College Professor: Higher Education is Overrated (But It Has Been Berry, Berry Good to Me!)

If it is possible for a tenured economics professor in an Ivy League school to write a bombshell of an article, rhetorically chomping and chewing on the very hand that has been feeding him for the last four decades, then that’s what has happened here.

This essay is posted on the Atlantic Monthly website, to be published in their Jan/Feb. 2018 issue, print edition.  It is an extract from a soon-to-be published book the author has written, with a somewhat provocative title: The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.

You remember the Atlantic Monthly, right?  That iconic East Coast magazine that Mark Twain once wrote for.

Mark Twain–author, humorist, inventor, entrepreneur, printer’s apprentice and riverboat captain (the occupation that gave him his pen name).  The son of an attorney and judge, who dropped out of school after the fifth grade to work at jobs in the newspaper industry, who left home at 18 and studied in the evenings at libraries to further his self-education:  “away-from-home school”–who never darkened the doorway of a college or university, except to speak there as an invited guest-lecturer (like, for example, at Princeton).

Yes, that Mark Twain.  You can’t even call him a college dropout because he never dropped in!

In any case, the essay is a scorcher.  It burns right through the myth that EVERYBODY needs to go to college, and that everybody MUST have a college degree (the more advanced, the better) in order to get a job — or else you will either die of starvation on the street,… or,… you might… start a new company and make billions of dollars like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

Heaven forbid!

Anyway, here is a sample.  Now, the writer does nail some topics “right on the head”.  Like this, his basic thesis:

Thanks to tenure, I have a dream job for life. Personally, I have no reason to lash out at our system of higher education. Yet a lifetime of experience, plus a quarter century of reading and reflection, has convinced me that it is a big waste of time and money. When politicians vow to send more Americans to college, I can’t help gasping, “Why? You want us to waste even more?”

But, on other points, he sort of pounds on his thumb:

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 problem isn’t just what is being taught, but also how it is being taught.  So, it isn’t a simple “either-or” dilemma.  This, my friend, is a dilemma with multiple horns.  And they’re all pointed at us!  (And at our wallets.)

Overall, this essay does score some very cogent (and pungent) points.  Basically, the writer Dr. Bryan Caplan is saying that the way we do college nowadays STINKS!  in fact, as he describes it, it reeks of a self-serving and self-perpetuating “credentialist arms race”.

“Credentialist arms race”.

Wow.  You can think of the universities as the defense contractors (well-compensated).  The students are the enlistees and draftees (“You are going to college!”).  And the parents and taxpayers footing the bill, well, they’re still the parents and taxpayers footing the bill!


He then says this:

Most of the salary payoff for college comes from crossing the graduation finish line. Suppose you drop out after a year. You’ll receive a salary bump compared with someone who’s attended no college, but it won’t be anywhere near 25 percent of the salary premium you’d get for a four-year degree. Similarly, the premium for sophomore year is nowhere near 50 percent of the return on a bachelor’s degree, and the premium for junior year is nowhere near 75 percent of that return. Indeed, in the average study, senior year of college brings more than twice the pay increase of freshman, sophomore, and junior years combined. Unless colleges delay job training until the very end, signaling is practically the only explanation. This in turn implies a mountain of wasted resources—time and money that would be better spent preparing students for the jobs they’re likely to do.

Amen.  A “mountain of wasted resources–time and money…”

Then he adds a little statistical fuel to the fire.

In 2003, the United States Department of Education gave about 18,000 Americans the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. The ignorance it revealed is mind-numbing. Fewer than a third of college graduates received a composite score of “proficient”—and about a fifth were at the “basic” or “below basic” level. You could blame the difficulty of the questions—until you read them. Plenty of college graduates couldn’t make sense of a table explaining how an employee’s annual health-insurance costs varied with income and family size, or summarize the work-experience requirements in a job ad, or even use a newspaper schedule to find when a television program ended. Tests of college graduates’ knowledge of history, civics, and science have had similarly dismal results.

Now, do you imagine, 14 years later, that this situation is any better?

If you said no, then go to the head of the class!

There are a few bright spots in this otherwise dark academic corridor:

College students do hone some kinds of reasoning that are specific to their major. One ambitious study at the University of Michigan tested natural-science, humanities, and psychology and other social-science majors on verbal reasoning, statistical reasoning, and conditional reasoning during the first semester of their first year. When the same students were retested the second semester of their fourth year, each group had sharply improved in precisely one area. Psychology and other social-science majors had become much better at statistical reasoning. Natural-science and humanities majors had become much better at conditional reasoning—analyzing “if … then” and “if and only if” problems. In the remaining areas, however, gains after three and a half years of college were modest or nonexistent. The takeaway: Psychology students use statistics, so they improve in statistics; chemistry students rarely encounter statistics, so they don’t improve in statistics. If all goes well, students learn what they study and practice.

“If all goes well, students learn what they study and practice.”

Which means, if all doesn’t go well (which is probably most of the time), then students don’t learn what they should.

What they do learn is the job skill that is perhaps most important to a prospective employer: how to tolerate boredom and institutionalized tedium and irrelevance.  “You’ve got a Masters in Transgender Reptilian Sociological Studies? You’re hired!”

Granted, the essay is long, but it is certainly worth reading, especially if you have kids still in high school–or even better, still in grade school (you need time to explore less expensive, less dangerous options).  Along the way, the Princeton professor makes some very cogent (and pungent) points, drawn from both personal experience and his research.

When it does come out next month (January 2018), the book should be a real dormitory pot-boiler!

You can read the entire article by clicking here.


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