Do You Really Need College?

Do you really need college nowadays? Does it really give you skills and knowledge that you can use later in life? Is it a unnecessary, out dated hurdle?

Back in January, we talked about Peter Thiel's proposal to give $10,000 to a smart kid, so he/she can drop out of college and start their own business.  

Andrew Sullivan and his readers are talking about it now. 

From Helaine Olen, I found this great graph looking at college expenses. 

Chart  

More here.

34 thoughts on “Do You Really Need College?

  1. College is a bundle of things: somebody to cajole you through calculus and help you understand what’s important in biological classification, late-night bull sessions which help you discover the basis of your views, tiresome tenured prigs telling you, as Orwell said, things so stupid only an academic could believe them. When I was in finals week one of my dorm-mates said, ‘University life is months of boredom punctuated by days of stark terror’.
    If it’s good, you get nudged towards new things and make lifetime friends who help you make more of yourself. There’s an awful lot of credentializing in second- and third-tier colleges, at very high cost, and for people for whom not much is happening in terms of real knowledge acquired or growth/friends. This leads me to think it is likely worth it to go to Dartmouth, if they take you, but doubtful that Chico State is of much value to most of its students in comparison to staying home and taking some vocational courses in a junior college.

  2. “This leads me to think it is likely worth it to go to Dartmouth, if they take you, but doubtful that Chico State is of much value to most of its students in comparison to staying home and taking some vocational courses in a junior college.”
    Not sure Chico State deserves to be put in this category (don’t know enough about it). But, I do agree that 2nd and 3rd and 4th tier schools have sprung up around the observation that there’s a correlation between college education and economic outcomes (kind of like giving everyone an umbrella to end the drought, since umbrellas are correlated with rain).
    It’s terrible to see the folks who lie about college, because they’re perfectly good at the job they do (but are left out marginalized without the degree). The admissions director in MA, the sheriff in WA, . . . . John Elder Robinson (“Look me in the eye”) has an interview pointing out that the requirement for artificial and irrelevant credentialing is a big bar to him, since he has lots of skills, but can’t manage the particular skill of college.

  3. As a history professor, I teach many students who come into higher ed without a real agenda beyond wanting to study something they like with the aim of getting a job.
    They’re not ready to drive themselves as entrepreneurs OR as focused students. Perhaps an apprenticeship or on-the-job training might be a more realistic model if you’re floating alternatives to university for large numbers of people. These aren’t easy to mass-produce either, though!

  4. The actual Orwell quote was: “..It is, I think, true to say that the intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people, and that they were more swayed by partisan feelings. The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool…”

  5. A degree gets you in the door at many places. In my organization, there is only so far you can go if you don’t have a bachelor’s. Your pay is also impacted. I am paid as much as another person in the org that has 5 years more experience because I have the degree and she doesn’t.

  6. If you can pay off the debt within a reasonable span of time, and have the intelligence and grit to do the work, yes.
    All colleges are not equal, and not all majors make sense.
    According to the Boston Globe, a degree in Computer networking from Wentworth Institute of Technology makes sense. http://tinyurl.com/44maj9e
    The Wall Street Journal had an article some years ago about a successful musician, at the top of his profession, who will never be able to pay off his loans.
    I think we need hard-headed career advisors with a background in accounting for high school students.

  7. I think those capable of doing the work (say the top third or so of high school students) should head to college unless they feel a strong pull toward some specific not college thing (i.e. military, family business, or a specific, detailed business plan of their own). People that young can’t make an actual career plan, regardless of the quality of advice they get, and college is probably where they will figure out the plan.

  8. Yes. We really need college.
    We need more critical thinkers in our society, more innovators, abler writers, and policymakers who understand the implications of their policies. These skills are taught in college.
    That there is a variation in inputs and outputs of college and that some people put more into it than others reflects the variation in our population. But to restrict college to those who “are college worthy” in any sort of systematic way will make our system underperform, since it will discriminate disproportionally against those whose progress is not standard in social terms (that is, people who are not upper-middle class white).
    And to castigate 2nd and 3rd tier at the expense of the 1st tier and purports to find value in the one and none in the other is overemphasizing rank at the expense of content.

