The value of college: great for me, not so much for thee!

Is anyone else skeptical of this current rash (h/t Corrente) of “is college really worth it?” (h/t RealClearPolitics) articles, now that women are the majority of college students, and black, brown, and first-generation college students are gaining more of a purchase in post-secondary education?  It sure seems like an interesting coincidence to me.

These always appear in a recession, and it’s true that unemployed people with college degrees are just as unemployed as people who never made it to college, or even out of high school.  But, seriously?  My bet is that the authors and publishers of these articles all have college educations.  Do they really think that more education was a big mistake for them, or do they just want to argue that it’s a mistake for their social inferiors?

0 thoughts on “The value of college: great for me, not so much for thee!

  1. It does remind me of the early discussions about public school where many members of the elite imagined that education was a “luxury” that shouldn’t be wasted on those who would be working manual labor jobs anyway.


  2. If one wants to live in a class-based society, it’s best if you get the lower classes acquiesce in their social inferiority. Since we don’t have A-levels, and there are so many local and community colleges here, we have to find other means than exclusive admittance to get those less worthy people to believe they don’t want to go to some type of college.


  3. Yep. Pull the ladder up, now that my kid got into Wellesley or Hampshire!

    Maybe it’s because I myself (like many of my readers and commenters) wasn’t exactly “to the manor born”–although I wasn’t a hard-luck case either. But I’m really, really irritated by these zero-sum arguments about college education as a finite good. The writers seem to fear that if that good is shared with more people, their share of the good is degraded or less valuable somehow.

    Emma is right. Markets are rigged to create winners and losers, and the winners want to keep it that way. (This is another reason to invest in public higher ed and to kill for-profit unis, IMHO, or at least make them ineligible to collect federally-guaranteed student loans.)


  4. The current unemployment rate for college graduates is 4%. Manual labor is done in the black market, manufacturing overseas. And by the way, you can’t put your Pell grant money in the stock market. Who the hell gets paid to write this shit, and how can I get a piece of the action ?


  5. It’s true that we on this board have a stake in the college-promoting out there. We’d be put out of work if the aspiration associated with higher ed went away.

    But the guy’s an ass at best (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he might not be a paid corporate shill). He claims there are no data supporting the value of a college education as an investment. Baloney. Fratguy, off the top of his head, just mentioned the much lower unemployment rate for college grades + the disappearance of manual labor and manufacturing jobs.

    That’s the ungendered or male side. The female side is even worse. Just visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. If you’re a woman without a college education and you’re lucky enough to have a job, it will be waiting tables or cashiering at Wal-Mart. An acquaintance of mine has the latter work … sort of. For whatever dark reasons of its own, Wal-Mart refuses to ‘give’ her a full 40 hours a week.


  6. Well, we couldn’t have too much equality, could we? I think the real change is the cost of college. Also, there are first generation students who may not become Wall Street high flyers, but who get solid jobs — even if in teaching, or social work — and that’s huge.

    It does assume that the reason you go to college is for the return on investment, not that you can get an actual job….


  7. I just wish the people behind these articles stopped treating all colleges as if they were exactly the same. SOME college degrees aren’t worth it. They’re called online degrees from for-profit colleges.

    By the way, Historiann, Bah Ram U apparently did pretty well in this particular study:

    My poor campus, on the other hand, is nowhere to be seen. This might worry me if I could make heads or tails out of their model.


  8. LadyProf: the reason your friend can’t get 35 or 40 hours is that WalMart would have to pay for her benefits (even their crappy health insurance plan). Big Box retailers, fast food joints, and the like are famous for keeping their employees at about 30 or 32 hours, just below the threshhold for being benefits-eligible. (So, just enough hours to make another job–or even looking for another job difficult, but not enough to win benefits. Awesome!

    Katrina–that’s a good point, and one that’s interrelated with these stories. The peasants have stormed the castle, and it wasn’t their place anyway, and they all had to take a bunch of remedial castle-storming classes, etc.

    Susan–for return on investment (ROI), you can’t beat public higher ed. In particular, you can’t beat Baa Ram U. (as Jonathan notes), which just this year cleared the $5,000/annum tuition mark. We’re consistently ranked as the cheapest of our peer institutions by far. I’m pleased in some respects, but in other respects–as we’ve been discussing in the various “Excellence Without Money” posts here, at Roxie’s World, Notorious Ph.D.‘s place, and Dr. Crazy‘s treehouse, for example (among others)–we’re like the bodies of malnourished mothers whose bodies are being ransacked of calcium and nutrients to nourish a fetus. The process is doing us (the universities) potentially irreperable harm.


