If not college, then what?

Apropos of the subliminal theme for the last few weeks, I thought I’d drop a link to an interesting NY Times story on the possibilities of skipping college.  We should start with a concise statement of the problem facing parents and students:

WHAT’S the key to success in the United States?

Short of becoming a reality TV star, the answer is rote and, some would argue, rather knee-jerk: Earn a college degree.

The idea that four years of higher education will translate into a better job, higher earnings and a happier life — a refrain sure to be repeated this month at graduation ceremonies across the country — has been pounded into the heads of schoolchildren, parents and educators. But there’s an underside to that conventional wisdom. Perhaps no more than half of those who began a four-year bachelor’s degree program in the fall of 2006 will get that degree within six years, according to the latest projections from the Department of Education.

As has been remarked many times by both posters and commenters on this site and others, the problem arises from a classic causation-correlation problem.  Merely because many, or perhaps even most, successful people go to college does not mean that going to college will make you successful.  At long last, I think people are actually starting to wake up to this fact.

A small but influential group of economists and educators is pushing another pathway: for some students, no college at all. It’s time, they say, to develop credible alternatives for students unlikely to be successful pursuing a higher degree, or who may not be ready to do so.

Whether everyone in college needs to be there is not a new question; the subject has been hashed out in books and dissertations for years. But the economic crisis has sharpened that focus, as financially struggling states cut aid to higher education.

So.  Trade schools.  Not a bad idea at all.  But of course, every rose has its thorn…

Still, by urging that some students be directed away from four-year colleges, academics like Professor Lerman are touching a third rail of the education system. At the very least, they could be accused of lowering expectations for some students. Some critics go further, suggesting that the approach amounts to educational redlining, since many of the students who drop out of college are black or non-white Hispanics.

Peggy Williams, a counselor at a high school in suburban New York City with a student body that is mostly black or Hispanic, understands the argument for erring on the side of pushing more students toward college.

“If we’re telling kids, ‘You can’t cut the mustard, you shouldn’t go to college or university,’ then we’re shortchanging them from experiencing an environment in which they might grow,” she said.

So there’s the problem, set out in all of its simple glory.  Do we want false positives, or false negatives?  How fine a sieve?  The answer seems important, because college seems important.  It may actually be a matter of, well, if not life and death, then as the first sentence of the article intimates, at least of success or failure.  After all, the truth is there to see:

There is another rejoinder to the case against college: People with college and graduate degrees generally earn more than those without them, and face lower risks of unemployment, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But doesn’t that just bring us back to the causation-correlation problem?  Perhaps the point of college shouldn’t be to succeed.  I’m reminded of  John Stuart Mill:

The proper function of a University in national education is tolerably well understood.  At least there is a tolerably general agreement about what a University is not.  It is not a place of professional education.  Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood.  Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.

* * * *

Men may be competent lawyers without general education, but it depends on general education to make them philosophic lawyers — who demand, and are capable of apprehending, principles, instead of merely cramming their memory with details.  And so of all other useful pursuits, mechanical included.  Education makes a man a more intelligent shoe-maker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses.

I somehow doubt that there is today such a tolerable general agreement.


  1. > “I somehow doubt that there is today such a tolerable general agreement.”

    That’s the rub, isn’t it? The wind is blowing in quite the other direction now; college courses are justified largely by the chance of earning students a job. When I do hear a full-throated defense of the humanities and broad-based liberal arts education, unless the person speaking or writing is actually a professor, the argument is usually that clear writing and wide experience are necessary skills for effective businesspeople. Although it’s widely recognized that lots of things you learn at college aren’t business skills, those are considered just “part of the experience”, like fraternities, beer pong, and living in a strange city away from your parents; important, but not strictly what college is about.

    A phrase springs out at me from Mill’s excerpt above: “mental habits”. My impression is that U.S. society does not really believe in such things anymore, at least not as coming from a university; a university gives you skills for your career, or experiences that can be made into heartwarming updates on your personal blog, but never mental habits like patience, tact, or stoicism. Those are things you learn by going into the so-called real world, i.e. business, where you leave the ivory tower and find out what adult life is all about.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    A much higher proportion of whites than blacks have college degrees. So perhaps the most important way blacks are discriminated against in America today is when they are frozen out of jobs because they don’t have a degree.

