Is College a Scam?

It's the marketing of college as a panacea that's a scam, not college itself.

John Stossel has jumped on the higher ed bubble bandwagon with a column titled “The College Scam.” He begins with the  the standard examples:

What do Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Mark Cuban have in common?

They’re all college dropouts.

Richard Branson, Simon Cowell and Peter Jennings have in common?

They never went to college at all.

So, yes, there are people who are enormously successful and don’t have college degrees! But what about the aggregate?

Hillary Clinton tells students: “Graduates from four-year colleges earn nearly twice as much as high school graduates, an estimated $1 million more.”

We hear that from people who run colleges. And it’s true.

Well, there you go. But wait!

But it leaves out some important facts.

That’s why I say: For many people, college is a scam.

Uh huh. So, what are the important facts? And how many is “many”?

I spoke with Richard Vedder, author of “Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much,” and Naomi Schafer Riley, who just published “Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.”

Not a promising start. Any book about the ills of higher education that bases its criticisms on the notion of faculty lounges–largely a phenomenon of primary and secondary education–is dubious, at best.

“People that go to college are different kind of people … (more) disciplined … smarter. They did better in high school.” They would have made more money even if they never went to college.

That’s plausible, if unsupported by anything beyond assertion.

Riley says some college students don’t get what they pay for because their professors have little incentive to teach.  “You think you’re paying for them to be in the classroom with you, but every hour a professor spends in the classroom, he gets paid less. The incentives are all for more research.” The research is often on obscure topics for journals nobody reads.

This is a complicated issue that I’ve addressed previously. But it’s only tangentially germane to the argument here. Regardless of how many hours a given professor teaches, every class on campus is actually taught by someone!

Also, lots of people not suited for higher education get pushed into it. This doesn’t do them good. They feel like failures when they don’t graduate. Vedder said two out of five students entering four-year programs don’t have a bachelor’s degree after year six.

“Why do colleges accept (these students) in the first place?”

Because money comes with the student — usually government-guaranteed loans.

Well, remember, some of these people are dropping out to found multi-billion dollar startups! Others leave school because they’re not ready to focus, do something else for a few years, and then head back to campus and excel. But, yes, a lot of people simply aren’t college material and would benefit from doing something else. I’m not sure why that makes college a scam.

“There are 80,000 bartenders in the United States with bachelor’s degrees,” Vedder said. He says that 17 percent of baggage porters and bellhops have a college degree, 15 percent of taxi and limo drivers. It’s hard to pay off student loans with jobs like those. These days, many students graduate with big debts.

This is some interesting math but it doesn’t really tell us anything useful. More than a third (38.54%) of Americans over 25 have at least an associate’s degree. There are 221 million Americans aged 21 and over. So, 80,000 bartenders represents a pretty small fraction of them. Of those, how many are part-timers? In graduate or professional school? Of the porters, bellhops, taxi- and limo drivers, what percentage are foreign nationals whose degrees are worthless here? How many are aspiring actors?

Entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who got rich helping to build good things like PayPal and Facebook, is so eager to wake people up to alternatives to college that he’s paying students $100,000 each if they drop out of college and do something else, like start a business.

This is fine by me. It may well be that exceptionally smart 20-year-olds who have been thoroughly pre-screened and won a prestigious grant competition would do quite well to quit school and get a head start–especially with that large a chunk of capital. But it’s noteworthy that Thiel didn’t take his own advice: He has his BA and JD from Stanford. (Indeed, Stossel is a Princeton grad.)

Stossel closes:

Despite the scam, the Obama administration plans to increase the number of students getting Pell grants by 50 percent. And even a darling of conservatives, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, says college is a must: “Graduating from high school is just the first step.”

We need to wake people up.

Oddly, after two pages of bogus anecdotes and out-of-context data, he winds up on useful grounds for discussion. The problem isn’t that we’re holding back the future Mark Cubans and Mark Zuckerbergs by prodding them to spend four more years in school but that we’re operating under the premise that college is some magic elixir for transforming everyone into smart, productive workers. Higher education of the traditional sort isn’t for everyone. Super geniuses probably don’t need it unless they’re going into applied mathematics and the hard sciences. More importantly, people of below average IQs are unlikely to benefit from studying philosophy, literature, and history.