  9. “They’re not ready to drive themselves as entrepreneurs OR as focused students. Perhaps an apprenticeship or on-the-job training might be a more realistic model if you’re floating alternatives to university for large numbers of people. These aren’t easy to mass-produce either, though!”
    I think we need to think more seriously about the discrete skills that are important. A lot of times, a single course or a handful of courses could make a huge difference in a person’s ability to make their way in the world. For instance, an introduction to accounting for tradesmen and small business people could be life-changing. I know from listening to a lot of personal finance radio that there are quite a few people who are fantastic at their particular trade, but a disaster with paperwork, taxes and billing. Even just understanding that 1) the paperwork and accounting side is crucial 2) you don’t enjoy it and 3) you can hand a lot of it over to somebody else could save a lot of hardship, embarrassment, and heart ache, not to mention potentially avoiding divorce, bankruptcy and prison (for tax issues). Likewise, making sure that every high school graduate has a sound knowledge of 6th grade math could really make a difference in that person’s life, perhaps combined with a rigorous personal finance course. There are huge sectors of the US economy that are devoted to relieving naive, lazy and ignorant people of what little they have.
    “I think we need hard-headed career advisors with a background in accounting for high school students.”
    Amen!

  10. “We need more critical thinkers in our society, more innovators, abler writers, and policymakers who understand the implications of their policies. These skills are taught in college.”
    On the other hand, a high school kid who realizes that it’s not a good plan to take on $100k in student loans is already well on their way to being an effective critical thinker.
    Here’s the classic NYT tale of the young woman who got into $97k in student loans while studying women’s studies and religious studies at NYU.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/29/your-money/student-loans/29money.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2
    One thing that I find interesting about these debt stories is how much the amount of loans students wind up with varies. There are a lot of these six-figure horror stories, but the median student loan level is much smaller. It would be interesting to figure out what makes the difference. Part of it has got to be family income, but there are probably other factors.

  11. Man, everyone hates on Chico State. I’d never even heard of it before two weeks ago.
    Yesterday conversation in one of my research groups turned to the business undergrad major, which apparently is not opening doors to careers in the way that students want. The top national firms prefer top-tier liberal arts schools to the business BAs that come out of our (Research I, reasonably ranked) school–because business degree kids can’t write, and don’t show logic skills. The extra economics classes apparently don’t make up for this. Their math is sometimes a little better than our English majors, and sometimes not….
    Basically, it’s not an accounting degree. From which real money can come.
    (And don’t the really bright and motivated go to college and/to start the amazing start-up? And tend to be good at computers and math, which leads to science degrees and actual jobs, anyway?)

  12. The first sign of a real guidance counselor is that they tell students business isn’t a real major for a BA and that any school which graduates too many of them isn’t a real university. The second sign is that they ask kids who want to major in English if they’ve want poverty or law school in their future.

  13. I didn’t read the whole thing, but Wendy’s article looks interesting. I think business is a dangerous major because it sounds hard-headed and practical to the inexperienced. On the other hand, it could potentially be a very good double major or minor, say business-and-English or business-and-Spanish or business-and-biology or business-and-computer-stuff.
    I have one more thing to add to my list of things that tradesmen need to know: how to price out a job so that you get the bid, but still make money.

  14. My sister went to business school and learned a lot, but that was in Germany (I forget how the German college categories work, but her school was a notch or two below a university). Also, our family is very, very entrepreneurial and she runs about three different businesses with her husband. Her husband also went to German business school, but the thing that got his foot in the door in the corporate world was a separate (???) course in a particular high-demand computer system. He’s been a very well paid corporate consultant ever since.

  15. The German business major is more serious than the American business major. I’d liken it more to an MBA, not “business” courses. Our niece is pursuing a business degree in Germany, and her courses are much more demanding than described in Wendy’s article. University students in Germany must attain a set score on the Abitur for each major. There’s also a fair degree of attrition. As the state bears much of the cost of education, there’s no benefit to the college to keep students enrolled who aren’t doing the work.
    German business students are also by definition acceptable English speakers. In some regions, the second language is French or Russian, I believe. At any rate, they’re not monolingual, which raises the bar.
    Amy P, of your list of “things tradesmen need to know,” there isn’t anything for which college is the only source. (Forgive the sentence structure.) I don’t think a B.A. would provide you with the knowledge you list as essential for a business owner.

  16. “Amy P, of your list of “things tradesmen need to know,” there isn’t anything for which college is the only source. (Forgive the sentence structure.) I don’t think a B.A. would provide you with the knowledge you list as essential for a business owner.”
    Exactly. I think a lot of people would be well-served by doing courses a la carte, rather than going prix fixe, which is what a BA is.
    That was interesting about what you said about German business school.