    We have tried to deal with that by encouraging black kids to go to college and by being flexible with admission standards. But still the gap persists. Perhaps we are looking at things the wrong way.

    Right now it is illegal for an employer to ask a job applicant to take an IQ test or do a myriad of things where whites do better than blacks. “Possession of a degree” has been an explicit exception to the rule that employers cannot require anything from an employee or potential employee if whites are more likely to have the qualification than blacks.

    Perhaps it is time to remove the exception.

    (Employers can actually require things for which there is a black/white differential if they can prove it is required for the job. In practice, they almost never can.)

  3. I never let school interfere with my education–Mark Twain

    Hospital is to illness as school is to ________ (ignorance).
    We are all born terminally ill. This is not an argument for spending our entire lives in a hospital. We are all ignorant of many things. This is not an argument for spending any time at all in school.

    Bill Gates dropped out of college. The Wright Brothers were high school dropouts. Thomas Edison was homeschooled. Cyrus McCormick was homeschooled. Richard Arkwright was homeschooled.

    You want to read Russian literature in translation? Go to Borders. You do not need to kiss some professor’s
    toes. I always get a kick when I hear some parent bragging that their child got admitted to some exclusive college. That’s like bragging that your child spent time in a hospital which admits only patients with the most favorable prognoses and which charges $10 for an aspirin. Why is that a point of pride?

  4. Malcolm,

    Have you heard of something called “selection effect” or “selection bias”? Raising Bill Gates as an example to emulate is a bit ridiculous. If it were only so easy.

    Seriously, is this what passes for “conservative” solutions to complex social problems? Much like bartering chickens for health care.

  5. (Roger): “A much higher proportion of whites than blacks have college degrees. So perhaps the most important way blacks are discriminated against in America today is when they are frozen out of jobs because they don’t have a degree…Right now it is illegal for an employer to ask a job applicant to take an IQ test or do a myriad of things where whites do better than blacks. “Possession of a degree” has been an explicit exception…Perhaps it is time to remove the exception.”

    The diagnosis looks right. The prescription may pose problems. I’d rather see the law move in the other direction and allow private-sector employers to discriminate on the basis of any silly reason whatsoever. Markets undermine discrimination on the basis of anything but ability. Progressive Democrats (Woodrow Wilson) brought Southern Democrat Jim Crow laws to the Federal government.

    Some evidence supports the relation between excessive credential requirements and anti-discrimination law. I discuss that in a review of Ivar Berg’s Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery.

  6. Mark Roulo says:

    Malcolm Kirkpatrick: “Why is … some parent bragging that their child got admitted to some exclusive college … a point of pride?”

    I’m pretty sure that you know the answer, but it is because being *admitted* is supposed to signify a certain level of academic/intellectual accomplishment. Much like bragging that one’s child plays on a travel team for sports signifies a certain level of athletic accomplishment (from the child, not the parent). I’m sure that there is some equivalent for music. And theater.

    -Mark Roulo

  7. Mark Roulo says:

    I think one of the big problems with this discussion is this belief:

    People with college and graduate degrees generally earn more than those without them, and face lower risks of unemployment, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    The statistic may be true, but the scope is so wide as the be meaningless.

    I’m going to skip the entire “but college isn’t just about making more money” discussion here. Can we all agree that there *can* be more to college than just increasing lifetime earnings, and focus just on that aspect of college for *this* discussion? Thank you.

    The big problem with the statistic is that it piles into one big bucket (that bucket being “college graduate”):

    a) people who have degrees in something economically valuable in the market (like, say, engineering) from highly regarded academic institutions (like, say, Cal Tech or University of Michigan) with

    b) people with economically questionable degrees (women’s studies, drama, philosophy, …) from lesser universities (e.g., University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff … average SAT score of incoming freshmen is 830).

    To summarize: Statistics like the one quoted mix Cal Tech engineers with UAPB philosophy graduates when discussing average earnings.

    This is silly.

    I fully expect that Cal Tech engineers will make more (on average) than electricians (on average). I also expect that electricians (on average) make more than UAPB philosophy bachelor’s degree holders.

    If I had a child who could get into Cal Tech, I would certainly encourage that child to go to college, even if he chose to go to a different school. If I had a child who could *only* get into a 3rd tier university, I would encourage that child to look into becoming an electrician (although I don’t know how successful an electrician he might be … still, probably better odds than an academic career for that child).

