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Young People of the Internet: You Should Go to College, and You Should Really Stop Telling Other People Not To

Over in the threads of my post on Amy Chua, there’s an interesting sub-thread on the question of whether or not it’s worth going to college.  This is a topic I see popping up with increasing frequency on the intertubes these days, and I have to say I find the very question somewhat ludicrous.  So let me be clear right here at the top:

Assuming that you’re young, smart, and disciplined enough to get through with a degree, then it’s a no-brainer: You need to go to college — even if you have to borrow money to do so.

Before I explain why, it’s probably worth reviewing the reasons I keep seeing given for why you shouldn’t go.  The arguments against college these days usually fall into one of three categories.

  1. College is too expensive.  There’s no doubt that getting a four-year degree costs quite a bit these days.  One of my sons is a senior in high school who is considering the University of Oregon, and because of this I know that the total estimated cost to pay for room, board, books, tuition, and a Duck degree over the next four years is around $100,000.   Even the smaller and less prestigious Oregon state colleges will make your wallet about $80,000 lighter when all is said and done.  If you think of college as a financial investment (and you should), then, assuming you retire in your mid-to-late-60s, you would need that degree to allow you the potential to earn an average of a little more or less than $3,000 a year after taxes (depending on where you live) over what you would have otherwise earned just to break even.
  2. Other than STEM Degrees, College Today Doesn’t Prepare You for a Career.  Or, as I like to call it, the You-Have-To Do-Whatever-You-Majored-In-Or-It-Doesn’t-Count Argument.  A growing sub-strain of this argument is the claim that in today’s economy, the only jobs worth having are those that that require a STEM college degree.
  3. College Exposes People to Ideas That Are Different From Mine. I suspect this perspective looks larger on the intertubes than it does in real life, but I do see a lot of this theses days: a lot of fringe libertarians, social conservatives, religious extremists, even men’s rights advocates argue that higher education is a cesspool of impure ideas that leads the young astray and keeps the Grand [insert your pet cause here] Utopian Ideal at bay for that much longer.

Ordinary Times readers being Ordinary Times readers, allow me to casually dismiss that last one[1] and focus in on why the first two objections are so deeply flawed.

Let’s start with the first and most cited objection — that college is so expensive as to be a bad investment.

My observation is that the people who make this argument generally tend to be both young and relatively inexperienced in the job market.  Young people have always had a tendency to take current economic trends and extrapolate them out through the end of time.  Always.  Thirty years ago, young college graduates assumed that within a decade they’d all be surrounded by the kinds of absurdly expensive jets, mansions and yachts Robin Leach showed them each week on syndicated TV.  Five years after that, as the post-Reagan debt-created recession was sweeping Bush the Elder from office, young people knew that the American Dream was dead and that no one would ever be wealthy again.  Five years after that, the tech-speculation fad had young grads convinced that the trend of being highly paid to produce ideas and concepts no one was willing to buy was simply the way that business was going to operate from then on.  Ten years ago, people in their twenties and thirties would argue till the cows came home that everyone could just keep flipping real estate with one another all the way to an early and cushy retirement, regardless of asset base.

Young people today are no different.  They have lived through a terrible recession that is only recently being countered with the most excruciatingly slow and unsatisfying of upswings.  For them, bad economic times are just the way things have always been.  It makes sense, therefore, that they assume jobs sporting nice salaries and benefits are simply gone, never to return.  For those of us who are older, however, this is all part of a cycle we’ve seen replayed over and over.  ruins-post-apocalyptic_00268905Sorry, pessimists, but the idea that an industrialized country with 300 million people, vast natural resources, stable infrastructure, and diverse economy that just happens to represent more than a quarter of the planet’s accumulative wealth will soon be playing out Road Warrior scenarios in real time is about as realistic as…  as…  Well, it’s about as realistic as the notion that we could base a long-term economy on selling our houses to one another over and over ad infinitum.  In fact, when I think of those people I know who are my age that buy into the current America-is-permanently-doomed scenario, they tend to be the exact same people who used to argue that a house-flipping-based middle-class economy could and would go on forever.

All of which is to say that just because you can’t earn as much as you’d like today should not be taken as proof that you won’t be able to accrue wealth over a 30-50 year period in the future.  And make no mistake, college degrees help you accrue wealth — and not just for the reasons you think.

When I used to hire people — for any position — those with a degree (almost[2]) always got consideration over those without.  And like most other people hiring for white-collar jobs, I didn’t really care what someone had majored in so long as they successfully majored in something.  Because from an employment perspective, the most valuable thing college teaches you has nothing to do with which school you attended, or which your professors you studied under, or even what you major was.[3]  College teaches you something far more valuable, but it’s often after years or decades of working in teams that you truly understand that you were ever learning it at all.  Simply put:

College teaches you how to set and acheive regular goals, using complex and new ideas as part of a larger group, under conditions where you must be entirely self-sufficient in your accomplishments while being totally accountable to others for your individual performance; what’s more, you must learn to satisfy both the objective and subjective criteria of those judging that performance.

That’s a lot more valuable lesson than it appears at first blush.

You don’t really learn that in high school, where teachers and parents hover over you and where if you’re simply bright you can get fantastic grades and high SAT scores without putting in any effort at all.  (I am a living testament to this.)  Maybe there are some entry-level jobs that don’t require a college degree that teach these skills, but I can’t think of even one.  Most entry-levels require you to do mindless repetitive tasks, usually under a tight net of micro-management.  And here’s the thing: if you want the best odds of making good money throughout your career, then I don’t care about what field you choose: you need those skills.

Are there some people out there who eventually learn how to do all of that who never go to college?  Of course there are, but they’re really pretty rare.  I spent decades working with hundreds of owners, upper management types and top performers of hundreds of different companies, and I think in all that time I’ve met maybe three guys that proved to be the exception.  Are there any business owners out there who are successful in the long-term that just don’t have any of those skills, period?  Probably, but they’re even more rare. People have tendency to think that it’s the piece of paper you get when you graduate that allows people with degrees to be more successful than those without — like a membership card into an semi-exclusive club they can present to those handing out successful careers. They’re wrong.  College grads are more successful in the business world because the very act of achieving a degree teaches you how to be more successful in the business world.

If that’s not enough, then consider this: a college degree gives you more options, not just now but for the rest of your career.  Maybe today you’re a 27-year old poli-sci major struggling to find an entry-level job anywhere, and in that case maybe those “options” aren’t that clear.  But odds are, someday you’re going to be thirty-something working as an X at ACME, Inc. and you’re going to wonder if being an X at ACME, Inc. is really the best life has to offer you.  If you have a degree, the odds are staggeringly better that the answer to that question is “fish, no.”

As to the STEM argument, well, that’s territory I’ve covered before.  To quote my own bad self circa 2011:

The notion that not having a hard science degree cripples your career options is also ludicrous. Off the top of my head, here are just a few industries that are heavily populated by people with “soft” degrees in non-labor positions: Insurance, credit finance, advertising, healthcare management, social services, marketing, sales, utilities management, construction management, property development, banking, journalism, publishing, telecommunications management, attorney, entertainment, hospitality management, human recourses, distribution and warehousing, wholesaling, not to mention any of the jobs running, managing, or selling any of the things that those with the “hard” degrees are doing.

In fact, unless you actually work for a science-specific venture such as an engineering firm, computer programming company, or biotech startup, here’s a useful exercise:  Go find the people in your company that make the most money. If you are unsure who they are, here is a hint: The highest earners will be in sales, the next highest will be the top executives. Ask them what their major was. See how many under-graduate chem majors you find compared to the “soft” majors. (The answer may surprise you!)

Or to put it another way: I’ve noticed over time that the people who tell me STEM degrees are the only viable way to earn a living on Mondays are invariably the same people who bitch to me that the sales guys, marketing reps and upper-management types where they work make more than they do in their STEM jobs on Tuesdays.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against a STEM degree – if you can get one, that’s awesome and it will absolutely serve you well. STEM gives you even more options, because you can just as easily go into sales or management as the poll-sci grad, should you choose to do so. I just reject this (largely internet-based) notion that a non-STEM degree is somehow “worthless” or “unmarketable.” (Though I should note that the common flip side of the STEM argument is equally ludicrous.  If you became an Art History major because you assumed that by doing you’d automatically be paid to paint and talk about art for the rest of your life and now consider a job doing anything else as tuition money down the drain, then you probably do need to at least consider a career-mindset reset.)

So seriously: If you have the mental and financial means to get a college degree and you don’t have one already, go get one – even if you have to borrow money to make it work.

And if you do have a college degree, stop trying to tell other people how they should stick to the GED career route.

[1] Besides, let’s face it.  If, in the unlikely event that you’re an OT reader who subscribes to this kind of thinking, what the hell am I going to say that you’d even listen to? Let’s be honest: I’m clearly part of the secular-commie-hippie-redpill-liberal-Satanic-feminist-Jewish-Muslim-Illuminati-moonlanding-faking-sheeple cabal working to enslave The People, or I wouldn’t write this s**t.

 

[2] I say “almost” because there are two obvious exceptions:  Are you were old enough to have a verifiable track record of success managing people and complex tasks elsewhere — one that is so amazing I just can’t imagine choosing someone else?  If not, did you serve in the military, and work your way far up enough in the ranks to prove that you must have had success managing people and complex tasks?

 

[3] Yeah, yeah, I get that engineering and computer programming are valuable skills – but having a skill and being successful using it are actually two completely separate things.  There are a lot of people out there that have engineering, computer, and all kinds of other skills who still can’t get past entry-level positions or even hold a job, even in the best of economic times.

 

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251 thoughts on “Young People of the Internet: You Should Go to College, and You Should Really Stop Telling Other People Not To

  1. College teaches you how to set and acheive regular goals, using complex and new ideas as part of a larger group, under conditions where you must be entirely self-sufficient in your accomplishments while being totally accountable to others for your individual performance; what’s more, you must learn to satisfy both their objective and subjective criteria of those judging that performance.

    I’d argue that while college does do that sometimes, as often or more often, college identifies those who can do the above. I am relatively certain that whether I had gone to college or not gone to college and gone straight to the workplace, I would have figured it out. I think most people that figure it out in college would, also. I think the distinction you see, as a hiring person, is the distinction between those who can and those who cannot.

    Which doesn’t make all that much difference from an HR perspective or, for that matter, a job-seeker’s position. Where it does make a difference, for me, is the extent to which it is good for society that an $80-100k investment to be required to demonstrate (or learn) the above.

    Which takes me back to my general view, You should probably go to college, but it might not good for you that you should need to, and it might not be good for us, either.” (The “might” being dependent on who you are. I know some people that would have benefited from college that didn’t go, and I know a lot of people that did themselves good by going but in a zero-sum sort of way.)

    All of which goes back to the fact that I will strongly encourage my kids to go to college, even if I would have my reservations about whether they are cut out for it or not. But in a borderline case – say a kid without the scholastic aptitude to excel or who doesn’t seem to be cut out for it – it is as much as anything a resignation to the current state of affairs than any sort of affirmative good. A desire to rearrange their place in line, at the expense of others, and using our own station to the detriment of those below us on the SES scale.

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  2. My only complaints are tonsorial.

    This is a pretty big part: “Assuming that you’re young, smart, and disciplined enough to get through with a degree, then it’s a no-brainer: You need to go to college — even if you have to borrow money to do so.”

    Young, smart, and disciplined…

    Okay, you can get by with two of three. You can be young and disciplined, and get through okay. You can be smart and disciplined and of any age. You can be young and smart… and if you’re smart *enough* and you *learn* discipline, you can get through, too.

    If you don’t have at least two, you’re in trouble, and if you don’t have some of the discipline you better be willing to learn it. Most of the dropouts I know (and I know plenty of dropouts) lacked discipline.

    The other note. It’s important to know what your aspirations are. You’re pointing out that a certain measure of success is predominantly populated by college grads. Now, I think there’s more than a little causation, there, but there are other measures of success.

    I work in a box. I’m okay with it. I don’t work in the same sort of box that most people work in. However, I’ve given a lot of thought to working in a box and I can see why and how this box might be regarded as a failure, in and of itself.

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    • This touches on the thing I forgot to mention in my previous comment, which is that when we talk about who shouldn’t go to college, we are often unclear about who we are talking about. We compare statistics from those who went and those who did not. We should really be looking at the marginal cases. Looking at it university-by-university might help. The kids who attend Eastern Michigan, do they end up financially ahead or behind those who don’t go to college? How much ahead (or behind)? What about compared to kids of similar high school academic standing who chose not to go?

      And indeed none of this is useful if the person doesn’t want a white collar career. I remember when I worked at a place and there was this guy who went and got his two-year tech degree like everyone told him to and it was apparent that he would have been much happier fixing cars. Or working at a ketchup factory. But that’s not what he was told to do.

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      • This gets into counterfactual land, so things get tricky.

        You might not want a white collar career, but you might wind up being resigned to getting one anyway for any number of other trade-offy sorts of reasons. Our good resident moviemakerboatcaptain is a good example of someone trading an “art” for a “craft” and avoiding a “profession” all together, and I doubt he had any idea where he was going to be going when he got started. College does give you flexibility that “lack of college” doesn’t.

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      • You also forgot to mention another key element to college success and that is motivation. I believe that discipline naturally follows motivation; the reverse is not true.

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      • What Kim said.

        A college degree – all other things being equal – gives a person more flexibility and hence more career options than not having a degree.

        Debt – all other things equal – gives a person less flexibility a hence less career options than not having debt.

        And all of that seems true irrespective of the personal interests, desires and aptitudes of individualized individuals. (Yes, I meant to say that.)

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      • I have to agree with Patrick on the flexibility issue.

        In our family, there is one guy with a PhD (chemistry) who works for a very successful pharma company and makes more than probably everyone else in the family combined. But this is a kid who published 13 papers during his graduate school career.

        Another guy has a JD and works for a city, getting (potentially) below market wages in exchange for a pretty doggonegood pension.

        Two others didn’t get four degrees and also are receiving substantial pensions upon retirement.

        Another didn’t get a degree of any kind but worked worked her way up the chain until she was making a damn fine wage and took advantage of corporate matching to establish a pretty healthy retirement fund.

        Another has an advanced degree (biochem) and hasn’t done anything in that field or with that degree (and still pays on the debt), choosing instead to work in areas that are temperamentally attractive despite less earning power.

        Of the kids in our tribe: lots STEM degrees (4) of which only one is working in a degree-related field. The most financially successful kid quite HS (got a GED) and then only went to about two years of college (and ended up teaching a course there before he quit).

