Likelihood of Success

Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog

The higher education racket

Posted by Ron Coleman on October 23, 2008

College is a racket for the vast majority to students who indenture their financial futures to get a bachelor’s degree.  Last summer, economist and social critic Charles Murray made this point in the Wall Street Journal; he followed up on this last week at the Cato Institute’s blog.  Now even the Chronicle of Higher Education is on board (via Instapundit):

Research suggests that more than 40 percent of freshmen at four-year institutions do not graduate in six years. Colleges trumpet the statistic that, over their lifetimes, college graduates earn more than nongraduates, but that’s terribly misleading. You could lock the collegebound in a closet for four years, and they’d still go on to earn more than the pool of non-collegebound — they’re brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.

Also, the past advantage of college graduates in the job market is eroding. Ever more students attend college at the same time as ever more employers are automating and sending offshore ever more professional jobs, and hiring part-time workers. Many college graduates are forced to take some very nonprofessional positions, such as driving a truck or tending bar.

The racket will never shut down, however.  Very few people have the guts to buck this trend, and although people like me — with seven years of higher education — are at the beck and call of many wealthy clients with no college credits whatsoever, when the criticism comes from our likes it sounds hypocritical.  We are, after all, making some kind of living, and our university credentials are obviously part of that.

Yes but.  Let’s be frank:  I went to elite schools.  Elite means “most people can’t go there.”  If you can go to an elite school and get polished, finished and fit for one of the learned professions… or merely labeled as a smart person and thereby earn, rightfully or not, certain opportunities… or if you can learn a specific set of skills such as engineering, science or accounting… college can make lots of sense and pay off great. It was utterly transformative for me.

But somehow I got into one of the best, and most highly-regarded, and intensely “connected,” colleges in the world (Princeton).  And no one gets in there.  (I wouldn’t today.)  Lacking a compelling prestige rationale, what does college get you besides four years of deferred earning and experience, a beer belly and exposure to a culture of promiscuity and grossness, plus some sports?  Not a lot of skills.  It’s obvious that the vast majority of college graduates come out of four-year schools knowing very little that is of any use, and are neither challenged to excel nor truly broadened intellectually in the manner a classical liberal arts education promises to provide.  Some are, but for most people, this experience is a luxury.

In contrast to articles published in conservative and libertarian circles, though, the article in the Chronicle is a social watershed.  It is, after all, the main organ of the left-leaning education profession, such as it styles itself — the same people who gave us the ultimate in self-referential credentialing, the doctorate in education.

The reaction among the faithful to this article, then, should be interesting, because the universities are above all (1) major employers of folks who are little more than public-liberals-for-pay, (2) indoctrination camps for the Democratic lifestyle in all its flower and (3) generators of the sort of “academic” nonsense that is laughed at first, tolerated five years later and a central platform of left-wing politics after a decade.  That this same cadre is largely responsible for the fact that today’s soft-headed college graduates couldn’t hold a candle, skills-wise, to a 1950’s high school graduate only makes the tragedy ironic as well.

Will anything change?  It’s hard to imagine it will, because notwithstanding the facts, today’s college applicants are still largely children of the children of the 60’s, America’s Greatest Self-Regarding Generation, for whom college remains an idealized and sentimental triptych of raised social consciousness, newfound independence from their despicable and contemptible parents and lots of social, uh, intercourse.  Why would you want to actually do that to your own children as parents?  Well… that’s those people, you know?  Think of whom they vote for.  And north of the Mason Dixon line, they would no sooner send their kids to a military recruiting center than a plain old job or apprenticeship without a degree.

The only thing likely to work a change on this system is the New Financial Reality.  Any college these days is stunningly expensive.  But as long as Uncle Sam, or Uncle Obama, is out there to guarantee all failed risk-taking with government cheese, and to make college attendance a social goody to be handed out to all comers, the four-year speed bump on the road to adulthood will remain firmly in place.

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One Response to “The higher education racket”

  1. James H said

    What if states’ virtual guarantee of a K-12 education were replaced with a guarantee that ran kindergarten up to final year of university? Presumably, this could be paired with a robust apprenticeship program for those who pursue professions that require skills other than those honed in undergraduate classrooms and dorm halls.

    The idea would be that rather than incur enough debt to start them on life’s path with a negative net worth, 18 to 24-year-olds could attend undergrad entirely on the state’s dime, rather than the current subsidized situation. With so many employers now demanding college degrees where they might once have demanded only a high-school education, does this make sense? Is it a good idea? Bad idea?

    I ask this at least 65 percent in the spirit of a devil’s advocate, but I’m also interested in what the esteemed Mr. Coleman, Esq., and his regulars come up with as they ponder this for a few minutes.

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