    I would prefer that as a society we start drawing a difference between both college majors and universities when discussing the economic benefits of a 4-year degree. I think it is going to be difficult to have a rational cost/benefit discussion of college education as long as we don’t draw this distinction.

    -Mark Roulo

  8. (jab): “Have you heard of something called ‘selection effect’ or ‘selection bias’?”

    Certainly. For example: people who wear suits to work, who spent the first 25 years of their lives in school, who are good at school, make rules for the rest of us.

    (jab): “Raising Bill Gates as an example to emulate is a bit ridiculous. If it were only so easy. Seriously, is this what passes for ‘conservative’ solutions to complex social problems? Much like bartering chickens for health care.”

    A few problems with nomenclature here. What is “it” (“if only it were so easy”)? What is “this” (“…is this what passes…”)? As to “conservative”; perhaps if you stopped pasting labels on things and started arguing the case at hand, we could get some agreement. Why, by the way, is “conservative” in quotes? Who do you quote here? Would you call someone who favors repeal of laws against recreational drugs and repeal of laws against prostitution “conservative”? Would you call someone who favors legalizing abortion to the end of the fifth trimester “conservative”?

    After the fall of the Soviet State the British poet and historian and of that State wrote that the West had, as yet, incompletely learned two important lessons: the limits to the amount of good that can be accomplished through organized violence (the State) and the stultifying effects of bureaucracy, public or private.

    The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition). Every law on the books is a threat by the State to kidnap (arrest), assault (subdue), and to forcibly infect with HIV (imprison) someone.

    It does not take 12 years to teach a normal child to read and compute. Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom. State (government, generally) provision of History and Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers and broadcast news media would be (are, in totalitarian countries).

    (Malcolm): “You want to read Russian literature in translation? Go to Borders. You do not need to kiss some professor’s

    If someone wants to read Russian literature and save money, then, yes, Borders is better (faster and cheaper) than college. I’d say that’s a “solution” to the “complex social problem” of saving money and reading Russian Literature, which is only a “complex social problem” because the State has constructed this convoluted and expensive path.

    Please read Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.

    Here’s Hayek’s short essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society“.

  9. Jab,

    I have not the least inkling of Marvin Minsky’s political orientation. Since he’s a certifiably intelligent human, I expect he defies easy categorization. Please read this Marvin Minsky comment on schooling.

  10. The question posed is really how to weigh the benefits of pushing kids toward a vocational track, as it is assumed that some will simply push low-level students in that direction as a sort of safety net for employment after high school.

    That is actually the best argument for creating viable vocational programs. If those programs are exclusive and help to cultivate real mastery of the trades, pushing low-level students toward those options will help them no more than pushing them toward a college education. Creating great vocational programs instead gives the option for those who have valuable skills, but would simply rather work in those fields, rather than the presumed white-collar jobs that come after college (not to say that college necessarily translates into those jobs). The students will few skills still might not have a lot of choices once they reach the end of high school, but that is a separate issue altogether- and perhaps the basis for a discussion on a third option for students going through high school.

  11. Why call manual work “low level”? Mechanics are smart people. I once knew an artistic welder who painted on steel plate with welding rods. Someone I have know all my life was tested in elementary school and the school told his parents he had the highest IQ score in school. His favorite class was shop. He dropped out of college and now works as a technician. He supervises electrical engineers on large-budget construction projects, like radar installation, and his firm flies him all over the world. One of the sharpest kids I had in my ten year career as a Math teacher took the GED at 17 and (last I heard) works as a photographer at tourist luaus. She flunked the first semester of my Alg II class because she never came to class. The school threatened her with the detention home and so she came to my second semester, borrowed a book, and learned on her own the material I had taken the first semester to teach. She then aced the second semester.

    Why suppose that tech school will outperform on-the-job training?

  12. Malcolm-
    I was not saying at all that those professions are for “low-level” achievers. In fact, I was saying the opposite by stating that the vocational option should be strengthened and made more competitive, as this would better reflect the nature of those jobs and skills.

    On-the-job training is where I was headed with the third option, which again is a different conversation altogether. In short, if students can’t hack it in the classroom for whatever reason, they should prepped with some skills they can use immediately in the work force while experiencing the valuable on-the-job training they will need to undergo after high school.

