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Another View of The Need for College

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If you’re a parent or rising high schooler, this is something you may care to consider. In question: Is a college education necessary for one to secure a good job?

I’ve written about this before in previous posts. My contention has always been that while a college education is not mandatory for success -- and even happiness -- in life, it can expand our horizons and feed our intellects and experiences in ways we may not have thought possible.


However, there are reasonably convincing arguments that college isn’t for everyone. I tend to agree with that generalization. Not everyone is suited for the academic and social environment of higher education, not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote Seinfeld.

What's the Relationship Between College, Career?

In thinking about this, I did some research to see what those who think college isn’t the best option had to say. I also discussed this with some of my friends and got one rather convincing take on the pro-college side of the ledger. I’ll mention that later.

For now, though, I would like to concentrate on a very detailed article on The Atlantic website by Bryan Caplan, who is an economics professor at George Mason University and the author of The Case Against Education. This article is an adaptation from Caplan’s book.

I’ll highlight what might be considered to be Caplan’s thesis statement, or at least one version of it, to set the tone. I encourage you to read the entire article and, if you’re fully inspired, the actual book itself.

Granted, Caplan’s view is decidedly objective, perhaps acerbically so. He minces no words when it comes to the relationship between education and career preparation. For example:

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks, “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

The disconnect between college curricula and the job market has a banal explanation: Educators teach what they know — and most have as little firsthand knowledge of the modern workplace as I do. Yet this merely complicates the puzzle. If schools aim to boost students’ future income by teaching job skills, why do they entrust students’ education to people so detached from the real world? Because, despite the chasm between what students learn and what workers do, academic success is a strong signal of worker productivity.

That’s pretty much clinically cynical, in my view. Caplan’s comment about studying history flies in the face of the common wisdom that those who do not learn from the bitter lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. I can challenge other aspects of that first-cited paragraph, but I’ll restrain myself, since I’m presenting “another view” here, as my post’s title states.

This article is quite long and so richly adorned with text and lavish graphics that I’ll forewarn you about your device’s ability to handle all of it. I mention this because, at least with my own otherwise quite capable and nimble iMac, its loading slowed things down noticeably. So, I hope you don’t need to reboot, as I did.

That caution aside, and having stated Caplan’s macro-level view of the value of college, I’d like to reference another interesting writer’s take on Caplan’s contentions. John Stossel is, at least for me, a voice of common sense sanity in this world of complex ideologies and consumer issues. I’ve enjoyed his observations and opinion pieces for many years. Stossel picked up on Professor Caplan’s stand on higher education and wrote an interesting response to it.

Surprisingly, as an Ivy League graduate, Stossel agrees with Caplan, which I find interesting. Here are a few highlights from Stossel’s comments:

What Everyone's Afraid to Say About College And Jobs

Today, all Americans are told, "Go to college!"

President Obama said, "College graduation has never been more valuable."

But economist Bryan Caplan says that most people shouldn't go.

"How many thousands of hours did you spend in classes studying subjects that you never thought about again?" he asks.

This sets up Stossel’s response nicely. It surprised me.

Lots, in my case. At Princeton, I learned to live with strangers, play cards and chase women, but I slept through boring lectures, which were most of them. At least tuition was only $2,000. Now it's almost $50,000. 

Well stated! Stossel could have made his confession even more apt had he gone beyond just the tuition cost and used the entire student budget at Princeton, which is currently just north of $70,000. He continues:

"If you just take a look at the faces of students, it's obvious that they're bored," he says. "People are there primarily in order to get a good job."

That sounds like a good reason to go to college. But Caplan, in his new book, "The Case Against Education," argues that there's little connection between what we absorb in college and our ability to do a job.

"It's totally true that when people get fancier degrees their income generally goes up," concedes Caplan, but "the reason why this is happening is not that college pours tons of job skills into you. The reason is ... a diploma is a signaling device."

It tells employers that you were smart enough to get through college.