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    • I agree with the first part, and I am not someone who believes that college is for everyone.

      As to the second part, my argument about success is not an attempt to define what success is, so much as a counter against those arguing that a college degree (or, perhaps, non-STEM college degree) is a bad financial investment that won’t pay for itself.

      But to your larger point, I think my counter argument would be this:

      Let’s say you’re 10 years out of school, you look around and say you want to go into either advertising, marketing, high finance, corporate sales, computer programming, open a candy shop, start using your wood shop to make furniture, or start your own business as a plumber.

      A person who’s 10 years out of just graduating from high school has to lop off a whole bunch of those as pipe dreams. A person who’s 10 years out of just graduating from college doesn’t have to lop off any.

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      • Yeah, and that’s a fair point, which is why I brought up our resident seafarer.

        I mean, just on the risk analysis standpoint, odds are pretty good that if you’ve got the goods – or at least, the damn fool stubbornness to make sure you graduate in four – college is a fiscal net win, and an opportunity enhancer worth picking up.

        I’m not sure that our resident path into and out of the institution is the greatest, though.

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      • I will say this: I have become a huge believer in letting kids who aren’t super-driven in high school work and live on their own for a year or two before attending college. I sure wish I had. I certainly would have appreciated the experience more, and I know I would have been a far better and more committed student.

        When you’re in that second or third year of drudgery, and you have no real idea of what the real world holds, and you see your friend from high school that’s skipped school and is working at Nordstroms making $22k a year… man, you just look at them and wonder, “why aren’t I living that good life?”

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      • Tod,

        Or, you look at David and think “why can’t I own a boat and live on it in beautiful ports across the world only returning home – to beautiful Montauk – when I need or want to?” (Yes, he leads a lifestyle that I envy.)

        Or in my case, I didn’t want to go to college rightouta HS but did for family reasons, and certainly I wish I vetoed that familiar – err, I meant familial – pressure. After I quite school (two years in) I ended up spending my twenties and early thirties doing stuff that was incredibly important and not only life changing but life-defining, stuff that I never even realized was a job or profession or could lead (as it did for some of my old river buddies) to opening profitable businesses.

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  3. This, totally.

    My biggest regret — besides the obvious gender stuff — is that I didn’t go to university. In fact, I didn’t finish high school. And while I eventually broke out of the rut I was in and found a decent job, and now I have a pretty solid resume, it was a long haul and I missed a lot of opportunities.

    If I could do-over, university would be high on my list of stuff to get right this time.

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  4. I would modify this a bit by including jobs like plumbers and electricians i.e. if a job takes an apprenticship that is roughly as long as a 4 year degree it counts. If you specialize in repair plumbing you will always have work. (New construction being easier is a different story). Likewise repair in the electrical space. In many cases in these areas one first has to figure out what is in place to figure out what the problem is. If you look at what plumbers and electricians charge, they do well. Now I some times wonder why community colleges don’t get together with the apprentice programs and give associates degrees in plumbing and electrical, (the course work might concentrate on how to run a small business)?

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    • why community colleges don’t get together with the apprentice programs

      Trade Unions enjoy being able to control the labor supply directly. If the only way to become an electrician is to do it through the IBEW program, then the IBEW can control the local supply of electricians. If the Community Colleges start handing out degrees to anyone who completes the program…

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  5. Good post, and I agree.

    That said, kids today are facing a substantially different decision than the one I faced, and certainly than the one those of you about a half-generation (or a little less) older than I did. It’s just a lot more expensive to get, for example, that four-year degree from the flagship state institution than it was twenty years ago, even in-state. (I had a very significant state scholarship which made it beyond that essentially not a cost issue at all, but even if I hadn’t…) I’m sure I still would have gone to college (in fact, given the choices today, I may have actually chosen a more expensive college than I did), but I don’t find it at all easy to tell kids today what they should be doing given the sticker prices they are looking at. Rather than framing it as affirmative advice, I think I’d frame it as advice I wouldn’t give: I wouldn’t advise any smart, disciplined, academically-motivated high-school senior not to attend college.

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  6. Disclaimer: I was able to do a bachelors, masters, and JD debt free because my grandparents set up a small (not enough to live on) but healthy trust for me.

    I agree with everything you write here and it is often my message. I think it is also kind of “fashionable” to dismiss college education now and talk about how various forms of higher ed or all forms of higher education are nothing but a racket/scam/diploma mill/etc. This is done by both the left and right.

    I agree that there is a lot that is horrible with the way we finance university education in the United States. We value it but not enough to finance it seriously and make it affordable. The GOP has pretty much dismantled the old way we finance education with constantly slashing the budget for higher ed.

    The big issues are that today’s despair and often be overpowering especially a deep recession which might or might not have paradigm shifts and be structural as opposed to cyclical. I have a friend from law school who needed to hang her own shingle because of the recession and law school crisis. She also needs to work other non-legal jobs part-time. If she eventually succeeds in her practice and works retail less and less, she is going to look back at the story as a kind of St. Crisipin’s day moment*. If not, I don’t know how she will see her con-current career and job action but I imagine great bitterness would not be uncalled for.

    I think the STEM fields get play because of tech boom 2.0 and because the path from education to job seems more direct. I know plenty of arts and humanities majors who will talk about how their major helped their career but it is a much more windy and twisted path from English major to grant writer at a major research university or researcher for a Hedge Fund. Americans are not very good at teaching the indirect path thing.

    I also think that our media focuses too much on the brass ring. We focus on the Zuckerberg’s of the world or the 25 year old law grads who get the prestigious Big Law jobs. We don’t focus on the 25 year old law grads who eventually start their own highly lucrative personal injury practice because that is icky.**

    My dad graduated law school during the recession of the 1970s. His first job paid a good chunk less than his previous teaching salary and he also had child support payments from his first marriage. He is know a very successful lawyer but he worked long and hard to be one. When I say this to people they find ways to say “but now is different” and some variant of I am an idiot or tool for thinking things will improve and I will have a good career in decades.

    *He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
    Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
    And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
    He that shall live this day, and see old age,
    Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
    And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
    Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
    And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”

    **Some of the wealthiest lawyers are plaintiff’s partners. It is a big bet but it could mean a 7 or 8 figure payment.

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    • The GOP has pretty much dismantled the old way we finance education with constantly slashing the budget for higher ed.

      This might be more convincing if college were more affordable in Democratic states than in Republican ones, and if private college costs weren’t also tracking upwards at a significant rate. Or, for that matter, if we were actually spending less now than we used to spend. (We do, per student, but… many more students than there used to be.)

      I actually consider the more “fashionable” view to be that everyone should go to college (because everyone knows this and it makes you sound like you Value Learning and allows you to dismiss those who disagree as being intentionally backwards), and opposition to this viewpoint being unfashionable (to be fair, often in an obnoxiously deliberate look-at-me-I-am-going-against-the-grain sort of way).

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      • Point. I think it did start with Republicans but now Democratic states are also slashing education budgets. Private college tuition and expense is a more complicated story. Different schools are expensive for different reasons.

        The idea of a mass educated class started at the end of WWII if not before. California’s famous Master Plan for Higher Ed was from 1960.

        The University is a scam argument started in 2008 or so.

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      • You don’t think the situation at public schools might be more complicated than “slashed budgets”?

        Public spending (inflation-adjusted) has fallen by $1,900 per (FTE) student since 1987. Tuition. Would that tuitions had only raised insofar as they needed to in order to cover that gap.

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      • Is state funding of universities really going down? Or is it just increasing at a declining rate?

        If so, the more important question to ask is why costs are going up so fast. And the answer is that universities are involved in an arms race to provide students will all sorts of non-academic bells and whistles. And why should taxpayer money go to support fancy dorms and a bigger student union?

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      • Is state funding of universities really going down?

        When state revenues crashed in 2008, most states made real cuts to the funding for their public universities. The feds made up for some of the shortfall, but that only lasted a couple of years. Many states have not recovered to their peak level. Done on a per-student basis the numbers look even worse, since enrollment typically jumps during recessions. IIRC, Arizona leads the pack in percentage terms, with state funding per student in FY13 down about 50% from spending in FY08.

        It’s good to have oil and coal. Wyoming and North Dakota were already in the upper tier of states for spending per student (that is, they spent a lot) and have increased spending since 2008.

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    • I think the STEM fields get play because of tech boom 2.0 and because the path from education to job seems more direct.

      The STEM fields get a lot of play because companies are staring at a massive wave of retirements of engineers & scientists, and there aren’t enough bodies to fill the desks in the US. They all got a bit of a reprieve thanks to the recession postponing a lot of retirements, and a push for work visas, but that won’t last forever. If there is a decline in the STEM worker supply, wages will have to go up, which is something they REALLY want to avoid, since STEM wages have been comfortably stagnant for decades.

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      • Ran into a guy on the internet, who was an engineer up in the 1970’s. His firm doesn’t have engineers anymore.

        I’m skeptical that a lot of firms are investing in STEM anymore — rather than just hiring “flavor of the week” greencard indentured servants, who after their skill sets expire, will just go home.

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  7. Assuming that you’re young, smart, and disciplined enough to get through with a degree, then it’s a no-brainer…

    How do you know if you fit this description?

    There’s a question here about whether it’s better to have too many Type I errors or too many Type II errors. Is it better to have a system that pushes lots of people into college knowing that some of them will fail to graduate or graduate and still have poor career prospects? Or is it better to start to dissuade people from going to college knowing that there will be some group of people that would have benefited but didn’t go.

    I honestly don’t know. In general, without knowledge of a particular individual, I choose to not lean one way or the other. It seems like the prudent choice.

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    • I’m more of a Type 1 guy myself but in an ideal world I would not mind being a tenured professor of Drama at a small-liberal arts college. I knew the chances of this happening were slim though.

      What’s wrong with having a well-educated nation that can discuss the classics of the world from Plato to Aristotle to Confucius to Virginia Woolf to Zora Neale Hurston to Tony Kushner, etc.

      As to your other questions, I think this is a chicken and egg problem. The press I read is that states have been slashing budgets, so schools especially non-flagship public universities and not-quite elite private universities need to rely more and more on people who can pay full way and need no financial aide. This means that they need to use amenities to attract upper-middle class and upper-class kids.

      So the whole thing becomes an unbreakable cycle. States slash budgets, schools go look for rich students and decide to compete with perks, states say why should taxpayers pay for perks*, and the whole thing drags on.

      *You can also make the argument about why does a state to fund a Shakespeare or Milton experts research or any research in the arts and humanities. I would argue that shows a state is committed to freedom and liberty by supporting this kind of research and there is value in it especially if the scholar reaches conclusions that make some to many people uncomfortable.

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      • “The press I read is that states have been slashing budgets, so schools especially non-flagship public universities and not-quite elite private universities need to rely more and more on people who can pay full way and need no financial aide. This means that they need to use amenities to attract upper-middle class and upper-class kids. ”

        there are nowhere near enough full payers almost anywhere to actually make this true. that explanation is likely wrong, possibly insane.

        somewhat glib explanation: parents realized they were customers, not supplicants. the supply of students continues to grow, competition gets more fierce, etc etc and so forth. people expect more than trash for dining and housing for their dollars. and they focus on credentials over skills, or on skills over networking, etc.

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      • I think the glib explanation has a lot of truth to it. I think the other part of the aspect is that they want the UMC and upper-class kids because they raise the prestige of the university. I suspect that they are also more likely to donate to the university after they graduate. They’re more likely to attend sporting events and participate in campus activities. Northern Colorado wants to be Colorado State wants to be Colorado wants to be Texas wants to be Cal-Berkeley.

        My alma mater has been wanting to transition towards to “traditional college students” since I’ve been a student there. Traditional college students want rec centers. We spent $50,000,000 on one.

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      • No one pays the full cost of their education. At most schools, even the full cost of tuition only covers about half of what it takes to run the university. The rest comes from the endowment, donations, grants, fees, etc.

        Of course, adding up the total cost of running the school and dividing it by the number of students is not a particularly good way of figuring out what an education ought to cost. Truth is there really is no good way. College is a bundle of goods and it is really difficult to disaggregate costs. It’s a bit like cable.

        When costs and pricing are opaque, there’s a good chance that you’re going to see costs rise. Add that to the rising demand for all sorts of academic bells and whistles and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for run-away costs.

        Even more problematic is that we would find most of the obvious solutions to be unpalatable. For instance, you could have a very basic education package that includes classes, a no-frills dorm and dining hall, access to the library, etc. And then people could pay more to upgrade to fancier dorms or better food or rec centers and gyms. Of course, that would violate many people’s egalitarian sensibilities.

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  8. I think another issue is that American anti-snobbery still kicks in a bit and we still like the stories about misfit kids who did really well or got great jobs without going to college and setting through a class on Aristotle.

    These stories are often highly anecdotal in the “My 16-year old cousin taught himself computers…” kind of way. We like that some our richest tech giants did not finish university. Prime examples are Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg. This ignores the fact that Gates was the son of one of the most important corporate lawyers at the time and his mom was on the Board for IBM. Zuckerberg came from an upper-middle class family and was still smart enough to get into Harvard. Jobs might be the only one from more modest circumstances but he still had connections from growing up in Silicon Valley.

    In other words, people want to successful by being the sexy exception and not successful by being the tried and true rule. And I was part of this. I wanted to be a theatre director.

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    • It also, of course, ignores the fact that each of those people was successful precisely because they chose to attend college. That they left to pursue the extraordinary opportunities that their college experience provided them only confirms the wisdom of their decision to attend college in the first place.

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      • We honestly make it hard to find people who /weren’t/ successful because they went to college.
        I do know someone who held down multiple non-entry-level jobs in high school. He didn’t need to go to college to become successful.

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      • There is also a good deal of right time, right place. I went to college after tech boom 1.0 collapsed and 9/11 happened during my senior year. It was not an economy with much right time, right place. People were not getting the opportunities to drop out and code for tons of money and stock options. Nor was it the start of the personal computer economy that Jobs and Gates were part of.

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  9. College is too expensive.

    When I graduated college, I did it without debt. Now, I lived at home when I went to college and that means that I wasn’t paying for a dorm room and mom was indulgent enough to not charge me rent (thanks, mom!) but I had a job and that job paid me enough money to pay cash for my college degree.

    Being able to pay $5000/year for college was pretty freakin’ awesome. It allowed me to graduate with a degree in the humanities rather than asking a price dear to the point where I would have to have said “for this much money, I need to take classes in C rather than in Existentialism.”

