become a scarce commodity, so false requirements for those jobs now create more hostility. Thus both liberals and conservatives are noticing the obvious – the link between the content of high school and college education is tenuous in a high percentage of cases, and both liberal and conservative goals can be forwarded by pointing out the very weak link between meeting educational requirements and actual employability.

    In my mind, the main question is where this will leave our country. My reading of history is that for many centuries now, education in the broadest sense has determined the long term power of civilizations. I am not at all certain where the current situation will lead the US, but I have the uncomfortable feeling the both the left and the right have motivations that outweigh their commitment to broad education. I’ll be the first to admit that the typical citizen of our country might be well educated in 2060, even if we steer more people away from college and allow high school students to learn nothing unrelated to their employment goals. However, I am deeply worried as to how this will all fall out.

  9. Education and learning can take place outside of the halls of Old Ivy, and some people aren’t ready or mature enough to study right out of high school. Why force them into that little box?
    It’s preposterous that so many jobs require a BA–or even beyond–do librarians really need an MLS?

    It makes more sense to let those who want to work enter the market place–these people might discover a field or topic that really interests them, rather than blindly picking something at 19.

  10. George Larson says:

    Don Bemont

    “My reading of history is that for many centuries now, education in the broadest sense has determined the long term power of civilizations.”

    Can you explain this? I do not understand your point.

  11. A job is not the only reason for an education; however, that said there probably is too much emphasis on college education and not enough on vocational education in this country.

  12. My DH has said that he has learned quite a bit more from his preparation for the 3 levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam than he did during his Harvard MBA coursework. It was a lot cheaper, too (about $10k vs. over $200k including the foregone income). Does that mean he should’ve just skipped the MBA and just done the CFA program? No, because the social network he developed through attending business school has been extremely valuable to him. He might’ve had the skills but very few of the job opportunities are advertised to the general public. You have to know the right person in order to have a shot at landing the position.

  13. Crimson Wife,

    Business networking is important in any profession (IT, business, fine arts, engineering, medicine, trades, etc).

    That being said, most students don’t know thing one about what business networking is all about, and a large majority of them don’t know the first thing about interviewing.

    I remember taking a 9 week careers course (mandatory) in 10th grade (1979). The guy who taught this course was a career military man, who probably went to the bathroom in triplicate (before he became a teacher).

    This course introduced us to many different career fields, taught us how to interpret open employment positions, how to properly prepare a cover letter and resume, fill out a job application properly, and how to dress and act during a job interview.

    Based on what I see today, many college students today lack the above skills (I give presentations on business networking and interviewing, in addition to other topics in information technology) and I can tell you from having interviewed many people in my career, the reason most of them don’t make it past the resume review stage is that most of them cannot properly prepare a resume and/or cover letter.

  14. Don Bemont says:


    I am not sure what you are asking. It appears to me that the greater a portion of a civilization’s population is well educated, the more powerful that civilization becomes.

    As America becomes increasingly frustrated in its efforts to improve education, I see a growing movement that maybe we don’t need so many well educated citizens, and this worries me. I care about individuals’ quest for good jobs, but that is not the only thing that concerns me when I think of higher education.

  15. George Larson says:

    Don Bemont

    Thank you for responding.

    “It appears to me that the greater a portion of a civilization’s population is well educated, the more powerful that civilization becomes.”

    What civilzations are you comparing?

    I think many who argue against college are objecting to its inflated cost, lower content and lack of effect and not against education.

  16. Don Bemont – concerning your first post – Wow! a lot of food for thought there! That’s a very interesting analysis in terms of liberal versus conservative ways of looking at things, and of elites versus working class perspectives. That certainly adds to my understanding of these things.

    Here is a complicating factor, it seems to me. Neither the working class perspective, nor the elite perspective (if I may call them that) have much directly to say about the intrinsic appeal and value of knowledge and learning. But many people in both perspectives feel it. They respond to it. You say “college students spend a lot of their time on things . . . that most of us want them to know, but are not closely linked to their short term employability”. Yes, they do, and part of the reason they do that is because they like it. At least they like it enough to seriously dampen any rebellion about having to learn it.