  9. I’ve got a conflicted reaction to this rash of articles asking the “is college worth it?”

    1) Well, if there existed such a thing as the dignity of labor anymore, we might have a debate there. But until that happens, then hells yeah, expect those of us not born to the maximum level of privilege to keep seeing this as worth the trouble.

    2) What the hell does “worth it” mean? Does it mean becoming a thinking, educated adult? Or does it mean, like this article seems to imply, that a college degree should entitle you to a starting salary of 50K a year in a professional job with unlimited potential to become wealthy and influential? If the latter, then the askers can bite me.

    One of my undergrad profs once said in class “There’s a difference between education and job training. Don’t ever forget it.” This stays in my head, while my own university’s main promise is to “produce job-ready graduates.” Is it any wonder that I’m conflicted?


  10. Well, I think there’s some point to asking similar questions in that K-12 has been horribly underneglected and a lot of people are going to college to get out of it what high school failed to teach them. That doesn’t mean I think less people should go. I had an angry old man at work go off on a tantrum to me about how “more people are going to college now” but how “high school grades are lower and it’s easier than it used to be” so doesn’t that “devalue college”? Well I looked it up and high school dropout rates are actually higher. And more colleges doesn’t necessarily devalue EVERY college (most people know the difference between a public institution and the University of Phoenix). I think it’s an effort for these old dudes to justify how their college education is actually worth more than anyone else’s “these days.” Probably more insecurity than anything else.


  11. The writers seem to fear that if that good is shared with more people, their share of the good is degraded or less valuable somehow.

    What you fail to understand is that these writers are correct. The fundamental psychology of capitalism is that of comparative wealth. People do not derive emotional satisfaction from how much money they have in absolute terms. Rather, they derive emotional satisfaction from how much money they have relative to other people.

    It goes the same for higher education. The “good” of a particular educational attainment has nothing to do with the absolute value of the attainment, and everything to do with how few other people also have earned it.

    Incidental to this particular discussion, this is why the billionaires fighting against Keynesian economic stimulus right now and fighting for fiscal austerity are not behaving irrationally, even though they know that austerity will ultimately reduce their future absolute wealth. All they care about is that they will lose less wealth than many other people, and thus have gained in a relative sense. These fuckers would rather live in fucking mud huts, so long as they have the only nice mud hut, than live in decent houses where everyone has the same decent house.


  12. I think there is some value in having students ask themselves why they are in college. I believe college is invaluable for making better citizens, teaching analytical skills, and preparing students for a variety of careers. But, what I believe will only help a little (some at least) if the students think they are there to get a job (which parents and teachers propagate). So, I try to counter the main narrative in asking the students why they are there- it at least reduces their resentment in taking prereqs.

    The other issue I see is more problematic. I agree that the article’s insinuations creates a class/race/sexual divide between those who “should” go to college, and those who don’t “need” to. However, I get students (at a top UC campus) that should not be in a college class, because they can’t write a complete sentence, or any of the other basic skills required for the next level of college level work. And yet, the university gets very upset if I fail a student. A good friend just got released as an adjunct because she didn’t pass everyone in her classes (despite their complete inability to do the basic assignment). That was the university’s stated reason for letting her go. Almost everyone goes to college, and that’s fine with me (because potential for intellectual endeavors can come from anywhere), but I believe that not everyone should graduate from college especially if they haven’t learned anything.


  13. I’ve been noticing something similar for years. As women and underrepresented minorities excel more and more in higher ed, we hear more and more about how admissions is a “game” (too elite), classes are dumbed down (not elite enough) and “real-world” experience should count more. Even the most selective universities, which have been getting steadily more selective over the last decade, are losing prestige, and I don’t think this phenomenon just happened to coincide with a period where women became the majority of undergrads and minorities increased their numbers at most of them.

    These are somewhat separate issues from whether college is “worth it”, although related — if employers have started to buy into the devaluation of college, then a college education actually will be worth less in terms of the job opportunities it creates.


  14. if employers have started to buy into the devaluation of college, then a college education actually will be worth less in terms of the job opportunities it creates.

    Employers will buy into the devaluation of college only selectively. I will bet you $1,000,000 right now that degrees from colleges that never reach gender or racial parity will never be devalued.