    If college costs five times that now? I don’t know that I could, in good conscience, tell people to get degrees in the uplifting humanities. I’d buy them a Great Books Set and tell them to read them when they’re on break from taking classes in C++.

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    • I agree that the cost is a problem but my solution is to lower the cost and make it possible to study the humanities rather than tell people to do it on their own.

      I don’t like the idea of a country where the arts and humanities are subjects that only the rich can study.

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      • Dude. We study the humanities here (like, on Ordinary Times) together all the time.

        More or less for free (thanks, Erik!) and we’ve got some of the best study partners possible.

        We should do it more, though. Maybe I’ll see what I can do about that.

        But it’s hardly something that only the rich “can” do. We’ve got the internet *RIGHT HERE*. Google is *RIGHT THERE* and Wikipedia right next to it! And they point to freakin’ EVERYTHING. Well, everything up until 1910.

        There’s a lot of humanities in the prior to 1910, though.

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      • But seriously, that is the glory of online classes. I can take classes now from any number of high-flight institutions. I can watch the lectures. I can read the texts. With MOOC, I can even work with others and have a professor. There may or may not be a degree involved (depending on the program) but the learning opportunities have never been greater and rarely more affordable. And it’s just going to get better from here. If a well-rounded education is what you want – rather than the sheet of paper – times have rarely been better. This applies especially to the humanities (because, unlike science classes, you don’t need a lab).

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      • I don’t understand why you two are so opposed to the idea of finding ways to make college more affordable for the students and keeping the traditional 4-year campus. It seems like a pretty good place to learn how to be an adult.

        Why is Type II as described by JR above better than Type I as a society? Now we are getting to traditional American anti-Intellectualism and anti-credentialism and the idea of self-read being better than a formal education. Lincoln reading common law while working at a general store. I disagree with that view.

        And I’m a liberal and not a conservative or libertarian. I do support the idea of public educated and yes people will have to pay in taxes. It is certainly money better spent than on the military industrial complex or NSA.

        http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/03/how-washington-could-make-college-tuition-free-without-spending-a-penny-more-on-education/273801/

        What if we took the money out the NSA or DEA? Or legalized marijuana and placed a sales tax to fund education?

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      • I don’t understand why you two are so opposed to the idea of finding ways to make college more affordable for the students and keeping the traditional 4-year campus.

        Because I hate minorities and women. I can’t speak for Trumwill.

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      • Better to learn about setting limits and responsibilities by getting an F or D on a paper that you researched and wrote at the last minute than not showing up for work and getting fired.

        Maybe this is just me. I feel paradoxically old-fashioned on this thread for making liberal arguments.

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      • But ND, college isn’t supposed to be how-to-be-an-adult-school, is it? Maybe it’s turned into that, of course, which might be why I’m not a big supporter of the “go to school and make your life better” school of thought. So to speak.

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      • I don’t understand why you two are so opposed to the idea of finding ways to make college more affordable for the students and keeping the traditional 4-year campus. It seems like a pretty good place to learn how to be an adult.

        I’d be fine working to restore college funding to 1987 levels. What then, though? College has gotten more expensive since then for reasons that have little to do with state spending. A lot more expensive. I’m not enthusiastic about bankrolling that (so that we can send more and more people to college, and employers can start demanding graduate degrees). If traditional colleges aren’t actually going to make serious efforts to contain costs, I’m going to look at alternatives to traditional colleges.

        I do like the Weismann plan (and spoke positively of it during the education symposium), at least until or unless colleges realize that they can use that money to raise tuition rates (or negotiate their ability to do so). If we’re going to bankroll colleges, I want schools to keep an eye towards affordability. Kind of like, you know, community colleges do.

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      • Sometimes an eight-minute lecture might be a lesson. Sometimes not. Depends. Fortunately, MOOC’s need not be limited to 8-minute lectures. I took online courses in college. They can actually be quite a bit like regular courses. Or they can be very different. It’s a pretty flexible model. If we don’t trust private schools and for-profits to do it, then we can have the government do it (during the education symposium, I suggested the federal government itself could do it). I’m ever-flexible.

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      • (during the education symposium, I suggested the federal government itself could do it). I’m ever-flexible.

        You might be, but lots and lots of people might not be.

        I think I’m one of them. Education seems like a MEME that imposed on actual evidence to such an extent that I don’t think I can tease out what’s real.

        From where I sit, tho, it sure seems to me like the potential rewards of formal education aren’t worth the very real cost. Unless a person gets a degree in a “hiring” market.

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      • Still, don’t you think it would change the calculations if tuition were actually cheaper? Significantly cheaper? It seems right now that there are a lot of potential savings here, and not a whole lot of entities with incentives to pass the savings on to the public.

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      • I mean, I’ve been pretty vocally in the “College: Not for everybody!” camp. We may disagree as to the right course of action in the current climate as I am inclined to think it probably is favorable (I want that data from Eastern Michigan University, tho)… but there are clearly advantages to having that degree. To demonstrating, as Tod alludes to, meet goals and jump through hoops and accomplish something grand. If employers are going to look at it that way – and I am inclined to think that they do – it seems to me that Tod should be roughly as satisfied by a degree from Federal Online University as he would be from Eastern Oregon University or perhaps even Oregon State. In other words, if we’re going to have this certification race – and hell, if we’re also interested in people getting a broad education where they learn lots more stuff than they were taught in high school – it would serve us well to make it less expensive (and not just by cost-shifting). I hope this makes sense.

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      • With most disciplines, I’d rather break the psychologically entrenched correlation between having a bunch of letters after your name and actually knowing what the fuck you’re talking about. Some disciplines don’t seem like disciplines to me: literature, for example. That’s just a glorified book club (apologies to the lit folks out there). Some other disciplines – like anthropology or philosophy – actually deal with real issues but the cost of employing people in those areas derives from the charity (or takings) of others. I mean, would the world really be worse off if half the people paid to teach and write research papers in those disciplines were cut off? Three quarters?

        As to making it cheaper, I’m not sure how that can be defended if the premise of the value of getting a degree is what’s being disputed. Patrick made a good comment some time ago to the effect that if everyone can get a four year degree, or an advanced degree, then there’s something wrong with how we’re looking at things. I think that’s right, myself.

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      • Ideally, I’d prefer better tracking. A greater ability to say “College is for this person, votech for that person, and this person should probably just enter the workforce.” Rather than saying “This person went to college, this personal failed to go to college, and this person failed to attend any sort of post-graduate education institution.” Which is how I think we sort of look at it now. So the guy who went to college isn’t just someone who went to college, but someone who did what the other ones failed to.

        That’s what I would prefer. But absent that, let’s at least stop spending so much money on the paper-race.

        And even if things did go the way I wanted them to, I think having cheaper options would be a good unto itself. As I consider going back to school in pursuit of a career where formal education should be necessary, it would be jolly if it weren’t as expensive as it is. If it were as affordable as it could be (not just to me, but to the taxpayers as well).

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      • (Previous comment was written before I saw your response.)

        As to making it cheaper, I’m not sure how that can be defended if the premise of the value of getting a degree is what’s being disputed. Patrick made a good comment some time ago to the effect that if everyone can get a four year degree, or an advanced degree, then there’s something wrong with how we’re looking at things. I think that’s right, myself.

        I can agree with this. I just don’t want to see the separation factor being financial. I’d prefer it be voluntary and based on ability. I’m not optimistic about that. But I hate for price to be the obstacle, and I don’t want to have to absorb the cost of the paper-race at higher costs when they could be absorbed at lower costs.

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      • I’m certainly down with the mechanics of what you’re talking about. Higher ed shouldn’t be so cost prohibitive to poor people that they simply can’t play that game. My argument is more directed at the “school will improve your life despite currently applicable costs and burdens” argument. I don’t think that’s true at all. It’s an American Myth. Slowly dying, thank the Gods.

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      • Hard to say whether “school will improve your life despite currently applicable costs and burdens” is true or not. So much self-selection going on. And it doesn’t fully take into account the Eastern Michigan question. Of course college graduates make more money and are more job-secure than non-graduates (it’s all wrapped into the notion that there are people who went to college and those who failed to). I’m mostly interested in two things:

        1) Is society well-served by the current state of affairs, or would it be better served if people weren’t spending $40-100k to differentiate themselves from people who didn’t. That depends largely on whether the college gains are absolute (teaches you to achieve or grows you as a person) or relative (it is a way to filter through applications and set queues). This is largely an academic question, of course, as the dye has been cast at a societal level.

        2) Even in the current society, is the average marginal student – the Eastern Michigan grad – actually better off? Or are the statistics skewed in large part because of people who went to Michigan or Michigan State? Would a specific individual benefit or not by going to college if they are not cut from collegiate cloth? You suggests not. Weisman suggests so. I’m not sure.

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      • I’d like to inject a point that hasn’t figured prominently in the broader discussion, or this thread so far. When talking about how expensive US higher education is and has become, keep in mind that the US has some of the best higher education institutions in the world. Looking at any of the various world university rankings, US universities are well represented. Here’s a look at various top 10 lists,

        Times Higher Ed ranking, 7 of top 10 are US
        ARWU, 8 of the top 10 are US
        QS Natural Sciences, 6 of top 10
        QS Arts and Humanities, 7 of top 10
        QS Medicine and Life Sciences, 7 of top 10

        And going beyond the top ten, into the top 100, 200, 500 etc., the US continues to be very well represented. (All the usual caveats about ranking universities apply re: limitations and methodologies. But these various rankings still give some sense of where the excellent higher ed institutions are in the world)

        One of the reasons I’d advise a student in the US to attend university, on balance, is, by accident of geography, that they have privileged access to some of the best universities universities in the world.

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      • Creon, we do indeed have some great universities. It makes a difference to the calculations if you are attending a top-flight school or a less stellar university. That’s a part of the Michigan vs Eastern Michigan question.

        My wife and I are a bit at odds with regard to higher education. Her view is that they go to state university. Or, at least, that’s all we pay for and she takes out a loan or gets a scholarship if she wants to go anywhere else. My view is that they go to state university unless it’s a really top-flight school.

        In other if she wants to go to TCU, she needs to pay for it. If she gets into Harvard, I think we should do everything we can to help her pay for it because Harvard’s Harvard and it’s a singular opportunity.

        This whole disagreement will probably be for naught if they get their brains from their father and not their mother.

        (TCU is a fine school. It’s just not Harvard. It’s also possible that an honors program or a specific program at EMU is really, really worthwhile. I’m speaking very generally here.)

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      • For what it’s worth, I agree with your line of thought more. The level of quality of the public institutions varies by state. So California offers a rich variety of very high quality public options, competitive with selective private schools. Maybe publics preferred makes sense in that context. But, many other states don’t have such distinguished publics.

        Also, there’s probably more that’d go into it nearer to when a son or daughter is applying to school. Passionate about fine art, then perhaps RISD makes sense. And there are sometimes underappreciated advantages of going to the top tier schools. Guidance for applying for fellowships and grants (Rhodes, Fulbright, Marshall, etc.) is pretty high quality when students at the university regularly receive those awards. Depending on the career interests, there’re sometimes really clear, direct links between certain schools and certain industries. That last thing that comes to mind, graduation rates. The variance among schools is huge, a context of other highly committed students can help get one through the rough patches of college life. I found, anyway.

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      • I don’t like the idea of a country where the arts and humanities are subjects that only the rich can study.

        Do you know that there are places you can go where they’ll just let you take books home for free? When you pay for college, you’re not paying for the opportunity to study. You can do that for free. You’re paying for someone to tell other people that you studied.

        I don’t understand why you two are so opposed to the idea of finding ways to make college more affordable for the students and keeping the traditional 4-year campus.

        You really don’t understand why people might be opposed to spending huge sums of taxpayer money on something of dubious social value?

        Every description of MOOCs has left me cold and feeling that it is not much of an education and almost largely a scam.

        http://www.coursera.org

        What are they going to do? Run away with the money you didn’t pay?

        I feel paradoxically old-fashioned on this thread for making liberal arguments.

        I’m not sure it’s possible for someone named after an 80-year-old government program to feel paradoxically old-fashioned.

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    • Well, the cost has gone up and the likelihood of reward has gone down. You could still endorse going to school, but if the calculus is purely economic, the margins are slim enough that you might find yourself saying things like “Well, I’d advise against it, unless of course you just can’t imagine life without an ___ degree.”

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      • How much have the costs gone up for people with zero or no college degrees?

        Well, if that demographic were to suddenly get degrees and pursue careers in those fields, then the price would rise and the rewards would diminish. Double whammy.

        That’s what I’m sayin, and I’m stickin too it.

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      • unless of course you just can’t imagine life without an ___ degree

        I’d probably add “get a minor in ___” where ___ was something either STEMy or, shudder, Businessy.

        If they’re going to graduate with $100,000 in non-dischargable debt, I’d want them on the road to earning the second they hit the ground. Not for me… that debt is non-dischargable. FOR THEM.

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      • So let’s say that we make the debt dischargeable. What’s *THAT* going to do?

        I mean, apart from making almost everything better.

        For one thing (one of the downside things), I see Universities and Colleges taking a hit right in the humanities. The folks who will be loaning out money will, presumably, have a chart of majors and minors and an actuarial table of the ones most likely to hunker down for 7 years before declaring bankruptcy.

        I hate to get all prejudicy about majors and minors but I honestly see stuff like Philosophy having a bigger bankruptcy footprint 7 years after graduation than, say, Information Services with an emphasis in Security… and I also see the actuaries taking that into account.

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      • Absolutely. Or philosophically speaking, it’s necessarily so, ceteris paribus, given a context comprised of subjectively connative but nevertheless objectively defineable “signifiers”.

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    • “When I graduated college, I did it without debt. Now, I lived at home when I went to college and that means that I wasn’t paying for a dorm room and mom was indulgent enough to not charge me rent (thanks, mom!) but I had a job and that job paid me enough money to pay cash for my college degree.”

      I’m curious… Given ‘s description in the OP about what college does… does this sort of college experience do that?

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      • You mean this?

        College teaches you how to set and acheive regular goals, using complex and new ideas as part of a larger group, under conditions where you must be entirely self-sufficient in your accomplishments while being totally accountable to others for your individual performance; what’s more, you must learn to satisfy both the objective and subjective criteria of those judging that performance.

        Um, yeah. I learned that. Probably as much from the job and working hard enough to pay off the tuition as I went as from the classes themselves.

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  10. The three objections:

    1. College is too expensive.

    Sure, but not going to college is an opportunity cost that manifests in lots of ways that aren’t just monetary. See point number 3.