It’s the marketing of college as a panacea that’s a scam, not college itself.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I’m a little confused as to what exactly this had to do with the Obama administration. Why, because he wants to grant more Pell grants?

    College is what people make of it, for the most part. Just like I tell people that the military is what you make of it. As someone who did the latter and not the former, I’m doing quite fine for myself.

  2. george says:

    Going to college isn’t always a good bet for many people; but most of those who won’t benefit from college would benefit from going to some sort of technical institute or apprentice ship program to learn a trade … both of which are forms of post-secondary education.

    A number of years ago in Canada they listed the expected lifetime earnings from a number of careers; at the time, plumbers were third (behind doctors and dentists). Curiously enough, it takes about as long to gain journeyman status as a plumber as it does to get a college degree – and from what I’ve heard, its arguably harder … apprentices get to do all the hard work while they’re learning.

  3. john personna says:

    People that go to college are different kind of people … (more) disciplined …

    That’s plausible, if unsupported by anything beyond assertion.

    It’s actually supported by the marshmallow experiment.

  4. PJ says:

    So if Stossel had skipped college he might not have turned out to be the idiot he is?

  5. mattb says:

    Another Stossel logic #fail is his inclusion of Zuckerberg as a rational for why college isn’t important.

    This misses the fact that Facebook was started specifically as an offering to college (Harvard) students, and deeply based on and spread through college culture. Heck “Facebook” itself is a college metaphor. Take away Zuckerbergs time in Harvard (and the connections he forged to developers there) and you end up with a bright — but no where near as rich or influential — 20something.

  6. john personna says:

    Overall, I think the problem is that “is college good?” is a general question, and “is college good for prospect X” is at the other end of the scale.

    Many of the problems we have come from confusing the general good with a prescription for random students, or worse yet, “everyone.”

    Specific degrees are useful to certain students, but that’ snot a reason for everyone to college, nor reason for Bill Gates to avoid dropping out.

  7. sam says:

    Would any talk of education for its own sake be hopelessly naive? Or are we all agreed that the only purpose for going to college is to maximize earnings?

  8. john personna says:

    I’m a little confused as to what exactly this had to do with the Obama administration. Why, because he wants to grant more Pell grants?

    The Obama administration has tried to rein in for-profit hucksters, but their lobby has been too strong.

    See also:

    Previous guest blogger Anastasia Wilson has written a post on her own blog comparing the student loan racket (for-profit colleges help people take out lots of federally guaranteed student loans to pay for their tuition, then do a lousy job educating them, walking away with the money and leaving students to default) to the subprime loan racket. The flagbearer for this parallel is Steve Eisman, who has gone from shorting subprime mortgages to now shorting for-profit colleges.

    In theory, for-profit colleges should not be able to do this. If too many of their former students go into default, the Department of Education is supposed to prevent their new students from taking out federally subsidized loans. (Since the government is ultimately underwriting these loans, it should have the power to make sure that the loans are being used to buy an education that will help borrowers pay back those loans.) But colleges have so far been able to get around the rules by pushing defaults outside the time period that matters for regulatory purposes, as described by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Those are probably the worst abuses of the Education Bubble.

  9. john personna says:

    Would any talk of education for its own sake be hopelessly naive? Or are we all agreed that the only purpose for going to college is to maximize earnings?

    I’ve suggested in the past that this totally depends on costs, Sam.

    The smaller I in ROI the less R that is required.

  10. Alex Knapp says:

    # of jobs available, according to Careerbuilder, in zip code 60607 (Chicago): 12,703

    # of jobs available, according to Careerbuilder, in zip code 60607 where a college degree is required: 12,456.

    In other words, without a college degree, someone living in that zip code has less than 300 jobs available.

    Scam my ass.

  11. lunaticllama says:

    One thing that no one ever mentions is how college affects a person’s prospects in the marriage market. Quite simply, going to college is a signifier for middle class and upper-middle classes that you are good marriage material. Sure, it’s expensive social signaling, but it happens. Causation is always a problem in these articles, but besides trying to untangle whether it’s college or ambitious people (or both) that find professional success, there’s other societal reasons to go to college.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    First, what people are really upset about is that college had become the new high school and graduate school has become the new college. Since just having a high school diploma is worthless, having a college degree is now the baseline for many employers. Now that so many adults have a college degree, the graduate/professional degree has become the new college degree. Look at how career fields like Pharmacy or physical therapy now require doctorate degrees. Look at how government workers that needed a college degree to get a low level administrative job now require a graduate degree to move up.