  17. Going to beg to differ with Cranberry on German university degrees. The first degree attained by a German graduate may be slightly more valuable than a BA, but not to the level of a good (or probably even average) MBA. Much of the “improvement” of a German university grad is the simple fact that a large fraction of them are 25-27 upon finishing that degree. Stack an American who finished the BA at 21 and has six years of full-time work experience against a newly minted German graduate who may have had internships or have “gejobbt” a bit, and you will have a very different comparison.
    In terms of life choices as well, Germans have a very compressed period of time between university graduation and significant advances in their careers. I want to say it’s the tightest in the OECD but I am sure I won’t be able to find the cite. Especially for women, and doubly especially for women in fields that require training beyond the first degree, this is a serious structural problem.

  18. In terms of life choices as well, Germans have a very compressed period of time between university graduation and significant advances in their careers.
    Whereas I can drag-out the question of whether or not I’m going to amount to anything until well into my 40s.

  19. Piggy-backing on Doug’s point: the freedom of the American system is one of its hallmarks. I am very uncomfortable with the “some people are not college material” framework, since that sort of thinking, if implemented in policy, would lead to a lessening of options for folks.
    Moreover, I worry about the sort of process that would winnow out who was “worthy” of a college education.

  20. As I’ve said before, if I were queen, I would make colleges carry the notes for student loans themselves. If NYU knew that they would be responsible for collecting from that young woman with the women’s studies/religious studies degree, they’d think a bit harder about admitting her, and they’d think even harder about loaning her $97k. It’s the ready availability of stupid borrowed money that plays such havoc with tuition prices. Borrowed money spends very differently from cash because it’s somehow illogically felt to be “free”. Higher education was a lot less expensive before there were so much “help” available to pay for it.

  21. “It’s the ready availability of stupid borrowed money that plays such havoc with tuition prices.”
    I really agree with this. I think the problem reaches its zenith with for-profit colleges (and other 3rd tier institutions) that promise students dreams that the school has no chance of delivering (and that the student is probably not prepared for). It follows all the parallels of the 0% down mortgages and the impact that “free” money had on housing prices.
    My scheme wouldn’t be to force schools to carry their own loans, but to be far more punitive in the availability of future government-guaranteed aid when students default. The plans for for-profits are a good step, but they should apply to other schools, too. As with medical care, this would mean that schools wouldn’t take on students who would be tough to educate. But, if they’re not going to educate them anyway, having the student take on substantial debt doesn’t seem like an improvement.

  22. I too am suspicious of restricting availability of college based on the advice of hard-headed counselors (the one person I know who was advised by his counselor that he wasn’t college material is now a professor at MIT).
    On the other hand, I think the trend in college education, to offer education but not demand that students learn means that colleges aren’t places where critical thinking is learned unless the students are prepared to use what’s offered. That means the traditional college isn’t the right place for some students and pretending that it is, that the correlation between critical thinking and a college education is irrelevant for many.

  23. On the other hand, I think the trend in college education, to offer education but not demand that students learn means that colleges aren’t places where critical thinking is learned unless the students are prepared to use what’s offered. That means the traditional college isn’t the right place for some students and pretending that it is, that the correlation between critical thinking and a college education is irrelevant for many.
    Yet, I think we all worry about the kids who start college and don’t finish with a degree–worst case of all words, with potential debt and not even the paper which, meaningful or not, gives you a leg-up in terms of job searching. Relaxing the requirements is alas the easiest way to keep these students around for the 5-6 years and minimum requirements before you can hand them a degree….
    (How many of us are really trained to teach critical thinking besides? I think pedagogy is rather underdeveloped in graduate training. Even for those in the education school here.)

  24. Doug, I was referring to Wendy’s article, which stated: Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement: Nearly half of seniors majoring in business say they spend fewer than 11 hours a week studying outside class.
    (…)
    He adds: “It seems like now, every take-home test you get, you can just go and Google. If the question is from a test bank, you can just type the text in, and somebody out there will have it and you can just use that.”
    This is not senioritis, he says: This is the way all four years have been. In a typical day, “I just play sports, maybe go to the gym. Eat. Probably drink a little bit. Just kind of goof around all day.” He says his grade-point average is 3.3.

    I’m not comparing the German university degree to a traditional liberal arts BA, although that also depends upon the institution awarding it.
    The German graduate is nearer 30 upon graduation, although that has more to do with tight budgets in university departments, which make it difficult (or impossible) to complete degrees in 4 years.
    Would someone like to define tiers in this discussion?