    2. Other than STEM Degrees, College Today Doesn’t Prepare You for a Career.

    Oh, like STEM degrees train you in how to handle an irate client or a how to draft a resume or what to put in and what to leave out of your TPS report so you can stay out of trouble later. Career skills are political and experiential; the best you can hope for from a degree is a body of knowledge that will be useful. But mainly, it’s the sharpening of the mind that you’re after.

    3. College Exposes People to Ideas That Are Different From Mine.

    Feature, not bug.

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  11. I wasn’t expected a jet, but after a BSc and an MA, I was hoping that I’d have a job.

    So even if it’s short-term thinking – and even through I enjoyed my education, value it, and don’t for a second wish I’d just looked for a crappy job right out of high school – I can sympathize with the feeling that being unemployed beats being unemployed and in debt from school. And I’m in a much better financial position, and have much more of a safety net, than your typical graduate.

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  12. “With most disciplines, I’d rather break the psychologically entrenched correlation between having a bunch of letters after your name and actually knowing what the fuck you’re talking about. Some disciplines don’t seem like disciplines to me: literature, for example. That’s just a glorified book club (apologies to the lit folks out there).”

    Ugh. This is one of the most vulgar things I have ever written. The study of literature is an examination into themes, metaphor, and the world of the author at the time and how they were experiencing and explaining their world to themselves and their readership and future generations. It is about the development of a culture and a nation from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Milton to Pope to The Romantics to Dickens and Elliot to Woolf to Dyer, etc. It is about being able to write stuff like this:

    http://www.amazon.com/Shakespeares-Restless-World-Portrait-Objects/dp/0670026344

    “Some other disciplines – like anthropology or philosophy – actually deal with real issues but the cost of employing people in those areas derives from the charity (or takings) of others. I mean, would the world really be worse off if half the people paid to teach and write research papers in those disciplines were cut off? Three quarters?”

    I’d much rather live in a world that valued anthropology and philosophy and history more than a world that values financial engineering and making weapons and marketing majors more.

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    • This is one of the most vulgar things I have ever written.

      Is that a Freudian slip, of did you mean “you” in that sentence? I’m cool either way.

      The study of literature is an examination into themes, metaphor, and the world of the author at the time and how they were experiencing and explaining their world to themselves and their readership and future generations

      If that’s right, then it sounds to me like it ought to be a sub-discipline of psychology, or perhaps history. If the content is anthropological, then why not put in there?

      If art could be reduced, then there would be no art, it seems to me. (Don’t read that sentence with the naturally associated ambiguity! If you do, you’re agreeing with me.) If art can’t be analyzed, then why is it an academic discipline?

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    • I’d much rather live in a world that valued anthropology and philosophy and history more than a world that values financial engineering and making weapons and marketing majors more.

      Rather live in one hand, poop in the other.

      See which hand fills up first.

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    • See, I’m not at all worried about an insufficiency of people with higher degrees in anthropology or philosophy. Not because those things aren’t important, but because there are actually a lot of people interested in them to the extent that I am doubtful that we need to actually encourage it.

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      • You had it right ND. I see no reason to include full philosophy staffs at every institution. There just isn’t enough research/knowledge/job-opportunities-for-students to justify that.

        What’s wrong with a view that would accept reductions in the number of schools with Phil Departments to something more commensurate with the utility of the discipline? I mean, as it is, every Major University thinks they need a Phil (and Anthro and Lit and whatnot) department. Why? It’s not because the kids learning that stuff are gonna get jobs.

        Well, that’s not entirely true. If we keep thinking Phil and Lit are essential departments, then we have to staff them, no?, which continues to create jobs!

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      • From what I understand, universities graduate more journalism majors every year than there are jobs in the industry.

        Not, like, “open positions in the industry”. Like, JOBS TOTAL.

        Now, again, this would have one dynamic if people graduated debt-free (or close enough). Graduating with 5 (OR SIX!) digits worth of debt gives this an ENTIRELY different dynamic.

        It’s one thing to follow your folly and end up debt-free. That’s a wonderful experience for anybody. It’s another to mortgage your future in service to a passing fancy.

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      • Why is everyone ignoring the fact that I want to go back to reducing tuition like the levels you paid, Jaybird?

        How is that supposed to happen without reducing the total costs universities are on the hook for?

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      • I think there’s value in having a diverse community of scholars. Ideally, scholars studying different things in different ways, who interact with one another and learn from one another’s approaches. I can see philosophy departments making important contributions to very STEM-oriented things like bioethics for instance. And STEM fields making contributions to things like art conservation, or uncovering / piecing together near-lost texts. Every university doesn’t have to be a full service university, but there’s value to having a high density of full service universities in the US. And I’d certainly want the major universities to provide that diversity of scholars/scholarship.

        Also, who knows what disciplines will have what level of utility? Isn’t part of the mission of universities the advancing of the boundaries of human knowledge writ large? And as an additional counterpoint, there are several purely theoretical “What utility does that have?” ideas that only years later turned out to be very useful. Imaginary numbers come to mind. I’m sure there’re corners of theoretical physics where the same applies.

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      • “What’s wrong with a view that would accept reductions in the number of schools with Phil Departments to something more commensurate with the utility of the discipline”

        Yikes.

        How do you determine the utility of a discipline?

        I’d rank philosophy classes as the most important in a college education. I’ll explain my criteria for rankings if you explain yours,

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      • I’ll explain my criteria for rankings if you explain yours,

        In the context of this discussion, it’s likelihood of getting a job in relation to the cost of getting an education.

        The only Phil class I think has general utility is critical thinking. Math and computer folks might like a bit of logic. Students on a pre-law track would benefit from some training in turning conversational English into formal arguments. A limited offering of those types of courses doesn’t require a full Philosophy department, tho.

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      • Well, the phrase “utility of the discipline” sure sounds like you are talking about more than just whether it gets people a job. But i appreciate your clarification.

        Your claim about Phil majors is just woefully unfounded, though.

        Take a look at the list here:

        http://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report-2014/majors-that-pay-you-back

        Basically, ther are 500 types of engineering degrees, including computer stuff, that pay significantly better than anything. This makes sense.

        Next up is math and finance, which fair a bit better, for obvious reasons. Next up is Geology and Chem, which only pay a little more than the big group of majors below the, likely because of the connection with the pharmaceuticals and petroleum industries.

        After that, there is a big group of majors that pay about the same that includes some social science, some hard science (biology, especially), econ, polis sci. marketing, management, etc. Philosophy is in this group.

        That said. you have to be careful with this data. Sometimes people lump Religious Studies salaries in with Philosophy. Well, given that Rel Studies people often go into clerical volunteer work by choice, they drag salary avergaes down.

        At any rate, you have as much right to say Phil Majors aren’t gonna get jobs and the the discipline has no utility as you do saying Bio Majors won’t get jobs amd the discipline has no utility,

        Moreover, the data on math and engineering majors is not broken down by gender, IIRC. Those fields are male dominated and some of the salary differential there is caused by the fact that there are more men in those fields and men make more. Stereotypically female majors tend to do poorly on wage scales, too.

        Most everything you learn about the hard sciences in college has no use in any career you will ever have, unless you actually are a.) an engineer, or b.) you did graduate work in the sciences and are now working as a researcher.

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      • The only Phil class I think has general utility is critical thinking. Math and computer folks might like a bit of logic.

        Not sure about math, but computer science departments typically have their own classes in formal logic, both in the abstract and as applied to circuit design and/or artificial intelligence.

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      • but computer science departments typically have their own classes in formal logic

        Exactly.

        I’m not sure those courses were offered within the Math Department or Engineering School at CU or not. I seem to recall math and CS kids coming over to take classes taught in the Phil department tho. That might have been because the offerings in those departments were already full, tho.

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      • shaz,
        Including Runga-Kutta? ;-P
        Seriously, there’s a ton of stuff that’s useful
        that you COULD use (fluid mechanics was REALLY
        helpful this year.) it’s just people are lazy and
        would rather destroy shit than do MATH. Because
        MATH is scary — well, and hard. (my sample size
        is a highly educated population, size of around 40,000).

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    • : “I’d much rather live in a world that valued anthropology and philosophy and history more than a world that values financial engineering and making weapons and marketing majors more.”

      FWIW, my experience is that when people who are very committed to anthropologies or philosophies or versions of histories of one stripe or another rule things, very very bad things happen.

      My understanding of history is that finance people, weapon makers and engineers don’t come up with nearly as… um… creative ways to utilize their own skills as the great studiers of humanities come up with on their behalf.

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  13. Re: Tracking

    I was an academic late bloomer. I always loved to read but getting me to do homework and care about exams on grades (especially in math) took a bit of effort. I was also immature emotionally until about 8th grade. Eventually though the things got sorted out and I got into a good college and was able to study theatre.

    Though I can’t say for sure, I am pretty sure that I would have been tracked as non-college pretty early in a tracking system and I am much happier that I grew up in a system that believed college is for everyone and did not track too much.

    How do you prevent the late bloomers from being tracked out too early? It is my understanding that once tracking occurs it is pretty hard to switch even if a student blooms late.

    And I am much more concerned about late bloomers than the guy you knew who went to tech school. I think our different concerns cause the problems and differences.

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    • I’m specifically referring to late-tracking here. Early tracking is a whole different matter. Which I have mixed feelings about because, like you, I was a late bloomer. My elementary school counselor told my mother that I was never going to college and if I did I would fail out (“So sign here so that we can exclude him from our state-mandated tests…”).

      I think that by mid high school you have a better idea of who should be going where. Even then, I support using community colleges and other low-cost options to help bring people up to speed who might have fallen through the cracks. If you couldn’t quite prove yourself as college material in middle school or even high school, maybe you can at the community college.

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  14. I should also add that I don’t consider it shifting the burden too much by having taxpayers finance public education because it is something that tax payers benefit from from at least K-12 and many from university and through advanced degrees including MBAs, Law, Medicine, and engineering and the sciences. They will also have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who benefit from public education. So I am not very sympathetic to arguments that it is burden shifting, it is more like shifting when a society burden is due. Pay for the education of others, like they supported yours.

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    • I do not mind paying for a generalist education for everyone by the time they hit 18. It’s when an adult says “I want to study 17th century Spanish poetry for four years” that I am inclined to say “pay for it yourself”.

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      • Would a system wherein public universities focused more on (for lack of a better term) vocational training (e.g., education, medicine, law, business) while private universities focused more on (for lack of a better term) the liberal arts (e.g., 17th century Spanish poetry)… would that be acceptable?

        There’d surely be some kinks to work out, but it seems reasonable for society at large to say, “We will invest in this endeavor because it is likely to provide a society-wide benefit but we will not invest in that endeavor because it is unlikely to.”

        (Cue liberals saying, “Then you’ve got to put banking in the latter category, man!”)

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      • (Cue liberals saying, “Then you’ve got to put banking in the latter category, man!”)

        Banking is surely a vocation: you have to have a calling to the idea of making money by shuffling money instead of actual labor.

        Tho now that I think about it, there really is a science behind being able to extract money from people. It aint easy.

        But then again, maybe it’s more of an art.

        Hmmm. I’m undecided. I’m leaning towards apprenticeships.

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      • Would a system wherein public universities focused more on (for lack of a better term) vocational training (e.g., education, medicine, law, business) while private universities focused more on (for lack of a better term) the liberal arts (e.g., 17th century Spanish poetry)… would that be acceptable?

        I think that a system similar to what we’ve got with the GI Bill works. There are skillsets needed very badly by the government. Give them X years of your life and you get to go to school for a huge percent of your tuition, if not all of it. After you give them the X years, you can re-up if you’re inclined… but you don’t have to.

        X is probably somewhere around 4 years, but if we need it to be 6 or 8, I understand that.

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      • Would a system wherein public universities focused more on (for lack of a better term) vocational training (e.g., education, medicine, law, business) while private universities focused more on (for lack of a better term) the liberal arts (e.g., 17th century Spanish poetry)… would that be acceptable?

        Who does the STEM stuff that everyone says we need more of, and which commands an enormous share of the research budgets?

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      • I assume this would be expanded beyond the military though, right? And could you use your schooling for something unrelated to your “service requirement” provided your service requirement can be done sans schooling? For service requirements that require schooling, would they pay upfront for it, a la ROTC?

        I could probably get on board with something like that. “Hey Kazzy… we’ll pay off your student loan debt (or if your debt is paid off, given you an additional stipend) if you come teach in a needy public school.”

        Wait… now that sounds like TFA. Though I guess you could actually force them to go to school for education before they enter the classroom.

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      • The military has the authority to send you where you’d be needed. If they need a person with a particular skill set in Algeria, dangit, you’re going to find yourself using those skills in Algeria. I imagine if there were a similar setup for civilian schooling (e.g., “we need a history teacher in Bumblebee, South Dakota for four years while we wind down the state”), I reckon that’d work. I’m sure there’d be a job for you in Bumblebee at the end of X years, if you wanted it. Perhaps you could even re-sign.

        Me being me, I’d probably want the union protections for the job to be similar to those found in the military, though.

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    • I don’t object to having a public school system (K-12 or college). I object to it being a blank check. The problem remains that college has become ridiculously expensive. It’s not up to states to keep up with what colleges want to spend. If those colleges want to spend exorbitant amounts of money, then we need colleges that will find ways to spend less. Then we can pay a greater share of its costs. That’s why its important to keep costs down.

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      • How much of the increased expense of college is because everyone and their mom can get loans? If the system is awash with people waving (what feels like) free money, it would be silly of the schools not to raise prices at double or trip the rate of inflation. There seems to be a real distortion in the supply/demand thingamajig because of the omnipresence of loans.

        Which isn’t to say that readily available student loans are necessarily a bad thing. Only that there are consequences to consider.

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      • This gets attributed to for-profits all of the time (that they charge as much as they do because they can charge as much as they do because of student loans) but suddenly becomes contentious if you argue that it applies to non-profits, too.

        In “What To Expect When No One’s Expecting” JVL talks about the University of Richmond, where they raised tuition rates and that increased rather than decreased applications. It’s pretty f’ed up, and I don’t think that’s totally related to student loans.

        (That being said, we do have to account somehow for the kids that are college material but cannot afford it.)

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      • Here is USC’s financial report.

        Financial statement, p. 17 of 44, lists their big line item expense as “Educational
        and general activities.”

        There is a line item for depreciation and amortization, which I expect.

        There is no line item for operational expenses, sports-related expenses, etc. Which says to me that an awful lot is lumped into “General Activities”.

        I’d have to really get into the guts of the thing before I had any opinion about whether or not these expenses are inline or out of line.