  13. Homeschooling Granny says:

    When Evan mentions patience, tact, or stoicism, it occurs to me that a good place to learn these is working at McDonald’s. 🙂

    I know people who did poorly in school but earned degrees as adults when they had discovered a purpose for a degree. I suspect that you do too.

    The question at issue is whether education really centers on school. Maybe once when books were scarce and available mainly through schools, it did. Once if you wanted to listen to someone knowledgeable, you went to him; now you get online. Now education is everywhere and life-long.

    Colleges, like newspapers and magazines, ignore the impact of the internet at their peril.

    There is a movement toward certification of skills by exam, much like those MDs take, that would allow meaningful comparison of different programs of preparation. This would allow comparison of prestige colleges with the rest and with the autodidact.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    Thing is, you have to be sharp to excel at anything. Vocational isn’t going to make you rich unless you’re sharp. You can’t put a slow kid into pre-plumber and expect he’s going to become a master plumber running his own business.
    “blue collar” has traditionally meant both the skilled trades such as plumbing ane electrician and factory line worker. The former is closer to engineering than it is to factory line worker.
    In addition, you have to be reasonably good with people since youi’re going to have colleagues, clients, co-workers, employees, and bosses. I have an acquaintance who answers practically any assertion, no matter how mild and no matter how unimportant with, “What’s wrong with that?” as if the person speaking had made a negative judgment on the issue. People go a long way not to talk to the guy, and he’s approaching seventy. I wonder how many people have avoided him during the last half-century. He is not successful.
    The guy who remodeled our house would be a terrific friend and fun to socialize with, except he has so many people calling him and demanding his work that he has no time. He is successful.
    Both are knowledgeable in their field, extremely so.

    IMO, you have to have a lot more on the ball to be successful in the vocational areas than you do to get through college, and college isn’t teaching that sort of thing. Some can’t be taught at all. So graduating means…?

    Conclusion is that vocational isn’t going to solve the problem of the uncolleged.

  15. My father used to teach drafting as a high school vocational course. The same high school also had programs in bricklaying, woodworking and other useful skills. Most of his students were poor and needed to go straight to work to help support their families. Several of them wound up as architects down the road, once they had got on their feet.

    And what’s wrong with wanting to work with your hands, anyway? We used to respect such people as hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types who were the backbone of America.

    There also was a time when a high school education actually meant something. Again, with my father as an example: he attended a very inexpensive Catholic high school in small-town Texas. Despite this, he learned latin and greek, lost subjects like geography and civics, and math through trigonometry. It used to be that you came out of high school fully equipped to be a good and productive citizen.

    When I was in college, one of my fellow engineering students had taken out time for a hitch in the Air Force. This made him about twice as good a student as the rest of us: he had tons more discipline and real-world experience to bring to the table. He went on to become a top executive at a big aerospace company.

    The idea that you have to go to college or that you have to go straight from high school to college is just silly.

  16. Chartermom says:

    The idea of vocational education versus college education should really be about what one’s aptitudes and interests are. I live in the area where there are many PhD’s and there are many (certainly not all) of them who as my husband puts it “don’t know which end of a broom to use”. Putting those people into vocational education would probably not have had great results. (Full disclosure — while I don’t have my PhD I come close to falling into that category. I can figure out the broom but sometimes have difficulty with the screwdriver).

    Similarly there are folks with an aptitude for vocational or other non-academic areas — construction, hair styling, landscape, photography etc — that don’t have either the classroom aptitude or interest. Why keep encouraging these folks to go to college when they are likely to be much happier and probably more successful in vocational areas?

    And there are others who could be successful in either arena — why should they be pushed in one particular direction when society needs folks who can do all those jobs.

    But along those lines — we may also need to rethink what we mean by vocational education. My school district opened a career center this year — students take basic academic courses at their “home” high school and then take one to three courses at the career center. Included in the offerings are the traditional trades but also things like Landscape Construction, Computer Engineering (Cisco Network certification) and Scientific Visualization (computer graphics and imaging).

  17. BadaBing says:

    The most important component for success in this country is good looks, the second is charisma and the third is talent. These are conferred at birth and defy the beloved race-gender-class paradigm. In any event, the rest of us shouldn’t be envious. It ain’t easy being a celebrity.

  18. SuperSub says:

    I was recently at a major Science, Tech, and Math conference that had a roundtable with executives from Global Foundries (AMD), IBM, and a few other tech and pharmaceutical companies.
    Pretty much everyone agreed that the best bang-for-the-buck degree was a 2-year associate’s technical degree when you consider job openings and lifetime earnings.