    I see this everyday in my job teaching algebra. Outside of some technical or scientific fields algebra has very little utilitarian value. The primary value of learning algebra, to the vast majority of my students, is seen as a grade on a transcript. This can still fit into job training perspective, because the grade on the transcript is seen as an important link in the chain that leads to that better job, but that is not the same as having real use in everyday life of students as they pursue a career. So in this sense taking a course is a commercial transaction between student and school. The student pays tuition, learns whatever fulfills the requirements of the course, and in return gets the credit, which can then be used to whatever end the student has in mind. This “commercial transaction” perspective makes a lot of sense, and it is important, because the plans and goals of students are important, but falls a little short of some of our ideals. One can then be cynical and say no one wants to learn just for the sake of learning, or for the intrinsic value of what is learned. But I do not take that cynical approach. I take this commercial transaction perspective as the basic framework of what we are doing as college teachers, but then observe plenty of evidence that students do find intrinsic value and appeal in knowledge and in learning. They go beyond the commercial transaction perspective, whether they plan to or not.

    I’m not talking about all students by any means. Many students seem not to show this. Taking a course does not transcend being a commercial transaction for them. They do the minimum to get what they are working for. They may be good students or poor students. It may not be readily apparent that they are doing only the minimum that they must. They don’t usually show any open rebellion. They mind their manners. They complete courses, or not, and go on about their business. They happily do the minimum just as I happily pay the minimum when I buy a sack of potatoes at the grocery store.

    But many students do go beyond this commercial transaction perspective. They show evidence of genuine appreciation of knowledge or learning. This is not to say that they necessarily put that appreciation into words. The “evidence” I am talking about is behavioral for the most part. I watch the faces of students as I explain the algebra in lecture. I watch their faces when I help students individually. I see plenty of signs of appreciation. I’ll admit to sometimes seeing signs of frustration, boredom, even hostility once in a while. And I realize that expressions are strongly muted by cultural expectations. A polite student may not feel polite underneath. But in the big picture I think it is fair to say that many people do respond positively to knowledge and learning. The “Aha” expression on the face of a third grader who understands a point of arithmetic, and that is rewarding to the third grade teacher, is pretty much the same thing on the face of a forty-year-old community college student who understands a point of algebra, and is similarly rewarding to me, the teacher. At any level some students (even a lot of them) have a positive response to learning and knowledge.

    This affects schools and it affects cultural expectations of schools. It muddles the picture. The jobs training perspective is softened. When a student gets into the flow of a course, when things are going well and effort brings satisfaction of accomplishment it’s easy to be uncritical about education.

    You say we are deeply conflicted about the purpose of college education. I had not thought about it that way, but I think you have a very good point. My point is that that deep conflict is usually not very painful or troubling. Perhaps many people would make wiser decisions if they were more troubled.

    And if I may put in a word about George Larson’s question. I read Don’s comment linking education to the power of a civilization as something obvious. But maybe that is a mistake. I would also take it as obvious that a country cannot be powerful and undemocratic at the same time, but perhaps China is proving me wrong. It does strike me that the burden of proof would be on the critic’s side. I would be very surprised if there were not a strong link, at least in the long term and in the big picture, between education of a civilization and its power. Do you have some particular examples in mind?

  17. Richard Aubrey says:

    Education has, or can have, two separate functions;
    preparing a person for effective citizenship, and preparing a person for employment.
    As far as I can tell, the four year degree convinces employers that you are trainable, probably. Worth taking a look at, anyway.
    The two are only slightly connected. It would be good to see both happening, but the first is the most important. It is probably why it is the most contentious, since so many with skin in the game see educating people about citizenship is either a good thing or a threat to an agenda.
    If more people knew basic science and some history of fads, climateworship would never have gotten off the ground. That is either good or bad, depending on your agenda.
    As to employment, I had a guy out to the house a couple of years ago to fix the gizmo on my air conditioner. We chatted while he worked. He and his daughter ride western and dressage, and have the horses at their place, and she actually competes. Being better looking than him, so he says. He did not go to college. However, he is acquainted with basic science and is skeptical of various looming catastrophes, and did serve in the military. So he’s probably well-equipped to be a citizen.

  18. Don Bemont

    Thank you for responding.

    “It appears to me that the greater a portion of a civilization’s population is well educated, the more powerful that civilization becomes.”

    What civilzations are you comparing?

    I think many who argue against college are objecting to its inflated cost, lower content and lack of effect and not against education.


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