        I will, however, note that humanities professors usually make bufkus in comparison to their business counterparts…

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      • I want to make sure I’m understanding you. Are you saying that S&D only applies to the for-profits? Or that people want to ignore S&D issues with the non-profits?

        The UofR thing doesn’t totally shock me. I feel like I’ve read enough “Can you believe it?”-type stories that explain that very phenomenon. Higher prices imply higher value and/or denote scarcity.

        I would also guess that people don’t really price shop colleges. They might debate 2-year versus 4-year or public vs private, but I don’t think many people say, “I’ll go to BU instead of BC because the former is $4K less per year.” They’re far more likely to say, “What’s another $4K per year? It’s not like I’m paying for it… right?”

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      • The latter. I see people talk about the incentives as though they only affect for-profits. Why are non-profits becoming so much more expensive? Nothing to do with the government, except insofar as the government is cutting back on its contributions.

        My understanding is that GWU perfected the expensive=prestige problem. I won’t say that this exists because of student loans, just like I wouldn’t say that employers requiring college degrees for jobs that don’t really need them was created by student loans, but it’s hard for me to look at student loans as not enabling this state of affairs. (Which isn’t to say that we should do away with them and replace them with nothing, because there is a problem that student loans are a response to.)

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      • “In “What To Expect When No One’s Expecting” JVL talks about the University of Richmond, where they raised tuition rates and that increased rather than decreased applications. It’s pretty f’ed up, and I don’t think that’s totally related to student loans.”

        if you think that’s bad, go read some of the stories about tuition resets. some colleges are trying it now as an enrollment booster, especially the 4 year private joints (as they generally have the most to gain or lose on enrollment levels). others looked into it, surveyed some parents, and found that a $50,000/yr school with a 50% discount rate was more attractive to parents than a $25,000/yr school with a 0% discount rate.

        people might go “oh those snobs” or whatever but i think it’s more like why people love coupons or the jos. a bank business model.

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      • Are you using “for-profit” as synonymous with “private”? It is my understanding that most private universities are non-profit. Still, I’d venture to guess there are different factors at play for public universities, private non-profit universities, and private for-profit universities.

        I don’t think student loans are the primary cause, but I do think they certainly enable (to use your costs) rising costs. I’m not sure what we do about this. Perhaps we tell any university that wants to accept federal student loans that tuition increases must be capped at inflation +1 or something?

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      • Sorry for being unclear. No, I’m not conflating private and for-profit. Private non-profits are a third category. You’re right that the reasoning for all of them is different. The two things that all three have in common, of course, are rising demand and non-dischargeable, government-backed loans for potential students

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      • It would seem that part of the rise in demand is the loans. Everyone wants a luxury sports car, but demand is limited to those who can afford it. If everyone were guaranteed an auto loan regardless of their ability to repay, you can bet your ass that the prices of BMWs would go up.

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      • Yup. The loans turn personal desire (“He thinks this is something he would like to have”) into economic demand (“We have another buyer”). That’s a part of it, anyway.

        I will also note that this is the phenomenon that actually moderated my view on K-12 vouchers. Once upon a time, I thought the government saying “We will give you $x and that can either pay a part of the tuition at the school of your choice or it can pay the whole thing, that’s up to you and the school” was kosher. Then it was pointed out that this would simply allow the schools to build up their infrastructure and charge more so that they can get the government money and whatever they could extract from the parents (probably something not too much unlike the tuition they’d be paying without the vouchers)… which would defeat the purpose. So my position shifted to “If you’re going to accept the vouchers, you can’t collect additional money from the parents.” (I’ve since shifted several more times on the issue, further adding requirements to schools that accept vouchers and moderating my views on the subject more generally.)

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      • Great point re: vouchers, , and something I hadn’t considered. (FWIW, I remain largely ambivalent about vouchers; abstractly speaking, I like the idea of school choice, but I’ve yet to see a plan that even remotely approaches what I think ought to be done; and even the best plan will not be the panacea folks seem to think.)

        I think people underestimate how supply-and-demand factor into school tuitions. We just tend not to see education as a commodity. One of the first responses schools have to enrollment drops is to freeze tuition; I’ve seen this happen firsthand. And when schools have waiting lists full of strong candidates, they can charge whatever they want. It’s not complicated, but understanding it does require thinking about education differently than we are used to.

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      • I am increasingly viewing charter schools as a valuable compromise, and so my enthusiasm for vouchers has weakened considerably. The devil being in the details of course.

        My alma mater is – despite not being the flagship or best public school in the state, the most expensive public school in the state. It’s also capping enrollment in order to become more selective. This is partly a betrayal of the college’s initial mission, which was very much geared towards advancing the working class. But I think it got tired of the “Negro U” nickname and reputation (for anyone wondering, no it isn’t an HBCU), tired of the jokes about how when we come to town no convenience store is safe when our sports teams come to town, and so on. And so it wants to become a different kind of school. Which it can afford to do by raising tuition and deflecting its former key demographics to other area schools. I don’t think this would be possible if not for the ability to charge more and ramp up facilities (in part by charging more). It’s good for my school, and in a sense good for me, but it does leave me with a bit of an uneasy feeling.

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  15. Will and I and others had this debate a long time ago, IIRC.

    My 9 theses (I have 90 more):

    1. Public colleges can be made much cheapier fairly easily by restraining competitive spending on fancy buildings, overpaying admin, hiring too many admin, requiring faculty to teach a bit more, including summers, and increasing funding for children from poorer families. This will require federal intervention linking subsidies and loans to whether a school demonstrates that they don’t spend beyond such and such on certain categories of spending.

    2. Most degrees, including many STEM degrees aren’t filled with content that leads to a job right out of undergrad that is useful. The main exceptions are Engineering, Nursing, Accounting and Education. On average chem and bio grads do well, but not always that much better than, IIRC Philosophy (without Religious Studies), Poli Sci and Econ grads. Business grads are decidedly middle of the pack, IIRC.

    3. It doesn’t solve societal problems if you get people to change their major into a field where their might be hiring demand. It just increases supply of labor and lowers wages. lawyers make a lot. Tell everyone to go to law school. Then lawyers don’t make much. This could sure happen with Chem, Bio, and even Engineering.

    4. STEM jobs that really make use of math, science and physics require talent. Pushing kids who don’t gravitate to those majors out of a love for the subject will just result in a lot of kids flunking out or the creation of a lot of crappy engineers and scientists. That doesn’t help anyone much.

    5. Even in the future, we will need marketers, artists, educators, designers, sales people, managers, planners, litigators, writers, etc. These jobs require creative and critical thinking prowess, and being good at giving presentations, writing analyses, explaining complex subjects, and doing research. That is what you practice in humanities education.

    6. There will always be more of those human services jobs (from 5) than tech jobs. Actually tech is profitable largely because you can earn a lot of revenue with low labor costs as a result of using few employees. Compare Google’s labor force with GM’s.

    7. As labor becomes more efficient and we use automation more, and as lifespans increase, people have more and more free time over the course of their lives. There is a societal question in front of us: how should we hope people will use that time? How should we subtly guide (not force by law) people into using that time in a way that leads to human flourishing. In the 18th-20th century more and more people were freed from having to do manual labor by automation. And many societies decided to require or pressure people to spend more of their childhood learning and less in the workforce. That is, we created nearly universal K-12 schooling, which is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to humanity, truly.

    We are now presented with even more time as we automate more. Getting more people to spend more of the years from 17-25 (or 36-41 for that matter) seems like a good thing for humanity. Pushing people into college is how we do that.

    What would be a better use of our time?

    8. The data on MOOC’s are coming in and MOOC’s are useful for self-learners but not scalable. They are an addition to the educational system (like correspondance courses through the mail) not a replacement for brick and mortar. For example, SJSU deployed a bunch of MOOC’s and the fail rate was horrendous and SJSU has suspended the program. We await more info on MOOC’s, but it doesn’t look that promising right now.

    9. Trade schools are good and necessary. But it can be a serious social injustice to push kids into trade schools to early without giving them a chance to explore whether they would be happier doing something not a trade. (And vice versa. Some kids should be given exposure to trades.) If we push more kids into trade schools, we have to make sure it is not part of some attempt to put the children of the poor into manual labor and the children of the rich into white collar work. Germany avoids this problem to some degree, but the U.S right now is one of the most inegalitarian countries in the history of wealthy countries and we have to confront that possibility.

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    • Great comments, Shaz,

      One comment on MOOCs. My take on history is that this type of change requires two things, technology (check) and institutional learning. The institutional learning requires decades or longer to learn. In other words, we have not yet learned how to use the technology to optimize education. My guess is that it will take a while, but that as we learn how to use it, that technology will allow us to completely redesign education.

      We will have substantially better education, and it will be virtually free. More likely for my great grand kids than my grandson (who will enter college in seven years).

      One other side comment. If it is indeed self starters who thrive in MOOCs, then I would expect employers to gravitate toward signals of self starting as this characteristic is highly desired.

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      • It’s also worth pointing out that the SJSU trial had some peculiarities that make it not the best example to draw conclusions from. Specifically, that it comprised of students who had already failed the course. The more recent study being mentioned has another issue, specifically that it includes as the denominator everyone who signed up for the (free) course. Well, one of the downsides of “free” is that you’re going to get a lot of people who aren’t really all that serious or enthusiastic about the class. And that’s okay, because one of the advantages of the cheaper offerings is that failing or pulling out of a class doesn’t bankrupt you.

        One of the perception problems that MOOCs are going to have to fight is that the student self-selection will often include a lot of marginal students who aren’t that serious about taking the class or have significant other responsibilities. A lot of these people are not the sort of people who would be showing up for a traditional class but who wouldn’t be able to take the class at all if it were a traditional class.

        All of that being said, yeah, online ed and MOOCs are going to be more useful to the self-starters. But honestly, I’m more interested in helping those with the drive and ability to do it on their own than I am the ones who need their hand held. As mentioned elsewhere in this thread, if everyone can graduate college then graduating college doesn’t actually mean very much that’s important. I don’t support making things difficult solely for the sake of making things difficult, mind you, but what it can’t do for the non-motivated student doesn’t damper my enthusiasm for what it can do for ones who are motivated.

        And, as the technology gets better, and the delivery mechanisms get better, the further into it we get the less intrinsic motivation it will probably require.

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    • With point 9, we also have to deal with the fact that the racial history of the United States suggests that a disproportionate of African-American and Hispanic kids are going to find themselves pushed into trade schools rather than colleges. If we developed a multi-track rather than single-track education system back in the day than I’m relatively sure that disproportionate amount of kids of color would get placed in the vocational track, especially if they weren’t Asian or Indian.

      Germany can also get away with multi-track education because their form of capitalism is a bit more communitarian than the American version and their welfare state guarantees a pretty nice life for their blue-color workers. The more individualistic form of American capitalism would not mesh well with a multi-track educational system.

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      • This would be something that we’d have to be wary of, but right now have the existing problem of society dividing people into one group of people who went to college and another group of people who failed to go to college. I’d be content to simply push it as an option. More prominently that it’s something you can do, and something more than just “failing to go to college” which is the message we often send these days. I think there’d actually be a lot of overlap between the people who would find such an option attractive, and who probably would not do well in college in anyway.

        I’d prefer pull up the latter a bit for college itself (no four-year college should be “open admission” in my view), but I can wait on that and see how it goes. It may not be necessary.

        Even with my preferred “late tracking system” I would be down with having a “rerouting option” where, if it turns out that you are more academically-minded than previously supposed, you can go to community college, get caught up, and try again for college admission.

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      • I generally find it useful to look to the historical record and figure out what can possibly go wrong with a given policy choice. When it comes to multi-track education, I think that America’s very problematic racial history and the nature of American capitalism would make it a bit of a disaster unless its very carefully designed or we institute a lot of other changes.

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      • I hear ya. I just don’t see the status quo working and I think adjustments that account for the fact that a whole lot of people aren’t built for college is better than the status quo built around the fiction that most people can or should be so built. I don’t think the current hierarchy is itself remarkably helpful to the people you’re concerned about.

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    • 7. As labor becomes more efficient and we use automation more, and as lifespans increase, people have more and more free time over the course of their lives. There is a societal question in front of us: how should we hope people will use that time? How should we subtly guide (not force by law) people into using that time in a way that leads to human flourishing. In the 18th-20th century more and more people were freed from having to do manual labor by automation. And many societies decided to require or pressure people to spend more of their childhood learning and less in the workforce. That is, we created nearly universal K-12 schooling, which is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to humanity, truly.

      We are now presented with even more time as we automate more. Getting more people to spend more of the years from 17-25 (or 36-41 for that matter) seems like a good thing for humanity. Pushing people into college is how we do that.

      What would be a better use of our time?

      I think, in a nutshell, this question is really the question for the ages.

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  16. When I got my undergraduate degree the university told me that I needed to take a little bit of the humanities and a little bit of the sciences and a little bit of this and a little bit of that because, well, because. I’ll be a better human being afterward they told me. And in hindsight I think they were right. Whatever happened to that? Sure, it’s a lot more expensive to be a well-rounded human being now, but isn’t it a good thing in and of itself? Whatever happened to that idea? I’ve long held a sneaking suspicion that all this anti-college rhetoric coupled with the huge increases in college costs are an effort by the plutocracy to create a less educated, more docile citizenry. Somebody show me that I’m just a crazy communist for thinking this.

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    • That became a casualty of the rising costs. It was easier to justify when it was less expensive.

      I was in the Honors College, which required a fair number of liberal arts classes, and the College of Industrial Technology (which needless to say did not). I will always treasure the former more than the latter. But the latter was the basis on which the family could justify spending $50,000.

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      • What were your responses to Shazbot above especially #4 with pushing kids towards STEM who don’t love it will result in bad scientists/engineers and a lot of kids flunking out?

        Also it is true that the more STEM there is, the more wages will decrease.

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      • I agree with #4 (and, in fact, that’s the logic I apply to college in general). If you don’t have an aptitude for STEM or an enjoyment of it, you shouldn’t do that. You’ll just be like the guy who should have been an auto mechanic. Tech was my ticket. It’s not everybody’s. I won’t inflict it upon my children, if it isn’t right for them.

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    • I’ve long held a sneaking suspicion that all this anti-college rhetoric coupled with the huge increases in college costs are an effort by the plutocracy to create a less educated, more docile citizenry.

      Except that the political will to cut education budgets are usually driven by fiscal conservatives who are your next door neighbor rather than members of the elite. (Or, are you an Elite?)