But when most everyone goes to college, says Caplan, "You just raise the bar. Imagine you're at a concert, and you want to see better. Stand up and of course you'll see better. But if everyone stands up, you just block each other's views."

That's why today, he says, high-end waiters are expected to have college degrees.

From a supply and demand perspective, one might begin to see the light here. When the market is flooded with college graduates, the value of that degree might possibly be diluted. I have firsthand experience dealing with freshly-minted college graduates and the lack of knowledge and skills they possess. Not all of them, obviously, are like this, but some have shocked me with their paucity of what at least used to be common knowledge.

For example, I once worked with a recent college grad, preparing her for a teacher certification exam. Keeping this anecdote mercifully short, I discovered that she could not convert fractions to percentages. She could not understand that ¼ was the same as 25 percent. I learned that conversion in fourth grade, maybe earlier than that. Also, she had no idea where the island country of Madagascar was located. There were other amazing deficiencies but these two made me aware of some issues with at least her higher education experience.

According to Stossel, Caplan concedes:

"If you're doing computer science or electrical engineering, then you probably are actually learning a bunch of useful skills," Caplan says. But students now often major in abstract topics like social justice, diversity studies, multicultural studies.

"But don't the liberal arts expand people's minds?" I asked. Philosophy? Literature? Isn't it all making our brains work better?

"That's the kind of thing you expect teachers to say," answered Caplan. "There's a whole field of people who have actually studied this (and) they generally come away after looking at a lot of evidence saying, 'Wow, actually it's wishful thinking.'"

Then, confirming what I discovered with my teacher-test-prep client: A study found that a third of people haven't detectably learned anything after four years in college. 

Keep in mind that I am pro-college. However, I’m always willing to consider opposing viewpoints on most topics. (Note my emphasis on “most.”) As a result of reading both Stossel and The Atlantic’s article based on Caplan’s book, I decided to ask a few friends about their thoughts on the value of college. The best response I got came via email from one thoughtful acquaintance, the parent of a son who enjoyed a “full-ride” merit scholarship:

I agree that most college classes are a waste of time except, perhaps, for students majoring in engineering, sciences and computer science or related areas. But even those students have to sit through a lot of useless crap, too. But I do feel that the college EXPERIENCE is valuable. Campuses are a good way for teenagers to bridge the gap between youth and maturity and to learn to be on their own without being too much on their own and without killing anyone or getting killed (as they might in the military). I actually think that [my son] had a pretty perfect college experience:

- He didn’t pay a nickel.

- He got to spend a summer month in Europe for free, too.

- He found a girlfriend he seems to really like plus a bunch of close friends.

- He learned some actual skills through his [school’s] basketball [team’s] job and collected some resume fodder in the process.

- He got to live in a new and unique place.

[Also] The “didn’t pay a nickel” part is key.

So, what do you think? think that making the decision to go to college deserves some reasonable consideration. I agree with Caplan that a degree is a “signaling device” that sends a (hopefully) positive message to prospective employers. It also provides a credential that can satisfy a specific job requirement. It can be expensive, though, as Stossel notes, and you no doubt realize.

The consequences of that cost can include an almost lifetime of student loan debt. I’ve discussed that numerous times here. Thus, balancing the scales of decision can be a perilous, but in my opinion, necessary process. I urge you parents and college-minded high school students to consider all options and opportunities before committing to an expensive higher education.

Did I need college? Had I not gotten a degree, would I have been able to do what I’ve done so far in my life? These are fair questions.

To answer, I would say that I didn’t “need” college, per se, but even if I had managed to land where I am now in life without having attended, I would regret not having had the experience. I might say the same thing about my military service, which contributed directly to my job acquisition and success therein. In a way, then, I had the benefit of both higher education and specific “vocational” training. There’s something to say for both.

Oh, just in case you’re curious, I’m not going to comment on whether or not, like Stossel, I “learned to live with strangers, play cards and chase women, [or] slept through boring lectures.” I’ll leave that up to your imagination!