    The Global Foundries VP said that they were going to hire hundreds of technicians soon at a new plant at a starting minimum of $60,000. About 1,000 teachers all instantly went silent…and wondered if they should go back to school.

    Blue-collar manufacturing jobs once provided an easily-accessible career that Americans could earn a decent buck from. Over the next 20-30 years those blue-collar manufacturing jobs are going to be replaced by technician jobs.

  19. Innovative, intelligent, ambitious people are likely to be successful no matter what they choose to do. For many of us, we’d like to be seen as one of those kinds of people. So we use the college degree as a sort of social indicator to others that we’re part of the smart set, too. Even if we’re mediocre in our talents and ambition, we hope the college degree will confer on us some magical status.

  20. Perhaps a way to combat this over-use of the rant “without college you’ll not amount to anything” is to hit it from the CEO/boss side of the house. Maybe HR offices need to give value to work experience equal to or over college degrees. Unfortunately, it seems too often that a college degree is a necessary, and expensive, check mark on your resume…just so you can get in the interview room.

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    My dad said it meant you were trainable. That’s important. Some people aren’t.

  22. Maybe HR offices need to give value to work experience equal to or over college degrees.

    But if you don’t require a college degree, your hiring practices are instantly judged to be discriminatory based on a very different pool.  We have to over-ride the Griggs decision and eliminate the EEOC’s 4/5 rule before anyone can do this.

  23. (jab): “Malcolm, Respectfully, STFU. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about…for the teabagger crowd, that’s par for the course.”
    (jab): “…your self-righteous indignation…’substance-free’ right-wing boilerplate idiocy…”

    (jab): “Either you are grossly misrepresenting the truth (i.e. LYING) or are paranoid delusional.”

    (jab): “I’ve noticed you like to pull factoids from your nether regions…the usual right-wing boilerplate idiocy…”

    What did you do with the charm school tuition money?

    Why would someone with the credential jab claims (PhD in Astrophysics) act so insecure? Maybe it’s the economic insecurity of a not-yet-tenured instructor in the current economy, but I’m begining to doubt the credential.

  24. The idea that four years of higher education will translate into a better job, higher earnings and a happier life – in some instances this is true. But education is not just a way for a better future.

  25. concerned says:

    It seems simple to me. Prepare all students to make their own decision.


    Check out minute 29:30 to 34:00

  26. concerned says:

    Joanne, you asked, “How fine a sieve?”

    My most influential mentor (and math professor) used to say

    “education must be a pump, not a filter”

  27. Concerned,

    Thanks for the pointer. Jay Greene mentioned Chicago’s VIP list in one of his blog posts. Professor Lipman used the word “disinvested” or “disinvestment” three times in the segment you link, twice of Chicago schools and once of Detroit schools. Mike Antonucci gives a 2006-2007 Chicago per pupil budget of over $7,000 and a Detroit per-pupil budget for Detroit of more than $11,000.

    “Disinvestment” is baloney.

    Across the US those large inner-city majority-minority school districts get more money that suburban white districts. Costs rise and performance falls as districts increase in size. Inequalities of performance increase as districts increase in size. Last I looked, the State with the highest performance (NAEP 8th grade Math, mean score, children of college-educated white parents, children of high-school-educated white parents) is Washington, DC (which NCES counts as a State). If this is “racism”, it’s an odd sort of racism, since the mayor is black and the Chancellor is Korean. The scores I used in my study(1990, 1992, 1996, 2000) predated Rhee’s appointment as Chancellor, but I’d bet the previous Chancellor was not white. I only examined mean scores by race for one of these years and cannot now remember which year. I expect not much would differ from year to year.

    When Herman Brutsaert studied the relation between institutional affiliation and student performance in government schools and parochial schools in Belgium, which subsidizes parent choice of school, he found both higher average performance and a lower correlation between parent SES and scores in parochial than in government schools.

    Across the US, State-level scores fall and inequality of result (as measured by the difference between 90th and 10th percentile scores or the difference between white and black mean scores) rises as districts increase in size.

    These and other lines of evidence indicate the following:
    1) As institutions take from individual parents the power to determine for their own children the choice of curriculum and the pace and method of instruction overall system performance falls, and
    2) Political control of school harms most the children of the least politically-adeept parents.