      Sure, the elite may be orchestrating the whole thing behind the scenes. But that’s one of those conspiracy theory type things that evidence can’t decide refute.

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      • Follow the money. You can trace who’s funding the propaganda for charter schools,
        and I can tell you that they’re not actually interested in better education for most
        American schoolchildren.

        Propaganda’s easy to follow, if you’ve got a nose for forensic accounting.

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      • You can trace who’s funding the propaganda for charter schools, and I can tell you that they’re not actually interested in better education for most American schoolchildren.

        I smell a tautology there.

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      • I think there were as many Joe and Jane Sixpacks living next door 35 years ago as there are now and my tuition was just ridiculously cheap, even adjusting for constant dollars. The overall society is wealthier than its ever been, we could easily send everybody to college for “free” if we chose to. So why is an inexpensive college education simply considered an impossibility nowadays?

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      • Patrick,
        Oh, not really. I’d be perfectly willing to say it wasn’t the RightWingMonster running things, if you could prove some genuine grassroots support. Well, without the propaganda. [And I will grant that there are Definitely Issues on the Right where it isn’t the RightWingMonster running everything].
        (and I think I did get the terms mixed up again — meant to be talking about vouchers MUCH more than about charters).

        [I’m using RWM instead of “vast rightwing conspiracy” because the second has a more exact referent, and it’s inaccurate in this case.]

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  17. This upstream from Tod:

    “I will say this: I have become a huge believer in letting kids who aren’t super-driven in high school work and live on their own for a year or two before attending college. I sure wish I had. I certainly would have appreciated the experience more, and I know I would have been a far better and more committed student.”

    Ugh. We are there now with the Oldest Daughter. She was a mediocre high school student but her test scores have always been off the chart and she is interested in a lot of things. Very similar to me at her age and so when she kicked ass on the ACT we just knew that college would allow her to flourish. To the contrary she felt like she was still floundering a major, while also wasting her college fund, and so now she is working full-time and living on her own and doing her best to prove that she is an adult and responsible. We know this is an important step for her but I want her to love college as much as I did. We have told her a hundred times that her major was not nearly as important as the experience of earning a degree and I think she believes that but for now it is not a priority. Parenting. Is. Hard. Sometimes.

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    • I’m with Tod here, Mike. And though I know nothing about your Oldest Daughter, you’ve shared enough for me to be confident her choice to forgo college (for now?) will not prevent her from flourishing. It’s the “she is interested in a lot of things” character trait you’ve assigned her that gives me that confidence.

      I went to high school in a small town and it was pretty much a cakewalk for me. By the time I graduated, I’d foolishly concluded (as only a teenager could) that I already knew pretty much all I needed to know. Now I loved learning and was excited to pursue college anyway. I majored in music at university since it was the one subject from HS that I thought was still challenging, but I went to a liberal arts school that stressed broad learning and required cross-discipline studies. These cross-discipline studies, especially in my junior and senior years, and getting out of my small town were massive eye-openers for me, but funds were tight and I had to finish in 4 years or not finish at all, so I stuck with my major when, if I had it all to do again, I’d have studied something else. I tried a music career, but that is a very tough row to hoe and I couldn’t pull it off. Since then, I’ve worked most of my working life trying to overcome the preconceptions my major instills in hiring managers, so I can’t agree that the specific major is not that important.

      Living out in the real world is a very good way, I think, to discover among one’s many interests which subjects you are truly passionate about and what areas of expertise are worthwhile for you to devote your life to. Some life experience can bring focus in that regard. My Oldest Son is mid-way through HS and I’m working to convince him that a year of work and travel before college would be very helpful to him.

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    • “Parenting. Is. Hard. Sometimes.”

      We’re in the midst of sleep training (with yesterday fortunately being the best night yet)… are you telling me it isn’t all downhill from here?

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  18. I suspect that, given someone who has 2/3 of the young, smart, disciplined thing down, there is an inverse correlation between how much that person is expected to go to college and how much they will be hurt economically by not doing so. (Statistically speaking in the aggregate, I mean, not every single individual.)

    Because the kids who come from families where it is just an inarguable, unquestioned fact that they WILL (eventually) get at least a 4 year degree? Generally have a million other advantages, before, during, and for decades after their early 20s, whether or not they get that degree. And the people like my brilliant, disciplined, whipsmart officemate, who never had much money growing up, went to the worst high school in town, didn’t excel academically because she was busy taking care of her family, and is, as if society’s deck wasn’t stacked against her enough already, African-American? No one expected her to go to college. She kicked ass and exceeded expectations after graduating high school by working hard, being awesome, and eventually ending up in a job where almost everyone had to have a college degree to get their resume looked at. (And I’m pretty sure she makes more money than I do, by a hair.)

    But now that we’re both in our mid-30s, and I finished my undergrad at 25 but she never went? My way is paved soooooooo much more smoothly than hers is. People falling all over themselves, still, to move me up the ladder (some awesome people, and some people I’d sometimes like to strangle). And she gets “well, maybe you should really take a class or two. get that college degree so you can…” without any real understanding of her situation, or her ever feeling like people really DO want her to go back to school. Even though, really, she and I are pretty much equal in every respect other than that I am better at selling “well, SHE obviously went to college” in ways that upper-class college-educated people find reassuring. (Also, she’s a better, and funnier, person than I am – but that’s not really germane.)

    That said, there are a lot of other measures besides the economic. Given the way the system works, my officemate made a wise decision to be the caretaker of her siblings and hold her family together instead of prioritizing school – because the system did a CRAPPY job of providing a social safety net, or equal opportunities, or insert-your-pet-peeve-here, and her sacrifices almost certainly made a huge positive difference to all of their happiness (including her own). She was needed to look after younger kids and put food on the table, etc. And, equally, it’s not just that she didn’t have the time and energy to do what I did (even granting that doing it just about wrecked me, I *hate* school, as you no doubt remember) – because it would’ve been about 5 times harder for her to achieve the academic successes I had, starting from a very similar intellectual prodigy as wee kids, because her economic and cultural context meant that teachers interpreted her differently than they did me, right from kindergarten as far as I can tell.

    Saying that she ought to have gone to college just erases the reality of how impossible it was for her… and how complex and hard to overcome the root causes of that impossibility were. We need to fix the system – the WHOLE system, but, you know, start anywhere and it will suck *less* than it did before – rather than fixate on individual choice and the actually-relatively-well-set kids who can afford to dither back and forth about whether they want to go to school or not. For every “should she or shouldn’t she” kid out there, there are probably a dozen kids who never had the chance to even consider a traditional four-year college as a serious option.

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  19. I happen to be one of those unfortunate few for whom college ended up as a poor investment. Naturally, I’ve given a great deal of thought to the why of that as I struggle to repay the loans. I think a big part of it was my family culture. Unlike many here my background was pretty humble. My folks came of age during the great depression and Dad had to drop out at the ninth grade work. Mom had a high school education and did clerical work. Of five kids only two of us have bachelor’s and I’m the only one to take a stab at post-grad. The first question out of anyone’s mouth when discussing college was, “What kind of job will that let you do? Note: Job, not career. And the idea of higher ed as a primary good in and of itself is totally foreign. It’s just a kind of expensive trade school. Also, no family money so the financing is all on you, kid, which reinforces that last.

    I don’t know if I would have had the chops to make it as an academic or scientist, but engineering was what I could justify. Too bad I was ill-suited temperamentally for that.

    So now I have a daughter in college and I think she may be avoiding my mistakes. Hopefully. She’s in a more generalized field (geography) that has wide application and both “soft” (sociological) and “hard”, STEMy (GIS) aspects. She’s aiming at a M.S. and is going on her second field trip to Peru this spring. Following her bliss and I couldn’t be more proud.

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    • The job v. career difference is one worth exploring and there is a lot sociology and psychology in the differences.

      People do say “I love my job” but job does not always have the same psychological component of career. Maybe I am just reading into things but a career sounds more like a calling and connected to concepts of self-worth and self-esteem. A job is just something you do to pay the bills and give you cash for what you really want to do. Actors and Writers and artists take bartending and food service jobs so they can do their art in their free time but I suspect most if not all of them would rather do their art full-time.

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  20. College teaches you how to set and acheive regular goals, using complex and new ideas as part of a larger group, under conditions where you must be entirely self-sufficient in your accomplishments while being totally accountable to others for your individual performance; what’s more, you must learn to satisfy both the objective and subjective criteria of those judging that performance.

    If this were the case, you’d expect to see diminishing returns from college. That is, the first year would be the most valuable, then the second, then the third, and then the fourth year would be the least valuable, because you’ve already been practicing this stuff for three years. In reality, studies of the relationship between education and income find a large sheepskin effect—the fourth year of college adds more to your expected income than the other three years put together.

    A likely explanation for your observations is that these days almost everyone has the skills needed to graduate from college does so. Those who haven’t graduated from college usually haven’t either because they’re not smart enough or conscientious enough.

    Do you really think that the percentage of people who lacked these skills was much greater back in the days when college was much rarer?

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    • If this were the case, you’d expect to see diminishing returns from college. That is, the first year would be the most valuable, then the second, then the third, and then the fourth year would be the least valuable, because you’ve already been practicing this stuff for three years. In reality, studies of the relationship between education and income find a large sheepskin effect—the fourth year of college adds more to your expected income than the other three years put together.

      Uh, there’s a pretty big confounder, there.

      From the aspect of the individual, you may indeed learn the most the first year, less the second, etc. That’s the practical learning implication.

      From the aspect of the hiring manager, though, the sheepskin is apparently the signal. This sorts of blows away the actual value of each individual’s individual years in college.

      That’s likely going to skew any analysis of economic value really heavily towards “finishing” as opposed to “going” to college.

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    • “If this were the case, you’d expect to see diminishing returns from college.”

      Huh? Just because you’ve lean red baseline, entry level skills doesn’t mean you know jack about your company, your new field, etc. You’re still at the bottom of the totem pole, not just in power but in terms of what you can contribute.

      “In reality, studies of the relationship between education and income find a large sheepskin effect—the fourth year of college adds more to your expected income than the other three years put together.”

      Huh? That the average person that is able to complete college does statistically better than those that drop out is proof that it’s all about signaling? OR am I not understanding what you mean by “the sheepkskin effect?”

      “Do you really think that the percentage of people who lacked these skills was much greater back in the days when college was much rarer?”

      I absolutely do.

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      • Huh? Just because you’ve lean red baseline, entry level skills doesn’t mean you know jack about your company, your new field, etc. You’re still at the bottom of the totem pole, not just in power but in terms of what you can contribute.

        The skills you describe in the OP are pretty basic. It’s not like learning an incredibly complex process where it takes four years to be worth anything. It’s not all going to snap into place after four years of bashing your head against the wall.

        To use me as an example, I went to college for two years, dropped out to get a job, and then finished while continuing to work in that job. My first two years were valuable, because they gave me the skills I needed to get the job, but the latter two were pretty much worthless as far as my job performance was concerned.

        That the average person that is able to complete college does statistically better than those that drop out is proof that it’s all about signaling? OR am I not understanding what you mean by “the sheepkskin effect?”

        There are three factors that in some combination explain the income differences between college graduates and high school graduates:

        1. Human capital: By attending college, people acquire skills that make them more productive, allowing them to earn higher incomes. This is the one you emphasized in your original post.
        2. Ability bias: On average, people who graduate from college are innately smarter and/or more conscientious than those who don’t, allowing them to earn higher incomes. I think that this is what you were alluding to in this comment.
        3. Signalling: People with college diplomas have better opportunities because employers believe that this certifies them as more productive, allowing them to earn higher incomes.

        The sheepskin effect is a combination of ability bias and signalling. When the sheepskin effect is large, that strongly suggests that the bulk of the college earnings premium is from ability bias and signalling rather than human capital.

        This doesn’t mean that you, as an an individual, should not go to college. The signal is valuable. But it does suggest that there is a socially wasteful rent-seeking component to college education, where people go not so much to enhance their productivity as to ensure that they have an edge over people who didn’t go, which weakens the case for subsidizing college education.

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  21. Great article, Tod,

    Here is the data on the rising costs of education. Fascinating stuff on how much it costs, where the money goes and who is paying. One interesting take-away is that the real price to parents and students after grants and subsidies is about one third of the average $8655 tuition. I highly recommend this study to anyone interested in the topic.

    http://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/college-pricing-2012-full-report-121203.pdf

    Miscellaneous thoughts:

    If two thirds of the cost is paid by others, this changes the nature of the debate. The question becomes both a matter of cost benefit to the individual and to whomever is really paying.

    Note the HUGE differences in prices by the type and location of the education. There are certainly less expensive ways to get an education for many potential students, including Community colleges and lower cost alternatives. Note also what a humongous portion of the expenses go to room and boarding. Another way to dramatically lower costs is to use local schools where available and practical.

    My personal concern is that we have a problem not with an education expectation, but a problem with people spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a half decade of country club living. I think a lot of people who are very strapped for cash could save a lot of money and still get an education without the bells and whistles and country club atmosphere.

    The payoff of a college degree can differ dramatically based upon the major chosen, the seriousness of the student and the relative educational efficiency of the chosen educational institution.

    Combining the above points, we need to ask why we are paying around six thousand dollars per student per year to subsidize lifestyle choices. Seems like we have an out of control arms race. We could get much, much better (and more) education for much, much less.

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    • Roger,
      Most people living in 400 sq. feet don’t think of themselves as living in a country club.
      I think most of them would qualify for living in a tenement, actually.

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      • Do you have this room all to yourself? If so… that’s practically Club Med.

        I felt spoiled because I lived in 400sqft with a roommate with a bathroom shared with only my roommate and two other people. The kids in The Towers had smaller rooms and floor bathrooms.

        These days, though, my plush accommodations are considered middle of the road at best. When I was a student, they were going to build more towers. Instead, everything new they’ve built is bigger and geared towards single-occupant.

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      • Give some balanced thought to my comment. Kim. Have you seen the facilities at some of these campuses? The locations overlooking Torrey Pines? They are geared toward an experience not just an education. We are often paying for consumption, not just educational investment.

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      • Roger,
        for my alma mater, half of the projected cost is room and board, and half is tuition
        (yes, the sticker price is higher).
        The Dorms Suck.
        (and yes, in a city, but $1000 a month per person is at LEAST double the going rate
        And they force you on campus for the first year).

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  22. I think one problem with college is that a lot of people who go there, enter college without much of a plan on what they would like to study or do after graduation. When I entered college, I knew that I wanted to get a B.A. in history and either go into teaching or become a lawyer. It wasn’t so much of a burning passion but I knew that I really liked history and would like to study more of it and that teaching or being a lawyer were probably the only sort of two jobs I’d be happy at.