  25. “My scheme wouldn’t be to force schools to carry their own loans, but to be far more punitive in the availability of future government-guaranteed aid when students default.”
    Yes, that is more punitive, but I don’t know that it would help. By the time that the former student realizes that they are trapped, it’s too late–adding more penalties at the back end is just piling on.
    I don’t know exactly how this student loan stuff works now, but I keep hearing about people living off of their student loans (like Octomom). I think that is horribly misguided and I wonder if the usual conditions for student loans (nondischargeability in bankruptcy) apply to student loans used for living expenses. I don’t think they ought to, but I have a bad feeling about it.
    Lastly, there really has been a lot of lifestyle creep for undergraduates. I went to a hotsy totsy rich kid school in the 1990s, but I never saw the stuff you see today. There were no moving trucks moving undergraduates in when I was a student, no parents buying homes for students to live in during college, no luxury student housing. If I could show you guys the new off campus housing developments around here, you’d absolutely implode from envy. Not everybody is living that life, of course (there are still lots of fleabag rentals), but it’s not just tuition that has gotten more expensive–“live like a college student” is no longer clearly an exhortation to frugality.

  26. “. . . but it’s not just tuition that has gotten more expensive–“live like a college student” is no longer clearly an exhortation to frugality. ”
    My observation, too. In some cases, it seems like everyone read some book about Harvard or Yale in the age of trust funds and decided it was an American rite of passage.
    I think punishing schools for their default rates by preventing their students from borrowing more money would have a significant impact on school’s advice about student loans. Some schools would just have to close shop (most of the for-profits). But NYU, well, maybe they’d be more cautionary in their advice. They can’t prevent a family from mortgaging their house or withdrawing from their 401K, but at least they wouldn’t have the incentive to encourage students to take on non-dischargeable debt.
    (and, I think that all government-guaranteed student loans, even the ones issued by private banks, are *not* dischargeable in bankruptcy. Not sure about the parent loans).

  27. Oh I have no idea how I define tiers. I tend to exclude flagship state universities from my lower tiers, but I have no real knowledge of their quality.
    And, I suspect my tier is really based on the quality of the students who attend, and not on the education offered. So, a student could get a solid education at a “3rd tier” school. But, the ones who go or for whom that’s their only option don’t.

  28. I think punishing schools for their default rates by preventing their students from borrowing more money would have a significant impact on school’s advice about student loans. Some schools would just have to close shop (most of the for-profits). But NYU, well, maybe they’d be more cautionary in their advice. They can’t prevent a family from mortgaging their house or withdrawing from their 401K, but at least they wouldn’t have the incentive to encourage students to take on non-dischargeable debt.
    I’m too tired to Google the details now, but do you remember the private student loan kickback scandal? Colleges & universities were steering students to “preferred providers,” and receiving outright payments from the lenders? I don’t know if they’ve stopped those practices. That would be an incentive for anyone.
    Amy P, I have a bad feeling about student loans being undischargeable, period. One reason people get in over their heads in debt is that there’s no incentive for the lenders to exercise discretion in lending. On the other hand, I don’t think that using student loans for living expenses should be rewarded.
    Remember Rachel Yould? http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_toobin

  29. I thought tiers were based on US News & World Report, which publishes colleges based on tiers. Most schools you’ve heard of not in your local region are first tier. Most schools you’ve heard of in your region but are not known outside your region are second tier. Most schools in your region you’ve never heard of are third or fourth tier. The truth is, about 99% of schools mentioned in the media that are not in some cautionary tale are first tier, even if they aren’t considered so by Tiger Mom.
    In terms of college, if you can go to a top tier school (any student with above 3.0 or above an 1100 on the old system of the SAT probably can) with less than five figures of debt or very low five figure debt it is probably worth it regardless of major. The more debt you have to take on and the more esoteric your major and the less prestigious the school, the less college makes sense.
    Of course, college scholarships are regressive, in the more prestigious the institution, the better aid you are likely to get. If you get into Harvard and are middle class, they will actually pay you to attend, and the same is true of other very elite institutions. If you are a good student and test decently well, you can also get a very nice merit scholarship to a lower or mid ranked ranked top tier school who wants to be ranked a bit higher. Score in the 98th percentile on the SAT, and you can probably get a merit scholarship to a state school honors program or a solid liberal arts school. In that sense, there’s no harm in, say, being a poetry major at Grinnell, and graduating with no debt.

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