  15. LadyProf: the reason your friend can’t get 35 or 40 hours is that WalMart would have to pay for her benefits (even their crappy health insurance plan). Big Box retailers, fast food joints, and the like are famous for keeping their employees at about 30 or 32 hours, just below the threshhold for being benefits-eligible. (So, just enough hours to make another job–or even looking for another job difficult, but not enough to win benefits.

    Yup. Completely fucking evil. It’s exatly why we need to decouple health care from employment.


  16. You hear echoes of this logic on campus when people in certain fields (e.g. engineering) denigrate the humanities. The unquestioned assumption of “worth it” — as Notorious PhD points out — is that it will lead to a job and earnings. And some of that sense of “worth it” seeps into the thinking of our friends in the sciences. At my university the School of Humanities retains an identity because we don’t share a college with “arts and sciences.” Our humanities majors are accustomed to hearing the question, “What are you going to do with that?”


  17. “, what I believe will only help a little (some at least) if the students think they are there to get a job (which parents and teachers propagate). ”

    As do employers, for any sort of professional job. You almost have to have that degree in some sort of related field.


  18. I actually was a hard-luck case; I joined the military instead of going to college at 18 because I was afraid to incur the expense for a non-guaranteed outcome.

    That’s a risky proposition, but it worked out for me. I have a career which pays very well, partially because of the experience I gained in the military. I came from a poorer background and everyone in my family has the view that if you’re spending money to get a degree, it had better be because you’ll either teach or make money out of it, not because you want to be a philosopher. You can study independently with library books if you want to be a philosopher.

    Though now it’s risky to venture into the world without a degree, so it’s a worthwhile investment of time and money most of the time.

    However, we all know college graduates who lack curiosity about the world and haven’t picked up many books since, are terrible employees, etc. Honestly? I think most job skills can be taught on-the-job, assuming that the applicant is literate and numerate.

    A college degree seems to be the new high school diploma, while simultaneously reassuring employers that the applicant will fit into a middle-class corporate environment. So I think it’s basically a class pass.


  19. As has been suggested already, it really depends on contexts. The guy at a local upscale paint and tile store, for instance, says he likes to hire college grads as cashiers because in his small business, he really needs people who have the 3 R’s down well enough to function, and he hasn’t found that the K-12 system accomplishes that reliably. Similarly, if you get a degree but no real knowledge or skills, and you go into debt for that, then college is crippling and not helpful.

    On the other hand, I’ve had and known students who may or may not “do better” in life thanks to college, but who enjoy it a lot more because it exposed them to things they took a serious interest in.


  20. I can only speak to my own thinking. I left my Ivy League university with a Bachelor of Arts degree that advanced my ability to acquire a job not one whit. My first job after college was working for the Department of Welfare (while being on it), my second was a state-funded jobs program that got me off welfare (for which I remain pathetically grateful) and had me measuring and drawing houses for a court-ordered city reassessment, rain or shine. After that, except for a year as a housemother in a group home (the one time I used what I learned in college!), I worked as a secretary. I was always a flaky one; I was working on a writing career in my free time. I was one of the 2 in 10 who made a go of that.

    I’m not so sure college is the right thing for everyone, and I’ve felt this way since my own college years (1972-1976), so the current numbers of who’s getting in don’t really mean anything except hurray women and people of color! But I can’t help but think that, given the lack of practicality of the average B.A. and even the B.S. unless you can afford/get funding for grad school, perhaps trade schools ought to be worth consideration: nursing school, secretarial school, plumbing, carpentry, computer, and so on. These provide tools by which a person can earn a living in fields that continue to be needed; their costs don’t mire the student in decades of debt, and many of the fields they offer are fields that are in need. They may not have the abstract intellectual joys of college, but there are online courses and continuing education courses for that, internet blogs, book clubs, and listservs, and in the case of some companies, programs which will help pay for college.

    Maybe these alternatives don’t seem so repugnant to me because the world in which I grew up was one where the kids in vocational tech programs at school laughed up their sleeves at academic course kids (who sneered mightily at the poor vo-tech farm kids), because they knew who would be making a good living doing something useful at the end of the day while the college kids floundered. I also come from two extended families and a part of the socioeconomic spectrum that included plenty of kids who chose to get their higher education (with the potential for a lifetime career or education for good-paying civilian work) in the military.

    I don’t think the current nay-saying has anything to do with the change in who is attending. I do think that part of it has a great deal to do with that gap between the end of college and the beginning of a living wage, and the student having to start paying off debts long before they come anywhere near that living wage.