    A decent plurality of kids don’t even have this sort of desire. They don’t know what they want to study and have little or no clue about what sort of career they want to pursue after graduation. What they do know is that if they want something thats decent paying, they need a degree and go to college for that reason.

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    • The worse problem is some of the “easy” majors preying on those kids.
      Psychology (not surprisingly!) is one of the prime culprits.
      I’m not bitching about the people who graduate with a psych undergrad
      and go into social work or other jobs which a psych degree is a decent prep for.

      But there are a LOT of people who take psych because “brains are kewl”
      and the courses are designed to be “interesting and fun” (not Hard Like Physics).

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      • My wife majored in psych*… and would probably agree. The worst and most dispiriting college class I ever took was adolescent psychology, followed probably by regular psych. Not because of the course material, but because of the class. I take credit for three A’s in those two classes, though. (I’m not going to explain how I got three A’s in two classes.)

        * – She also majored in biochem.

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      • Will,
        I had worse classes than psych. One in which a teacher called me a liar to my face
        (I was talking about how my grandmother got to this country, which you’d think I’d know,
        and I do).

        But our psych class was awful because the teacher was writing the book during it.
        So we got handouts, and then we got … sparser handouts, and by the end, no handouts.

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      • I’m not my brother but I think it is largely good with a bit of bad.

        There is nothing wrong with 18 year olds knowing what they want to do but there is something to be said about a meandering path to a career and self-discovery.

        However, there are a lot of societal messages that it is very bad.

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      • I am also not Lee, but I will say that this is one of those areas where I find myself in odd sympathy with my usual conversational adversaries. I think it would be a better world if most people didn’t need to make their career choice at 18. If undergraduate education – for those who go – were more broad in nature (either liberal arts, or more generally scientific) and then for those who want something specific they could focus on that within their education (but in less of a certification-oriented sort of way) and in grad school.

        It’s primarily in the constraints of the world as I see it that I tend to propose and support things so antithetical to the above.

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      • Its neither good or bad, its typical more than anything else. The problem is that when your eighteen your an adult and need to make some very important decisions involving what you pland to do with your life. Society doesn’t give young people a lot of opportunities to stop and think for awhile and most families aren’t rich enough to afford this luxury either. Kids generally do whats expected from their socio-economic group or what society tells them to do.

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      • I phrased my question poorly, and I largely agree with . I’m someone who more-or-less knew what I wanted to do (when I applied, I was torn between accounting and education so I applied to the arts-and-sciences school; when I took a college-level accounting class my senior year of high school, I realized it was not for me and transfered into the ed school after one semester) and have greatly benefited from that. My wife similarly went to college in a vocational program (nursing on a ROTC scholarship) which didn’t work out as well for her as it did for me but was not a hindrance to her eventual success.

        I think the idea that all 18-year-olds (or all 20-year-olds) should know what they want to do with the rest of their life is concerning. And while I agree with Tod to some degree about the benefits of college, I worry about students wracking up six figures of debt to get that benefit of college and possibly needing to compliment that with another expensive degree aimed at their career of choice. There are likely better — or at least cheaper — ways to get the unique benefits that college offers without sending mixed messages about what 18-year-olds should be doing.

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      • I think you are spot on. I knew I was going to be a drama major at college. The only question is whether I would combine it with a double major in history.

        The issue is that a lot of our thoughts on educational policy also get wrapped up in things like gloablization and competition and the economy. A lot of our Very-Important-People worry about the US going down to China. I think they suspect that China is the monolithic block where all people work in lockstep for advancement of the nation and no one bothers with the arts and humanities. We seem to go into a moral panic when there are pictures of a Hong Kong pre-school that has the stock exchange rates on the wall.

        Self-discovery becomes a luxury or wrong at this point.

        Though there is also probably the unrepentant drama major and romantic in me that finds the idea of an 18-year old who dreams of Wall Street success as being kind of depressing. Bohemian hearts never really die, even after they go to law school.

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      • Heh…

        The one period of my life (probably around 12- or 13-) where I really dreamed about going into business, it was largely because I imagined myself wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase, and “going into a tall building where no one knows what you do all day”.

        When I considered accounting, it was primarily because I was good at math and had good attention to detail. It was not because of any dream.

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      • I’m not so worried about competition with China (I believe, ultimately, in The Bigger Pie). I’m mostly worried about $50-100k investments not being recouped because the investments didn’t value-add sufficiently to warrant it. (And in this sense, it doesn’t matter whether the investment is being made by the student, the student’s family, or the state.) The upper-bounds on expenditure for college as a place to pursue intellectual interests or find oneself has been, for most people, far exceeded with the rising costs of education.

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      • This gets more into the issue of what is the point and purpose of an education especially an undergrad education.

        I’m more in the abstract here over the practical and think that the point of an education is to create critical thinkers, readers, and writers who are curious about the world.

        These is not something that can be calculated with simple economic analysis.

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      • I believe your goal for education to be mutually exclusive with sending as many people to go to college as possible. Or, for that matter, the economic rationale for college. Because if you don’t go to college wanting to learn critical thinking and the like, then you’re not likely to leave knowing it.

        That’s sort of what I mean elsewhere when I say that I am actually sympathetic to the more traditional view of higher education where it’s about expanding the mind rather than more direct economic application. That model depends, though, on college not being a place where large numbers of people are told to go for direct economic benefit.

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    • A decent plurality of kids don’t even have this sort of desire. They don’t know what they want to study and have little or no clue about what sort of career they want to pursue after graduation.

      I agree with that, which is part of the reason why I think the cost of college isn’t worth the potential reward.

      What they do know is that if they want something thats decent paying, they need a degree and go to college for that reason.

      Well, that’s part of the mind-set I think is incorrect. It’s very possible to earn decent income without a degree. Lots and lots of people do it.

      One thing I will say for going to school – even or perhaps especially community colleges – is that being around folks with a diversity of interests, experiences and career paths can embiggen a young person’s scope of awareness to include employment/career choices that they otherwise wouldn’t know exist.

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      • I think that going to college is still the wiser choice because it makes the crucial task of getting the job easier. Most high school graduates are probably well-equipped to do most lower level white collar work with a little bit of on the job training but college grads are more likely to get the job if only because of the symbolism conferred by a degree. This is only going to change if millions of would be college bound kids decide not to go at the same time.

        I agree with all the comments above that college gives people more flexibility that a lack of college doesn’t.Two summers ago I took a recreational cooking course. The teacher had her own very successful catering business. She started off life as an archeologist and did field work in Mexico and Central America. A person without a college degree might not be able to manage such a radical change of plans as easily not because they are unable to do so but because others would give them a harder time for getting the necessary loans or such.

        For non-white collar jobs, most high school students are going to need a bit of vocational training in order to learn the skills.

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  23. I think that college costs have exploded for a variety of reasons and aren’t simply attributable to one cause. The slashing of government funding for public universities certainly hurts but it isn’t the only cause. Costs at private colleges and universities have also exploded for a variety of reason. A lot of unscrupulous people have decided that an administrative position at university is a pretty good way to make a decent living because of the basically free money from student loans. If top administrators were paid more realistically and not given so many nice bonuses than costs would be cheaper.

    The decision to treat students as consumers and build ultra-luxurious dorms and other non-educational facilities also contributes to the raising cost of college. I can understand why a university would want great educational facilities or even sports facilities. I can’t understand the decision to build dorms that basically amount to a luxury hotel.

    Finally, the prestiege of getting a degree from a Western university in the developing world doesn’t help probably. Lots of rich people in the developing world are sending their kids to get degrees in the United States or elsewhere and paying the full cost. Administrators probably figuered out that these people are willing to pay basically anything and can get away with high tuition as a result.

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  24. By the way, , why are you limiting your advice to young people with internet access? Why do you hate [insert name of group which might typically have less access to the internet]?!?!?!

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  25. @jaybird

    Libraries are good and fine. I love libraries. But they are a supplement and nice extra and not a substitute to a formal education with classes, professors, and seminar. And in my experience those that are generally opposed to spending money on public education are also opposed to spending money on public libraries and keeping them well-stocked and open for good hours.

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    • Out of curiosity, would you say that a humanities degree in 2013 is worth more, adjusted for inflation, than a humanities degree in 1973? 1983? 1993? 2003?

      Would you say that spending money on education has gone up or down, adjusted for inflation of course, since then?

      If it turns out that spending money on education has gone up (adjusted for inflation!) since then, would that get you to maybe, just maybe, look at whether the problem is one that can be addressed by spending even more money?

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  26. Perhaps this is mentioned above and I haven’t waded through the comments to find it yet, but here is my two one-hundreths of a dollar:

    Humanities & many universities are either horrible at, or uninterested in, helping their grads parley their education into a career. Students have the idea that their Art History degree has value because Art Historians say it does in the field of Art History, without talking about how limited that field is (the whole Academia exists to train future Academics & those who can’t be the Future Academics are not the problem of the Current Academics). STEM works well because people with Mechanical Engineering degrees have lots of opportunities to become Mechanical Engineers. Art History majors are going to have to be a bit more creative with the husbanding of their careers. Universities should be doing a lot more to help students find ways to do this, but the departments who have students who need the most help tend to resist this, as they don’t want students to not pursue degrees in that department.

    Anecdote: My wife has a BA in History, and was advised by her faculty advisor to pursue a graduate degree in History so she could get a job as a historian. She took part of that advice to heart & got a graduate degree in Library & Information Science. That program was honest & told the students that the field of public librarianship is limited & insular & if you don’t have good contacts & a solid network within that field, your chances of getting a job there are slim. They then proceeded to talk about other ways you can have a successful & satisfying career with a SLIS degree. My wife did work as a public librarian for a time, and now she is a corporate librarian, and is getting a certificate in GIS (she loves maps) so she can switch industries, or create new opportunities for herself in her current industry.

    The fact that her school was honest with her at the start helped her get her mindset such that she could be flexible & parley her skills, instead of just her degree.

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    • There are plenty of theatre and arts professors who tell their students “If you can imagine doing anything else, do it” and then proceed to say how difficult it is to make a career in theatre and the arts.

      I did mention what you say here. I think the reason that people stress STEM STEM STEM because it is or does seem more direct and practical. Americans seem not so good at the indirect and meandering path.

      I think my years in theatre made me a better law student and lawyer and going to law school made me a better theatre director and dramaturg but it is in a more abstract, indirect, and harder to explain way than “I studied computer programming and became a computer programmer.”

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      • Art is only overgraduated in the former soviet socialist republics, as far as I can tell.
        (and their games don’t sell, so there’s still a market for American Artists).
        It’s still quite reasonable to make a living doing art around here.
        Now, mind, it will require some technical proficiency (more than Photoshop even)…

        I studied physics and became a computer programmer. Seems odd, no?

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      • Which is my point, students don’t see/know how to sell the skills they learned in college & during college into a career. IMHO, schools have a significant obligation to help students do this.

        The people Tod talks about in the OP are the BAs/MAs who’ve figured it out. The ones with sob stories, not so much.

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    • Wouldn’t an art history degree be good for somebody who wants to go into business side of the art world or museum work? I think a lot of humanities and fine arts degrees actually do have real world application beyond academia.

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      • that might be a good strategy as a minor to a business major, or vice versa. so long as they liked doing both and/or had aptitude and then wanted to train and network in that field, it might not be a bad idea, presuming the field is not incredibly hard to break into.

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      • Fine Arts, certainly. I know someone who has developed video games, and there’s always work for FineArtists (and musicians).

        I’d be more impressed by the humanities grads if they actually USED their damn courses outside of school [you can tell the Simpsons writers were geeks (and majored in geekly studies *duck*) because of their sheer volume of math/science jokes.]

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      • Of course, the thing about fine arts degrees is that you don’t need ’em.
        A portfolio will do, if it’s good enough.
        (and, yes, I’ve seen people hired from portfolio alone, no resume…
        though it’s more like “hey, this guy’s good — someone hire him” broadcast
        over the network).

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  27. I’m much more ambivalent about the benefits of a college education than the OP is. Or to put it more precisely, I’m more inclined to agree with et al. here who question how assured the benefits of a college education are.

    I do, however, recognize an important point here in ‘s OP, and I haven’t really seen it discussed in the comments (and I’ve read almost all of them so far):

    And if you do have a college degree, stop trying to tell other people how they should stick to the GED career route.

    I think Tod has a strong point here.

    I, for example, have my college degrees (in history, although my BA had a second major in French) and I’ve benefited from them in many ways. One is the personal self-fulfillment that’s hard to convey to someone not similarly disposed how that might be beneficial. This is something that’s hard to explain, for example, to , although I suspect he doesn’t say colleges shouldn’t offer courses in lit, history, etc., only that he questions the usefulness of studying them and questions the extent to which higher education funding schemes ought to promote them at the expense of more practical or more self-evidently “disciplinarian” bent. I do quibble with what his working definition of a “discipline” seems to be, but perhaps that’s conversation for another time.

    Another way college has benefited me is through my career opportunities. This has played out mostly in a way that has suggested above, that is to say, mostly and until recently “indirectly.” Before my present job, most of my jobs I held when I wasn’t a student (and those I held as a high school student and undergrad) were entry level. They either didn’t require a high school diploma or, as in my stints as a bank teller, bank customer service rep, and bank loan processor,* required only a high school diploma. Still, the fact that I had a formal education probably gave me (some of) the skills I needed to do well, or at least enjoy my job more than I would have. Again, though, that’s very indirect.

    My current job, which I hope to have (knock on wood) for longer than my one-year contract, perhaps does not require a PHD in history, but it nominally requires a MA in something, and I get to use my history knowledge every day. (I work at an archives.)

    I would demonstrate not a little hubris if I were to state that someone ought not have the same benefits as I did. And I ought to keep that in mind.

    All that said, I do have grave concerns about the increasingly default requirement that people ought to go to college. As pointed out above, the sticker shock has increased. Like him, the combination of my state tuition, parental support, and in my case, a scholarship, helped me get my BA debt free in something I enjoyed, and also helped me get my MA debt free. I have incurred debt for my PHD, but knock on wood, it doesn’t seem oppressive. It seems the sticker shock is greater now, and the opportunity cost, which was always there, might seal the deal to making college not a good option for some people.

