Article Topics

This site was built according to strict accessibility standards so that all visitors may browse it easily.

| Valid HTML 4.01 Strict |Valid CSS

|Level Triple-A conformance W3C-WAI accessible web content |Section 508 Bobby-Approved accessible web content |



|Career Coaching

| Books

| Radio Show|


| About Marty| Blog | Twitter |Press

email iconsend this article to a friend

Students: Don't Reflexively Go to College or Grad School.Government: Require Colleges to Issue a College Report Card

By Marty Nemko

This is the text of a talk I will submit for consideration as a TED talk.

I'm not someone you'd think would be a critic of higher education. After all, I consumed rather a lot of it--a Ph.D. in the evaluation of education from Berkeley. I've also been part of the system: taught at four universities including Berkeley and written three books on higher education, none unduly critical of it. And I've been a consultant to 15 college presidents.

But as the decades have gone by and I've learned more and more about what goes on behind the ivy, I have become convinced that higher education is America's most overrated product--and especially now and in the coming years, many fewer students should be going to college.

College still remains a wise choice for some people, for example, young people who enjoy academic learning, those who dream of a career as a researcher, those who want careers that clearly require college such as doctor or lawyer. And unless you're burning to start a business and run it full-time or one of those free spirits who crave being an auto-didact (teaching yourself), if you can get into a Harvard or a Stanford, it probably makes sense to go--we do live in a society that values designer labels.

But the quantitative data and empirical experience suggests that many people who currently attend college or grad school or are considering it should think three times. Consider, for example, the 200,000 students a year that the so-called four-year colleges admit who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class. Those colleges fail to inform those prospective students that, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education, the odds of their graduating is 3:1 against, even if they're given 8 1/2 years!--enormous cost, and opportunity cost--what they could otherwise be doing with their time: apprenticeship, military, on-the-job training, for example, at the elbow of a successful, ethical small business owner.

Of course, averages can be misleading . So, if you did poorly in high school but are confident that even though the work is harder in college and there are many more distractions and freedoms at college, there's not much risk in trying college for a semester, especially at a community college, which ironically may be higher education's hidden treasure: not only the cheapest, but on average the best teaching because faculty is hired and promoted largely based on their ability as teachers not how much arcane research they can pump out.

You need to be aware of colleges; a mammothly powerful marketing machine. Just one example: they have successfully marketed the myth that college graduates earn a million dollars more over their lifetime. That is so misleading:

a) It's retrospective. In decades past, having a degree was rare and thus commanded more in the marketplace. Now, with 70% to college, a degree won't differentiate yourself in the marketplace. To get an education edge, on top of the six figures that most students end up spending on a bachelor's degree, you need a graduate degree, which can cost another fortune and years of time. And as you're calculating the cost of college and graduate school, don't forget to add what you could have been earning and learning if you were not in college but in the real world.

b) Prospectively, as we move forward, unless you are a star in some high-demand field like computer engineering, but not in sociology, psychology, gender studies, etc, the demand for college graduates is likely to decline as ever more of those expensive-to-hire white collar jobs (e.g., with ObamaCare, paid FMLA, etc) on top of all other employer costs) go up. Companies are ever more off-shoring, automating, part-timing, and temping those positions. And don't fall for the college-perpetrated myth that in the information economy, we need millions more knowledge workers. Truly, only a relative few are needed to create and innovate. Far more work can be offshored or automated. At the same time, because of the everyone-to-college movement, there's a relative shortage of skilled workers--for example, die makers to welders--jobs they don't prepare you for in the so-called four-year universities--actually most student, if they graduate at all, take five or six years.

Especially with America's structural problems, which are beyond the scope of this talk, it may well be that the people who will thrive will disproportionately be self-employed--and the most important skill that colleges don't teach or certainly don't emphasize is entrepreneurialism, self-employment. If you think you might have the potential and interest in being self-employed and you're not very motivated to do the academic learning in college, you might want to consider forgoing college and talking your way into an informal apprenticeship at the elbow of one or more successful and ethical small business owners.

c) Another reason the statistic that you'll earn a million more over your lifetime with a college degree is misleading is that the pool of students who go to college is very different from the pool that doesn't. They're brighter, more motivated, and better connected. You could lock them in a closet for 4 years and they'll earn much more over their lifetime than the non-college bound.

In sum, you really should not fall for college's hype about earning a million dollars more. And that is just one of the countless deceptions college perpetrate on unsuspecting prospective students. You're not at fault--you have been told that colleges are beneficent non-profits, not sleazy businesses. But alas, so often, they are the latter.

I can imagine that many of you are thinking, "But, hey, college shouldn't just be about getting a job." And you're right. It shouldn't be. The problem is that study after study after study are showing unimaginably poor value-added in reasoning, writing, critical thinking, and so on. A recently released study out of the University of Chicago Press, Academically Adrift found that more than 1/3 of students grew less than 1 point on a 100 point scale--in reasoning, writing, critical thinking in the FOUR YEARS from freshman through senior year!--and that's excluding the weaker students who have already dropped out!