    There is also the issue of rampant credentialism where certification, state licenses, and continuing education have become mandatory.

    There are two real issues with the discussion of attending college: (1) that too many people are chasing too few high paying jobs that are required if one does not want to live around poor people and (2) the difference between normally distributed career fields and log-normally distributed career fields. Getting rich in internet idea is a long-normal field where a few people succeed and most fail. Being upper middle class as a nurse anesthetist is a normally-distributed career where one will be comfortable but never rich. Going to a state university is about the normally distributed careers. Going to the Ivy leagues or dropping out to get rich is about the log-normal careers.

  13. john personna says:

    Faulty logic, Alex.

    Those are unfilled positions. Can you show that it is because there are less than 12K unemployed with college degrees? That is, everyone with a degree is working already?

    Or is it more complicated, with inapplicable degrees, work histories, etc?

    (You are certainly serving up that anyone with any degree could step up for any of those positions.)

  14. Console says:

    Not everyone can go to college… ok… so what?
    Colleges don’t let everyone in in the first place. As a matter of policy, cutting pell grants only makes sense if there is some huge difference in graduation rates between pell grant recipients and people that can pay their own way. Otherwise, the only factor you’re advocating discriminating for is ability to pay (which is already my main gripe about college in america), not ability to actually succeed.

    Privilege is a funny thing. As Joyner points out, all these people advocating alternatives to college… have college degrees. Privilege often prevents blinds us to self reflection. Maybe Stossel thinks he got a degree because he’s specially talented in ways that many people aren’t, or maybe he thinks his ivy league degree didn’t help him at all in life, but either way, that blindness is there all the same. Riley also has a Harvard degree and Vedder is a PhD.

  15. john personna says:

    @Console, I went to a California State University when tuition was less than $200 per semester.

    I think the problem today is less that we don’t have enough Pell Grants (or enough loans), and more that we don’t have $500 tuition (inflation adjusted).

    I think its a costs problem.

  16. john personna says:

    Our country’s dominant higher education policies have focused on expanding access for more than half a century—allowing more students to afford higher education. Yet changing circumstances mandate that we shift the focus of higher education policy away from how to enable more students to afford higher education to how we can make a quality postsecondary education affordable.

    That’s what I’ve been saying. It’s from:

    Disrupting College – How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education (PDF)

  17. PD Shaw says:

    In other words, without a college degree, someone living in that zip code has less than 300 jobs available.

    So, if you’ve chosen to live in University Village, you might want a college degree? I’d really be afraid that in this area around the University of Illinois — Chicago, that you’d find that a post-doc degree to be a minimum requirement to bus tables. Why? Because someone with a post-doc degree in women’s studies would be less likely to snack on marshmallows than someone with merely an undergrad degree.

  18. george says:

    # of jobs available, according to Careerbuilder, in zip code 60607 (Chicago): 12,703

    # of jobs available, according to Careerbuilder, in zip code 60607 where a college degree is required: 12,456.

    In other words, without a college degree, someone living in that zip code has less than 300 jobs available.

    Scam my ass.

    I wonder how typical that zip code is – at least in Canada, according to Stats Canada, the greatest shortage is for skilled trades people (electricians, plumbers, etc). I know we had to wait 3 months to get a journeyman electrician to do our place. Though perhaps they’re including technical schools as colleges.

    Job opportunities for people with no post-secondary education (ie no apprentice ship, no college, no tech school) on the other hand is pretty much nil.

  19. john personna says:

    It’s the wrong dataset anyway, guys. You want “jobs filled” per year, and then to examine them for requirements.

    (Unfilled jobs are not being satisfied by anyone, with or without degree.)

  20. PD Shaw says:

    @george, the zip code is home to the largest university in the Chicago area. It also contains ethnic enclaves like Greek Town (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), which probably don’t post jobs, but help out family.

    @jp, I get your point; likely in this area there is a large supply of undergrads (with less transportation ability) soaking up all the non-college degree jobs.

  21. george says:

    It’s the wrong dataset anyway, guys. You want “jobs filled” per year, and then to examine them for requirements.

    Um, you’re right. Good catch.