  21. Ms. Pierce, I concur.

    Shunting off vocational education as inferior isn’t something the commenters here are doing, but that class polarization served Southern Strategists well, back in the DFH days of the 60s. When Eastern bigots were able to pit hardhats against hippies, they pulled apart the two groups most able to fight together for social justice, condemned the union movement to die within the next generation, and guaranteed that academics would be branded as crypto-commie effetes willing to take food out of a family’s mouth in favor of that impractical book learning.

    Nevermind that the braintrust behind all this propaganda wants nothing but the finest schools for their children, but that’s the point, innit?

    If we don’t insist on accredited and reputable vocational colleges (and that includes teaching and nursing colleges), then the brightest students who feel called to those professions choose something else. That neglect through demand means that the unscrupulous start their for-profit colleges, unlucky students get bound up in debts and scams, and things get worse. This is the destruction of the human infrastructure, just as excellence without budgets works up at academia’s top end.


  22. Well said, cgeye. No one here is making a distinction between elite and non-elite schools, or Philosophy majors versus Nursing majors. And since most nursing, business, and all Ed schools are at traditional universities (most of them 4-year programs, some 2-year programs for LPN degrees), that’s what we’re all talking about. And even 2-year colleges have some sort of distribution requirements that put the students into history, literature, and music classes, along with courses focused in their major area of study. (I can’t tell you how many of our students are former engineering majors, former finance majors, and former natural sciences majors. On the whole, isn’t it better that they grow their brains and get a degree in something, if they’re capable and if they’ve found something to interest them fully?)

    As cgeye suggests–when the elite decide that it’s A-OK for their kids to skip college, then we’ll talk. But since they’re still making elaborate plans and spending untold money on prep schools, SAT classes, and admissions coaches, I’m deeply skeptical of lectures to working-class families that it’s not worth their while to send their kid to my public uni.

    But, good points about debt and who’s paying for the education. I’ve repeatedly written about the systematic de-funding of higher ed over the past 40 years, which has put the onus on students and their families. This is wrong–but saying that higher ed isn’t worth it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater (and moreover, buying into the cynical devaluation of higher ed that got us here at this pathetic state for public unis.)


  23. Correction to the above: LPN is one year, RN is two years, RN/BSN is four years. RN and BSN can hold the same jobs; BSN is slightly more likely to be management.


  24. Living-wage jobs that don’t require a degree still tend to be pretty male-dominated. You can get manufacturing jobs as a woman, but the ones that pay well and promotions and raises tend to be heavily reserved for men, for example. It’s not hard to find men in those trades with “college is for the weak” notions.

    I think more education is definitely better than less, but isn’t it funny how costs have been driven up to the point where all but the rich have to ask themselves, “at what cost”?

    I’m one of the STEM types who has a long history of exasperation with the humanities side of the house. It started because I went to a college-prep high school that got me a better humanities education than most people I’ve run into with degrees. Then I went to college. I tried a SLAC, I tried graduate courses at an R1, I tried various public undergrad options, and in all cases I found myself frustrated and unable to find the same quality of experience I had found at my high school. I generally wanted to slap nearly all my classmates upside the head and tell them to quit being so stupid and whiny. I didn’t start to mentally devalue the humanities courses because I valued the disciplines less, but because I didn’t like being cooped up with classmates who apparently didn’t value them much at all.

    I veered into the STEM end because I found the level of challenge I was looking for, partly because my education in that area was lagging by quite a bit, and because I found classmates who took the subject matter seriously enough that I could actually have enlightening discussions with them. My classmates were a lot less whiny in my R1 EE program, mostly because we were all in something like shell shock all the time trying to cope with the information firehose. At that point, we all experienced a sort of disoriented wonderment at how easily credits were given away in the humanities courses of comparable level, for a tiny fraction of the work we had to put in. Yeah, contempt started to set in for all of us. I managed to weasel my way into grad-level classes for the last of my lib ed requirements, and I was still stunned at how they were orders of magnitude easier than my undergrad EE courses. Even when the time commitment became comparable, the level of painful mental effort never came close. But then, that was partly due to my unusually good grounding in basic composition in high school.

    I don’t have any good answers to the problems I saw, but I can tell you that it’s very easy to confuse for a too-easy class full of lazy-seeming classmates with an entire discipline, if that class is your only experience with that discipline. I see it a lot in the STEM-area undergrads.


