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America's Most Overrated Product: Higher Education

By Marty Nemko

College students with weak high school records usually drop out, having learned little, and with devastated self-esteem, a mountain of debt, and a job they could have obtained without college. Amazingly, many good students don’t do much better.

This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 2008 and has since been republished many times.

Among my saddest moments as a career counselor is when I hear a story like this: “I wasn’t a good student in high school but I wanted to prove that I can get a college diploma--I’d be the first one in my family to do it. But it’s been five years and $80,000 and I still have 45 units to go.”

Weak in High School; Weaker in College

I have a hard time telling such people the killer statistic: According to the U.S. Department of Education, despite colleges having dumbed-down classes to accommodate to the weak students, among college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class, 76 of 100 won’t earn a diploma, even if given 8 1/2 years. Yet colleges admit and take the money from hundreds of thousands of such students each year!

Even worse, most of those college dropouts leave college having learned little of value (see below) a mountain of debt, and devastated self-esteem from all their unsuccessful struggles at college. Perhaps worst of all, those people too rarely end up with a college-requiring career. So, it’s not surprising that when you hop into a cab or walk into a restaurant, you’re likely to meet workers who spent years and their family’s life savings on college only to end up with a job they could have done as a high school dropout.

Such students are not aberrations. Today, amazingly, a majority of the students that colleges admit are grossly underprepared. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million students who took the ACT college-entrance examinations in 2007 were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of mathematics, English and science!

Fully qualified students don’t fare much better.

Perhaps even more surprising, even high school students who are fully qualified to attend college are increasingly unlikely to derive enough benefit to justify the often six-figure cost and four to eight years it takes to graduate--and only 40 percent of each year’s two million freshmen graduate in four years; 45 percent never graduate at all!

Colleges trumpet the statistic that, over their lifetimes, college graduates earn more than non-graduates, but that’s terribly misleading because you could lock the college-bound in a closet for four years and they’d earn more than the pool of non-college-bound--they’re brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.

Too, the past advantage of college graduates in the job market is eroding: ever more students attend college at the same time as ever more employers are offshoring, part-timing, and automating ever more professional jobs. So, many college graduates are forced to take some very non-professional positions. For example, Jill Plesnarski holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the private ($175,000 published total cost for four years) Moravian College. She had hoped to land a job as a medical research lab tech, but those positions paid so little that she opted for a job at a New Jersey sewage treatment plant. Today, although she’s since been promoted, she must still occasionally wash down the tower that holds raw sewage.

Or take Brian Morris. After completing his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from the University of California, Berkeley, he was unable to find a decent paying job, so he went yet deeper into debt to get a masters degree from the private Mills College. Despite those degrees, the best job he could land was teaching a three-month long course for $3,000. At that point, Brian was married and had a baby, so to support them, he reluctantly took a job as a truck driver. Now Brian says, “I just have to get out of trucking.” He’s now been trying for a year.

How much do college students actually learn?

Colleges are quick to argue that a college education is more about enlightenment than employment. That may be the biggest deception of all. Often, there is a Grand Canyon of difference between the reality and what institutions of higher education, especially research-centric ones, tout in their viewbooks and websites. Colleges and universities are businesses, and students are a cost item while research is a profit center. So, many institutions tend to educate students in the cheapest way possible: large lecture classes, with small classes staffed by rock-bottom-cost graduate students and even by undergraduate students. At a typical university, only 30% of the typical student’s class hours will have been in a class with fewer than 30 students taught by a professor. That’s not to say that professor-taught classes are so worthwhile. The more prestigious the institution, the more likely that faculty is hired and promoted much more on how much research they do than how well they teach. Faculty that bring in big research dollars are almost always rewarded while even a fine teacher who doesn’t bring in the research bucks is often fired or relegated to the lowest rung: lecturer. The late Ernest Boyer, vice-president for Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching said, only half-joking, “Winning the campus teaching award is the kiss of death when it comes to tenure.”

So, no surprise, in the definitive Your First College Year nationwide survey conducted by UCLA researchers (data collected in 2005, reported in 2007) only 16.4 percent of students were very satisfied with the overall quality of instruction they received and 28.2 percent were neutral, dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied. A follow-up survey of seniors found that 37% percent reported being “frequently bored in class” up from 27.5 percent as freshmen.

College students may be dissatisfied with instruction, but, despite that, do they learn? A 2006 study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors failed a test that required them to do such basic tasks as interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, or compare credit card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. For example, the students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station.

Unbelievably, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent Higher Education Commission Report (the Spellings Report,) things are getting even worse: “Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined…. According to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, for instance, the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade. Employers report repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplaces.” (emphases mine.)

What must be done to improve undergraduate education?

Colleges, which receive billions of tax dollars with minimum oversight, should be held at least as accountable as companies are. For example, when some Firestone tires were defective, the government essentially forced it out of business. Yet year after year, colleges turn out millions of defective products: students who drop out or graduate with far too little benefit for the time and money spent. Yet, not only do the colleges escape punishment, they’re rewarded with ever greater taxpayer-funded student grants and loans, which allow colleges to raise their tuitions yet higher.

Even though a college education costs much more than a tire, takes years of a person’s life, and, for the vast majority of users, has a greater impact on their entire lives, I ask colleges to do no more than tire manufacturers are required to do. To be U.S.-government-approved, all tires must have--prominently molded into their sidewall--a variety of critical information, notably ratings of their tread life, temperature-resistance, and traction, compared with national benchmarks.