And that's not surprising when universities, because as a business, they recognize that students are a cost center while research is a profit center. So universities generally educate students as cheaply as possible. For example, they hire PhD professors who may be great at doing research but are bad teachers--some, for example, are foreigners who don't even speak good English and yet are trying to teach such difficult subjects as chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Even if they can speak good English and most can, few PhDs have received all but the most minimal training on how to best teach undergraduates. And few of them have the gift of and motivation to teach the typical average college student how to improve their reasoning skills, their writing skills, their critical thinking skills. After all, professors are people who focus their life on arcana, detailed esoterica, which are Grand Canyons away from what undergraduates need to know. So they're not going to teach the reasoning skills, the writing skills, the critical thinking skills and the public speaking skills that regular human beings need to know but they will teach the esoterica that professors are interested in-- the hermeneutics of Wittgenstein or theories of the vagaries of how molecules are involved in the expression of genetic proteins.

Speaking of PhDs, the Rand Corporation, a non-profit think tank, two decades ago had already identified a gross oversupply of PhDs even in vaunted fields like molecular biology .Well more recent studies have found that the oversupply is even greater now. Yet colleges, which I repeat, are businesses, not the beneficent nonprofits they claim to be, are unconscionable. They continue to admit more and more graduate students without regard to their employability--- so sad---the students give so much of themselves in time, money, and opportunity cost.

Universities want to admit doctoral students not just for the tuition but so they can be research slaves to professors.Doctoral programs don't have a monopoly on sleaze. Barbara Boxer, senator from CA, recently excoriated the law schools for reporting fraudulent data in the employability of their graduates. For example, one law school admitted hiring some of its graduates temporarily for a few dollars an hour so it could claim that 90% of their graduates are employed. Of course, the prospective students assumed that the 90% referred to the percent hired as lawyers. They couldn't imagine that law schools, who stress ethics in every course, could be so blatantly unethical, let alone downright dishonest.

I'm not telling you to not to go to college I just want you to exercise conscious choice. One size doesn't fit all. The right path varies with the person, and there are many paths to the life well led. So ask yourself whether you'd be wiser to spend the fortune, the years in a university, or in an apprenticeship,, in a short-term career training program at a community college, in the military where they provide lots of job training for well-paying careers that are in-demand. learning, or on the job, for example, learning how to run your own business at the elbow of an ethical and successful entrepreneur.

One more plug for community colleges. Rare is the least expensive option the best: but community colleges on average, offer the best instruction because faculty is hired and promoted mainly on how well they teach. And don't overrate the value of the "traditional college dorm experience." Too often it's let's just say not the wonderful environment and development of meaningful lifetime friendships that colleges assert it is.

So, to sum up: I urge you to think 3x before you just follow the herd and go to college or graduate school. And if you're considering college, do ask these questions of the admissions people: Here are my high school grades and test scores. Of similar students, what % graduate in 4 years? Five years? Six years? How much do students with my background grow in reasoning, writing, critical thinking? Ask about financial aid. Most, yes, most universities and "four-year" colleges hide how much the college actually costs---it's very hard to even find on college websites what even one year costs, let alone the full costs-with all the add-ons--of four years, five years, six years given your family's income and assets. Ask about employability: If I major say in journalism, or in music, or even in nursing --what is the probability that, IF I graduate, I'll be professionally employed within a year of graduation?" Ask for the results of the most recent student satisfaction survey done at the college. And ask to see at least the summary of the visiting team's accreditation report. That will let you know what professional evaluators think of the college. Ask those questions.

I wish you wouldn't have to ask these questions. One of my greatest wishes is that the government would mandate that each college prominently post a College Report Card with that information on their website. After all, government mandates full disclosure about less important items. Every tire has to mold into its sidewall its treadlife, temperature, and traction ratings. Every prescription drug must include an insert listing even its rare side effects. Even food packages have labels that lists much calcium, how much vitamin A and so on it has. Should we not require colleges to issue an audited Report Card on itself?

After all, higher education be the largest purchase most people make. Today it may even cost more than a house with the collapse of housing prices, especially if it takes you the longer than, often much longer than four years it takes to graduate--even if you're the 45% who does graduate, time spent on much material you don't care to learn or need to learn.

Should we not require colleges to issue a college report card on themselves--audited from the outside-- so you can figure out which institution is right to you and help you decide if there might be a wiser thing for you to do with your money and time than college or graduate school? Remember, the evidence is clear that so many students currently struggling on or having dropped out of college who would have been far wiser to choose a different path.

May you look to find the right path for you--with open eyes.

I hope that's helpful. I've written much more on higher education. Much of it is accessible from

Home | Articles | Career Coaching | Books | Radio Show | Appearances | About Marty | Blog |Press