  22. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    Is college a scam?

    That depends, Captain.

    Get a business degree from a reputable business school and it’s not a scam. The foundation for long-term success is in place. Obtain an engineering degree and it’s not a scam. Again that’s a solid foundation. Same holds true for a computer science degree. Nursing? Not a scam. Hell, anything related to the health care sector wouldn’t be a scam. Various other disciplines too.

    Obtain a liberal arts degree? In this day and age? Well, then it’s a life consigned to dishing out Starbucks or to mommy’s and daddy’s basement. At best.

    Morals of the story: The era of the national keg party is over. Choices once again have severe consequences.

  23. Rick DeMent says:

    A lot of stuff to unpack here:

    1) “degrees” have been the signaling mechanism of choice since the dawn of the industrial revolution. When high school diplomas were not so common that was the standard. Now a bachelors degree has taken it’s place … soon, as other have mentioned it will be a graduate degree. Not because most jobs require that level of education, it’s just that when you have hundreds or even thousands of applicants to sort though, you need to have an easy “first cut”.

    2) the amount of productivity lost to this paper chase is staggering. Case in point, I have 25 years experience in the IT field. I’m now going though a masters program that has little if nothing to do with improving my skill set in that field. Do to the realities of the job market I’m scared to death of finding myself without a job and without a graduate degree. So I toil away at subject matter that is focused on academic issues (such as the proper APA formatting of theoretical research papers) when I could be getting vender training and certificates which have way more practical application in my field but no value whatsoever to human resource departments in getting me past the first cut.

    3) our economy, even at it’s height, has never produced enough of the jobs that truly required advanced degrees or make financial sense to pay the money to get one yet if you don;t get one you don’t make the first cut (see Item 2)

    4) Many companies have added to this problem by making the acquisition of a graduate degree a condition of promotions. Even though there are many in their organization that have the ability and experience to do the job better then someone with the degree.

    there seems to be a notion that the more (collage) education the better the employee. We can’t seem to get our heads around the idea of an appropriate level of education for the job. I have a friend who has been in the same job since he got out of the military. On the strength of a HD diploma and his military service he got the job. since then his exact same job has went form requiring a HS diploma and some experience to a certificate to a two year degree to a four year degree. The job has not changed at all.

  24. JKB says:

    @Rick DeMent:

    It isn’t that the higher degree means the better employee but that requiring the degree is an arguable protection against employment discrimination suits that would result if the employer made a subjective judgement in employee selection for hiring or promotion.

  25. JKB says:

    The components of the scam of college, a college degree or the marketing of college, but not education is in Dr. Joyner’s post. Many, Obama, Clinton, Gov. Christie, to name a few, say college is a must but as Dr. Joyner points out those with below average IQs are unlikely to benefit from college’s more abstract offerings and struggle with the hard disciplines. So if college is a must to have a good life but the benefits, other than credentials, are not really achievable by arguably more than 50% of the population (high IQs will skew the average upward while there is a hard floor to IQs included in the average) then the scam is many are wasting money and time in pursuit of this highly over promoted product.

    If we add in the near-complete debasement of secondary education which degrades undergraduate standards to meet this political must, we find a never ending credential race that keeps productive workers out of useful work and consumes ever growing amounts of capital that could be better utilized starting productive lives. And borrowed capital at that which drives new graduates toward relatively secure old industry wage jobs rather than innovative entrepreneurship.

  26. john personna says:

    Reinstating rigorous HS graduation requirements would tip the whole signalling system at very low cost. Ditto rigorous public university entrance requirements.

  27. PD Shaw says:

    I don’t see that anyone has mentioned the recent higher education controversy in Texas:

    The centerpiece of the movement, known as the “seven breakthrough solutions,” calls for treating students as “customers,” judging faculty by how many students they teach and how those students rate them, and de-emphasizing research that doesn’t produce an immediate financial return.

    I don’t know enough to comment on the particular policies, but I do think that government subsidization of higher education has to come at the price of making sure subsidies are not increasing the “cost problem,” and is furthering the government’s interests in a more productive citizenry.

  28. john personna says:

    The “Disrupting College” paper above suggests an alternative approach. Texas should fund a “new college” free to compete with radically different structures and techniques. That college should be judged on costs, and satisfaction of graduates.

