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
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
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
I hope that's helpful. I've written much more on higher education. Much of it is accessible from www.martynemko.com.
© Marty Nemko 2004-2013. Usage Rights