I believe in a variant of the Spelling Report’s key recommendation: that colleges should be required to prominently report parallel data on their website and in recruitment materials:

§ Value-added. This test, created by the College Board, should measure the skills critical for responsible citizenship, connoisseurship, and career success. So, it should measure, reading comprehension, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, summarizing, arguing, analyzing, critiquing via counter-examples, finding criticisms or reviews of products online, identifying hidden costs, and skills in self-assessment and others-assessment. Some of the test should be in explicitly career contexts: the ability to draft a persuasive memo, present an argument for a workplace policy change, analyze an employer’s financial report, defend a revenue-generating plan based on statistical evidence, use online research tools to develop content for a report, and resolve personnel problems.

Just as the U.S. Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind program mandates strict accountability of K-12 schools, I believe the Department of Education should require that all institutions of higher education--as a condition of receiving government financial aid-- administer that test to all entering freshmen and to students about to graduate, and report the mean value added, broken out by pre-college SAT score, race, and gender. This would place great pressure on institutions to improve their undergraduate education and to admit only students with a reasonable chance of deriving enough benefit to justify the time and money. Societal bonus: Employers could request that job applicants submit the test results, enabling them to more wisely select employees.

A table reporting the average cash, loan, and work-study financial aid package for varying levels of family income and assets. This should be broken out by race and gender. (It would be unfair, for example, for a white student to select a college based on the overall average if--as some institutions do--it gives disproportionately large cash aid to students of color. Some colleges use the drug-dealer scam: give the first dose cheap and then jack up the price for all subsequent doses. So, colleges should be required to provide the average, not for the first year, but the average for years one through at least four.

§ Retention data: the percentage of students returning for a second year, disaggregated by S.A.T. score, race, and gender.

§ The percentage of the institution’s students who have been robbed or assaulted on or near campus.

§ The four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates, disaggregated by S.A.T. score, race, and gender. (Nationwide, the percentage of male graduates has plummeted in recent years.)

§ Employment data for graduates: The percentage of graduates who, within six months of graduation are in graduate school, unemployed, employed in a job requiring college-level skills, are earning less than $30,000 a year, $30,000-60,000 and $60,000+.

§ The most recent results of a student satisfaction survey.

§ The most recent accreditation visiting team report. (Executive summary only in the college’s printed recruitment material, the full report on its website.)

Being required to conspicuously provide this information to prospective students and parents would exert long-overdue pressure on colleges to improve undergraduate education’s quality. I propose a model for the ideal undergraduate institution in my article, Utopia College, which appeared in the January 14, 2005 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

What should parents and guardians of prospective students do?

1. If your student’s high school grades and SAT or ACT are in the bottom half of his high school class, resist colleges’ attempts to woo him. Their marketing to your child does not indicate that the colleges believe he will succeed there. Colleges make money whether or not a student learns, whether or not she graduates, and whether or not he finds good employment. And if the student is of color, the college may derive special benefits. If a physician recommended a treatment that cost a fortune and required years of effort without disclosing the poor chances of it working, she’d be sued and lose in any court in the land. But colleges--one of America’s most sacred cows--somehow seem immune.

So, let the buyer beware. Consider non-degree options:

§ apprenticeship programs (a portal to apprenticeship websites:

§ short career-preparation programs at community colleges

§ the military

§ on-the-job training, especially at the elbow of a successful small business owner, non-profit director, etc.

2. Let’s say your student is in the top half of his high school class and is motivated to attend college by more than the parties, being able to say she went to college, and the piece of paper. Then have her apply to perhaps a dozen colleges. Colleges vary less than you might think (at least on factors you can readily discern in the absence of the accountability requirements I advocate above), yet financial aid awards can vary wildly. It’s often wise to choose the college that requires you to pay the least cash and take on the smallest loan. College is among the few products where you don’t necessarily get what you pay for--price does not indicate quality.

3. If your child is one of the rare breed who, on graduating high school, knows what he wants to do, and isn’t unduly attracted to college academics nor the Animal House environment that college residence halls too often are, then take solace in the fact that in deciding to at-least postpone college, she is preceded by scores of others who have successfully taken that non-college road less traveled. Examples: computer superentrepreneurs Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, and Apple co-founder SteveWozniak, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Buckminster Fuller, Eleanor Roosevelt, famed anthropologist Richard Leakey, Ted Turner, Maya Angelou, former Governor Jesse Ventura, IBM founder Thomas Watson, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Virgin founder Richard Branson, Malcolm X, film director Quentin Tarantino, ABC-TV’s Peter Jennings, Thomas Edison, cookie makers Debbie Fields and Wally Amos, writers Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Neil Simon, Doris Lessing, and John Cheever, Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen, Henry Ford, Erik Erikson, chef Wolfgang Puck, Coco Chanel, Walter Cronkite, Walt Disney, Dreamworks co-founder David Geffen, Roots author Alex Haley, airplane inventors Wilbur and Orville Wright, Nathan Pritikin (Pritikin diet), billionaire moguls John D. Rockefeller, and Kirk Kerkorian, former Israeli president David Ben Gurion, and nine U.S. presidents from Washington to Truman.

College is a wise choice for far fewer people than are currently encouraged to consider it. It’s crucial that they even-handedly weigh the pros and cons of college versus the aforementioned alternatives. Their life will depend on that choice.

Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. specializing in education evaluation from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught in Berkeley's Graduate School of Education. ABC-TV in its summit on education, introduced him as “The Ralph Nader of Education.” The San Francisco Bay Guardian named him “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach.” He is Contributing Editor for career issues at U.S. News & World Report. 500+ of his published articles are free on

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