    I’m also not so concerned that there is some great harm in having fewer people who have read Shakespeare or who have had to sit through a class on Aristotle (or a business history of the so-called Gilded Age). I do think there is a benefit we all gain from having an educated citizenry, but it is far too easy to suggest that this benefit is so pressing that it needs to inform our major policy positions. Heck, it would certainly be easier for me to talk to people on a wide variety of issues if they had. I’m not saying the humanities (and I consider history a humanity although others disagree) ought not be promoted. I just think we need to be self-skeptical when our preferences seem to align so neatly with the promotion of what we personally are inclined to value.**

    It’s not anti-intellectualism (a term an unstated premise of which seems to be uneducated presumably = bigoted) to say that other pursuits have value. And if some people’s strengths are not in academia or in areas well-suited to college learning, then maybe a system that compels more an more people to go to college regardless of non-college-centric strengths, is a bad one.

    How to correct it, of course, is another and more deeply fraught issue. Perhaps here is where Tod’s principled pragmatism can play a role. It seems most of us would like a system where being poor is not an impediment to a good education, and most of us would like a system that curbs costs and also reduces the sticker price of college for those who could benefit from it. I’m not sure how to get there.

    *Hmmmm….there’s a pattern, no? I guess I’m one of those who specializes in stealing from others, as has been suggested of bankers elsewhere in this thread.

    **We also need to consider what it means for someone to have had to sit through a class on Aristotle (or whatever). Someone who has to do so because it’s a requirement might not even absorb or be affected by the lessons. As an undergrad, I took a regular physics class. I got a B, but I probably deserved a C because none of what I learned to pass the multiple choice tests really stayed with me. But now my B is evidence of a minimum level of “scientific literacy” because I had fulfilled my university’s science requirement. Please don’t get me wrong. I do believe it’s a good thing to be scientifically literate, but the fact, by itself, that I passed that class doesn’t make me so in any significant way.

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    • I object to that bit from the OP actually. Unless I am saying “Even though the circumstances are the same for most people as they are for me, and even though I am glad I did what I did, they should do differently than I did.”

      Because if I tell someone “You should go to college. I did and I am glad I went!”

      They can ask “Well, how much did you go into debt to go to college?”

      “Well, roughly $0.”

      This also touches on what some other people are saying about college increasing flexibility and opening options. This was how college was sold to me (when I was 18, I was actually not so sure – I was looking at trade schools). And it worked. But a key part of that flexibility involved not going into debt over it.

      But even if my college wasn’t paid for, I could also point to the fact that college was half the cost then as it is now. Likewise, they could point out circumstances that favor going to college now more than then. The increasing stratification of wages and employment prospects, for example. Or that the economy is much worse for young people now than it was in 1997 and so while not going to college may have been viable for me then it isn’t nearly as viable now.

      In other words, different circumstance lends itself to different advice. So there is nothing contradictory about giving different advice than you took (even if you’re happy about the path that you chose).

      Where I do stumble, though, is that I almost certainly will want my daughter to go to college. And so from that perspective, I would be uncomfortable issuing a blanket pronouncement about college being a bad deal. It’s there, moreso than on the tire-treads of the path that I took, where the rubber hits the road.

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      • Thanks, Will.

        My approach to Tod’s statement was to take it as an admonition to those of us who went and benefited to wary of giving advice that we don’t have live by. I have in the past been given, and I have followed, advice from people who thought they knew better for me than what my own instincts suggested to me at the time. In one case (my decision to get a PHD), that advice was wrong, at least given what I knew at the time. (I of course didn’t know that I’d find the woman of my dreams who I was going to marry….so that changes the calculus in retrospect, but not in prospect.)

        There are other, and in my opinion probably more plausible ways to take Tod’s statement. And there, I agree with you.

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    • Pierre,

      I could certainly be convinced that getting a degree can be beneficial to an individual including the benefit of personal fulfillment, because I already believe that. Lots of people hold a belief that receiving a degree is something to be proud of; and that the range range of topics learned during that process made them a better person. I’m one of them, I suppose.

      But that doesn’t mean I think everyone should go to college. It also doesn’t mean I think the type of personal fulfillment we’re talking about will be realized for everyone. That strikes as a generalization that can’t be supported by the evidence, in particular, the evidence of a cost/benefit analysis limited to strictly monetary costs/likelihood of a job considerations. You seem to agree (via a comment at the end of your post) that the upfront cost of receiving a degree has increased in recent years. Has the likelihood of receiving a job increased at a commensurate pace? More importantly (and a little more confusingly) does the wage difference between likely employment opportunities (ones that require a degree or in the field of study vs those that don’t require a degree) justify the up front cost?

      That’s an empirical question, it seems to me, but certainly we all agree that the cost of receiving an education has gone up. Also, I think most of us agree that the likelihood of degreed kids finding a “good paying job” hasn’t kept pace with demand. From just those two considerations, I think a general claim follows: The marginal utility of receiving a degree has decreased (as a function of increasing price and decreasing “good paying” opportunities over time). (Does anyone really dispute that?)

      So, people move to other justifications for receiving a degree (personal gratification, networking, cultural signalling, etc) and ways to decrease the cost of receiving a degree (presumably because education is personally gratifying, or allows for networking, or it’s a necessary cultural signal, etc).

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      • I think I agree with almost everything you wrote, especially this:

        But that doesn’t mean I think everyone should go to college. It also doesn’t mean I think the type of personal fulfillment we’re talking about will be realized for everyone. That strikes as a generalization that can’t be supported by the evidence, in particular, the evidence of a cost/benefit analysis limited to strictly monetary costs/likelihood of a job considerations.

        Truth be told, I don’t think I misread your earlier comments. However, it’s quite possible I misrepresented them in my own comment, and if so, I apologize.

        The only potential disagreement is something I didn’t think of until I read the following part of your comment:

        presumably because education…allows for networking, or it’s a necessary cultural signal, etc.

        I think it’s quite possible and legitimate to argue that the study of the humanities grants people cultural capital and soft skills that are less easy (but not, I insist, impossible) to learn in other disciplines or outside the college environment. In some circles, there is, or can be, an intangible and tangential (but real nevertheless) benefit from being educated in the humanities. And that ought to enter into consideration.

        All that said, perhaps a greater part of the “cultural capital” argument owes more to the socialization that colleges provide. I have very mixed feelings about it. (As a graduate of a state school for my BA, I had a very hard time adjusting to that creature called the “private liberal arts college graduate.” Their socialization, in general, had been much different from mine and at least at the superficial level they had greater advantages in part because of it. At the very least and to generalize from anecdata, they seemed to speak a language of entitlement that served them well, but tended to be off-putting to me.)

        I also do agree with what I imagine to be one of your counterpoints. Humanities departments are treading a fine line when they assure prospective majors, for example, that “some” of their graduates go into and do well in business, or that the major will help them in that way. On the one hand, they are making an argument about cultural capital (and it is to be hoped, are offering access to internships, etc., to help them even more in that direction). On the other hand, they are offering a potentially misleading assessment of the prospective gains to be made.

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      • It also doesn’t mean I think the type of personal fulfillment we’re talking about will be realized for everyone.

        This is important. Which is to say that I think a lot of people who went to college and got a lot out of it on a personal level (me and the Honors College) believe that lots and lots of other people will, too. Which I think is true a lot, but in my mind leans heavily on assuming a temperament and level of intellectual curiosity that exists here in spades but does not exist to the same degree elsewhere.

        In other words, the borderline people we would be encouraging to go are less likely than the average OT commenter to approach college as an intellectually expanding exercise and more likely to approach it as the job preparation it is increasingly being sold as.

        (On the other hand, I went with the understanding that it was job preparation and backed into the important parts. So it’s possible that a lot of people who aren’t innately interested in college – like myself – will find it and love it the way that I did. So there’s that.)

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      • I was part of an honors program, too (at my university it wasn’t actually a “college”).

        I state this in part just to let whoever is interested know, but also as an acknowledgment that the implicit accusation I made against private liberal art college alumni might apply to me as well: in that program, I tended to adopt the same exclusionary and entitled posture that I often attribute to the private liberals college people. And I should stress that I realize I am making a hasty generalization here, and that state university grads like myself have their entitled way of talking, although it tends to manifest itself more as a chip on my shoulder than as something that’s more readily recognizable as privileged entitlement.

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      • With regard to the “socialization” argument, I think that’s very true. But I also think it is dependent, to a degree, on exclusivity. The valuable networking I got at Southern Tech was at the Honors College and not at the College of Industrial Tech. The latter was, while not open (the school itself is considered “somewhat selective” with nearly half of applicants turned away) it wasn’t the same. Just like Colorado State-Pueblo is not as helpful as Colorado State in Fort Collins is not as good as Colorado-Boulder is not as good as Cal-Berkeley.

        Or put another way, and given the way that the college admissions hierarchy tends to work, telling everyone to go to college to meet people will result in going to college and meeting a lot of the same sorts of people they would have met at their first job, rather than the social and networking opportunities as we tend to talk about them.

        It’s actually along these lines I’ve become rather wary of telling people “Save money and go to community college!” because community college is often going to lack the social and networking opportunities of a traditional college. The people I know who went to community college tended to keep their social networks from high school and/or their jobs.

        Which isn’t to say that community college is a bad idea. It’s often going to be the superior option if it’s the road to getting that piece of paper that involves less debt (and maybe once you move on to university you can hit the ground running and make your friends there?) but it’s not the no-brainer that some people make it out to be. It comes with a cost.

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      • Agreed, especially about the good coming at a cost.

        I do know that some community colleges offer chances at socialization. Some of them are fairly open (clubs, etc.) and some with aspirations to exclusion or at least differentiation (honors programs, cohort programs, etc.).

        Also, fun fact: I got my BA from CSU-Ft. Collins.

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      • I can say, with some relief, that I did not really take the whole Honors College thing to my head at all. I went into it for the most mercenary of reasons (priority class enrollment and better dorms) figuring that I would drop out when it stopped suited my purposes. It was only much later that I realized that every last one of my friends from college that I am still in contact with I knew from the HC and not the CIT (well, a few from the student paper… most of whom were also in the HC it turned out).

        That doesn’t stop what I have to say on the subject from sounding hopelessly snobbish. And it ultimately is. But that doesn’t negate the significance of it, in my view.

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      • I had and have very mixed feelings about the program at CSU. Its existence was one reason I had the scholarship I did–$2,000 per year for 4 years, which went a long way then toward tuition. The program itself was probably not all it ought to have been, but the dedicated honors classes were smaller (“just like a liberal arts college” was the selling point, another reason I oughtn’t throw stones), and it’s possible I developed intellectually a lot more than I would otherwise have, at least in the dedicated honors classes.

        The socialization aspect worked only partially for me then. That’s not a fault with the program, but in my undergraduate years, for a variety of reasons, I chose to withdraw socially and made very few friends. I was almost always socially anxious, and it’s possible that one semester, I might have even had an according-to-Hoyle depressive episode, although my grades kept up and I was never officially diagnosed.

        Again, that’s not a fault of the program, only something that colors my perception of it and of my undergraduate years in general. That is, it was intellectually invigorating but psychologically draining and hurtful.

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      • Pierre,

        In some circles, there is, or can be, an intangible and tangential (but real nevertheless) benefit from being educated in the humanities. And that ought to enter into consideration.

        Absolutely. Didn’t that used to be called “social grooming”? Finishing school isn’t just where folks learn how to spray polyurethane on stained wood, after all.

        Seems to me one of the instrumental values higher education provides is a process of conformity to prevailing norms for those who want to move up the social/economic ladder. We’ve talked about this before I think – the subtle pressures which compel kids to adopt the prevailing mannerisms and speech patterns exhibited by the members of the club they want to gain entry into. This sort of thing is, I think, highly pronounced (get it?) in humanities departments. When I was in grad school I remember waking up, as if from a terrible dream, wondering why I was suddenly talking like a different person. (That moment was the beginning of the end of my academic career, actually.)

        OK, the above might be a bit of a cynical view of the whole process, but you’re right: acculturation to certain social norms that are – as a matter of fact – selected for and rewarded (and for pretty good reason, it seems to me) is a big part of what college and post-graduate work is all about, it seems to me.

        I’d also one of the things conservatives like to criticize about it as well. So there’s that.

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      • By the way, , I’m pretty cynical, too. That cynicism, unfortunately, probably informs my stance on these issues more than it ought, which is why I’m inclined to think there’s something to Tod’s admonition against urging people not to go to college.

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      • Pierre,

        Could be. For me, the perception that graduate school was to a great degree about social grooming only hit me in the fourth year. (I was pretty slow on the uptake there.) Also, I’m not as cynical about the process of acculturation which undergrad sorta passively imposes on kids as I made it sound, since I think that insofar as college is a means to entering the white-collar working world or academia, the social norms being encouraged are a general reflection of the cultures those kids (apparently) want to enter into.

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  28. As one who does pre-employment evaluations of people at all levels of corporate America and internationally, and who does a fair amount of formal career counseling ( with both young people who are searching for identity and confused souls of all ages), I agree 100% with Tod’s thoughts on the value of a college education. There is one area upon which we have previously disagreed in another forum. This has to do with the use of Stafford loans to finance your education. If you choose your university wisely, as Tod’s son is doing, then there should be no problem paying off your loans with future earnings. However, if you choose a for-profit university, watch out! They are typically in the business of helping unsuspecting applicants obtain federal loans, taking that money, and providing them with a cheap-quality “education” involving low-paid, often under-qualified, adjunct faculty who are paid by the course. These students usually do not get to live, dine, play, debate, discuss, and compare notes with classmates in any way that would help with there growth, both intellectually and socially. If you watch the ads on internet and TV for these for-profit schools, they often appeal to the poor, the minority, the new immigrant, and the first in the family to attend anything called a “college” or “university”. No disrespect intended to any who choose to spend big bucks of taxpayer supported loans at the for-profit schools, but I don’t think they would be as likely to obtain the kind of life and job-related skills that Tod so masterfully described in his piece. And, the default rate on loans to students attending for-profits is astronomically higher than the default rate on student loans at the not-for-profits. Surely there are exceptions (including Tod, himself, if I recall correctly), but caveat emptor!

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    • A lot of the criticisms you apply to for-profit apply to a lot of schools. With the exception of teacher qualifications (and even then, your professor is often not exactly a professor), you’re describing a commuter school. And there are some for-profits that doesn’t describe (I get that impression about Neumont, anyway, and at least one of the DeVry campuses.).

      Not that I’d recommend for-profit schools. They’re something to consider for some people under some circumstances – and had some value early on before traditional universities started doing a better job of accommodating non-traditional students – but seem over-utilized.

      (To be fair, most non-profit commuter schools are public schools, so there is state support involved above and beyond the loans.)

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