    I didn’t finish that paper, but one tragedy of our current landscape is that for-profit schools gain ownership of on-line teaching, but without being good stewards. They are going for the churn, and the new Pell Grants, rather than for the long term benefits.

    At the same time, state schools defend employment, and butts-in-chairs.

    I don’t see student evaluations of teachers really breaking those entrenched positions.

  29. PD Shaw says:

    I’m skeptical of student evaluation of teachers since students might favor personality and course load.

    OTOH, one of the worst teachers I had in college was a teacher’s assistant who taught economic statistics. He could barely speak English, let alone teach. I don’t think there was anyway for me to know this ahead of time. It would be nice to put some pressure on universities to pay more attention to teaching and if they can’t fill some of these spots, work on more creative to teach the material.

  30. James Joyner says:

    @PD Shaw: I wrote about a similar proposal at Texas A&M two years ago in Paying Popular Professors More.

  31. mantis says:

    Is College a Scam?

    No.

    Is Stossel a moron? Absolutely.

    Also, too.

  32. Rick DeMent says:

    @JKB:

    It might have been at one time, but with the complete degradation of job protections any more I just don’t buy that as plausible. I mean things that were illegal only a decade ago are routinely done these days. People are getting laid off while contractors are brought in to take their place these days. That was unheard of no too long ago.

    I could be some kind of inertia from those days I suppose.

  33. Trumwill says:

    Imagine you’re an employer and you have a job that someone with or without a degree could do, dependent as much on “soft skills” as anything. If you put a general ad in the paper saying “Need someone for Job X. Good worker. Advancement opportunities available.” you will get absolutely deluged with applications. Put “college degree required” and it costs you nothing, but cuts down on your workload considerably and have someone with a credential that suggests – in the aggregate – a higher level than leaving that qualification out. In a down economy, that’s one of the big reasons that you require a college degree whether the job needs one or not.

    It’s not unlike those employers that won’t hire people that don’t already have a job. It’s not that they think that someone without a job is inherently worthless. It’s that they can cut down on the culling process and get an aggregation of candidates of at least slightly higher quality than if they accept people that don’t already have a job.

  34. JKB says:

    @Rick DeMent:

    Contracting out work then laying off employees is a defendable business decision and is a lot easier than trying to defend an claim of discrimination for terminating some workers over others.

    The replacement of non-core workers with contracts was pioneered by the federal government and such contracts can prove cost efficient if the right effort is put into managing the contract and isolating the work into a separate service that has defined objective outcomes.

  35. Trumwill says:

    Contracting out work then laying off employees is a defendable business decision and is a lot easier than trying to defend an claim of discrimination for terminating some workers over others.

    I would point out that the contracting out of work is indicative of a political and economic environment where companies are loathe to hire themselves. And this is problematic. My current sorta-job is a contract position where I will eventually be expected to work 40 hours a week and where I can get benefits and all that. My last job was the same (except that I worked over 40 hours a week and did get benefits). A part of me looks at it and says “Wow. Are they this reluctant to just hire somebody that they would pay some other company to hire me?”

    Apparently, the increased labor flexibility is worth a price premium. They pay my contracting company well more than they would have to pay me.

  36. sam says:

    @PD Shaw:

    It would be nice to put some pressure on universities to pay more attention to teaching and if they can’t fill some of these spots, work on more creative to teach the material.

    You radical, you.

  37. sam says:

    @Tsar Nicholas II:

    Obtain a liberal arts degree? In this day and age? Well, then it’s a life consigned to dishing out Starbucks or to mommy’s and daddy’s basement. At best.

    Or maybe not.

    Humanities majors: There’s hope

    A separate study, from compensation data provider PayScale, suggests that all is not grim for humanities majors when it comes to earnings potential. Its latest “college salary” report found that scientists and engineers fare best, but noted that “there is still plenty of money to be made with a liberal arts degree.”

    PayScale used nationwide salary survey data of people with undergraduate degrees and calculated starting salaries and median salaries for mid-career workers, defined as people who had 15 years experience in a field. Engineering — aerospace, chemical computer, electrical — took the top mid-career salary slots, with earnings between $109,000 and $102,000. Majors like elementary education ($42,400) and social work ($41,600) yielded the lowest median salaries, but other majors like philosophy had a median salary of $76,700 and art history delivered a median salary of $62,400.