  25. I agree with the points made by Tamora — and would add that there’s a certain degree of snobbery in our culture towards those who decide to enter the skilled trades. I see this especially among middle-class parents who are “disappointed” when their child decides to become a plumber or a cosmetologist instead of go to college. I know plenty of smart people who are electricians, painters, and carpenters and show more interest in current events and other intellectual topics than some college graduates.


  26. It DOES matter what percentage of people in society have a college degree, because the people with college degrees are competing against each other for a limited pool of job opportunities.

    It is good that anyone who wants to attend college can do so, but it is tragic that there are so many college graduates that a man running a paint store can get away with rejecting high school graduates in favor of college graduates. A high school graduate still living with mom and dad might be perfectly happy to be working at a paint store. A college graduate with $100,000 in debt won’t be happy. He will think that he should be employed in some executive capacity somewhere. The high school graduate can save some money from his wages and soon get a car, and an apartment of his own. The college graduate will have little left over after paying Sallie Mae, and will be traumatized and depressed to realize that he will be financially dependent upon his parents for years, and unable to get married and lead an independent, adult life.

    People of my parents’ generation joined the work force right out of high school, with only a small percentage going to college. Many high school graduates had interests that they pursued in their spare time, including reading works of literature, painting, playing a musical instrument, etc. There were fewer intellectual poseurs in those days, and I doubt that the ranks of the self-actualized have grown much over the past few decades as the college population has swelled.

    When there were no student loans, it was possible in many cases for students to work their way through college in four years, or perhaps five. Under the current Sallie Mae program, it takes up to 25 years of longer in some cases to pay off a college degree. I learned a lot in college, but I could have learned just as much by spending twenty-five hours per week at a library. Nobody is saying that education is a waste of time. But people are increasingly questioning whether a diploma is worth the opportunity cost of four years of lost income followed by twenty-five years of being dunned by Sallie Mae, if you are likely to end up working in an upscale paint and tile store.

    The whole education industry is about to go through a great shake-up, and when it is over, “college” may be a series of lectures on DVDs combined with textbooks on Kindle.


  27. Sorry, Southerner–I think you’re completely wrong. First of all, employers are smart enough to distinguish between some degrees and others as it is, so I think that any “university” education that’s accomplished via DVDs and Kindle will be recognized for what it is–a very poor substitute.

    Secondly, your comments here are entirely colored by the current economy. No one was saying back in 1998 that college was a waste of time, when Comp Lit and Art History majors were making money hand over fist in the Dot-Com/tech boom. No one was even saying that back in 2008, either, and the fact remains that college graduates will have more opportunities than HS grads once this recession lifts. (See above Fratguy’s comments upthread about the unemployment rate of college grads vs. HS grads even now.)

    Finally, this: “When there were no student loans, it was possible in many cases for students to work their way through college in four years, or perhaps five.” You don’t know what you’re talking about. I agree that the student loan program has been corrupted by big money, but the reason that college got so expensive in the past 30 years is that the federal and state governments no longer fund it the way they used to. More responsibility has been shifted onto students–but that’s not the fault of the loan program. That’s the fault of our craven politicians and poor leadership, as well as (I grant you) a lot of crummy decision making from the top at many universities.

    Good luck with that DVD and Kindle!


  28. Racial minorities are more likely to rely on loans for their education and also generally get worse interest rates.

    So, perhaps the people defending higher education are actually only doing so because the extreme difficulty in paying off student loans allows us to use college as a means of creating a class of indentured servants. And, as the student loan slave population becomes increasingly integrated racially, some people defend higher education more. Sounds like those people are the real racists.

    …Or race just has nothing to do with it and the arguments one way or the other are pretty contrived and unconvincing.


  29. Yeah, that’s right: college professors today are just all about creating a new “slave population.”

    When I see members of the ruling class refusing to send their kids to college, then I’ll be totally on board with the “skip college, you’ll be better off!” crowd. But somehow, I don’t think that’s going to happen!

    BUH-bye, and thanks for playing.


  30. p.s. Gee, it’s funny that people who are linking to and commenting on this post all seem to be disaffected attorneys! I guess it took you all 7 years of higher education to figure out what a scam we’re all running here. (There are a lot of families who’d love the chance to get their kids even a 4-year degree, let alone a professional education, which was presumably your choice.)

    I’m sorry that you don’t feel like you spent your money or time wisely. But that doesn’t make it a waste of time for other people–just maybe not the right decision for you.


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