    To be sure, many liberal arts and humanities majors are not relying solely on their four-year degrees for their career earnings, the Georgetown study noted. Some 41% of liberal arts and humanities majors go on to earn graduate degrees, which provides graduates with an 50% return on their investment, on average, according to the study.

    These majors “generally fare well in the workforce, ending up in professional, white-collar and education occupations,” Carnevale concludes. He says that job opportunities began to shift significantly in favor of degreed-workers after the economy restructured in the wake of the recession in the early 1980s.

  38. john personna says:

    @sam, I’m not sure that the graduate who wrote that piece had too much math, or too much economics 😉

    When you add up the concepts of ROI and Opportuntiy Costs, it really comes through as a weak argument: “See, even the worst degrees are better than nothing.”

    Yeah well, what would a better degree have done?

    For reference, here is a full table. Pay special attention to “mid-career median pay.”

  39. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: People have differing aptitudes and interests. My math skills are good enough that I would have been able to struggle through an engineering program. Or, certainly, a finance program and an MBA. But I’d be miserable.

    Not everyone is cut out to be a physicist, either.

    Rather than starting at the top of the career earnings list and striving to get into a program, most people are better off figuring out what they’re passionate about and then matching that to a program of study and career options.

    That’s especially true since most of us wind up having non-path-driven careers. I studied political science assuming I’d go on to law school and then realized that I wasn’t interested in any lawyer jobs aside from law professor and Supreme Court Justice. I got my PhD figuring on a career as a poli-sci professor and wound up, through a couple of twists and turns, as a public policy analyst.

    Knowing what I know now, I’d have gone to a better school and gotten a public policy doctorate rather than an academic PhD. But there was know way to know at 18–or even 26–what I know now given the background I had then.

  40. john personna says:

    As I’ve told you before James, just have students start at the top of the list, and work their way down until they find something they can see themselves doing.

    What are you suggesting as alternative, that people start at the bottom and work up?

  41. john personna says:

    (Either that or you are answering data with a throwing up of hands.)

  42. john personna says:
  43. john personna says:

    Speaking of life-strategies, it amused me to subscribe to Forbes in my 20’s, because Forbes billed themselves as having the highest percentage of millionaire subscribers.

    It amused me that the causality was all wrong. Nonetheless, it worked.

  44. sam says:

    @JP

    “When you add up the concepts of ROI and Opportuntiy Costs, it really comes through as a weak argument”

    Well, John, I guess I can put you down in the education-is-solely-about-earning-money camp.

  45. john personna says:

    You aren’t passing this test, sam.

    What is the difference between college and education?

    Few students can afford to pay for college without some form of education financing. Two-thirds (65.6%) of 4-year undergraduate students graduated with a Bachelor’s degree and some debt in 2007-08, and the average student loan debt among graduating seniors was $23,186 (excluding PLUS Loans but including Stafford, Perkins, state, college and private loans). Among graduating 4-year undergraduate students who applied for federal student aid, 86.3% borrowed to pay for their education and the average cumulative debt was $24,651. (For just federal student loan debt, excluding PLUS Loans, the figures are 61.6% and $17,878.) Average cumulative debt increased by 5.6% or $1,139 a year since 2003-04. When one includes PLUS loans in the total, 66.0% of 4-year undergraduate students graduated with some debt in 2007-08, and the average cumulative debt incurred was $27,803. (About two in fifteen (13.5%) of parents borrow PLUS loans for their children’s college education, with a cumulative PLUS loan debt of $23,298.)

    link

  46. john personna says:

    I think I can summarize James’ and sam’s outlook this way:

    – on average education is good
    – on average university is education
    – therefore sending students to university will improve average outcomes

    Riiight, but that’s kind of going for the base hit. Especially when costs are high for taxpayers and students. It is not sufficient to merely move the average outcome, nor to accept a randomized improvement.

    Expanding those original points

    – seek the education most beneficial to the student
    – seek the university that provides that education at highest ROI
    – reap optimized benefits

    Now you got something.

  47. sam says:

    “seek the university that provides that education at highest ROI”

    You know, John, you commit a gross form of petitio principii here. The question I’m posing is what are we to understand by ‘return’ in ‘return on investment’. You seem always to assume that the only way to evaluate the worth of an education is terms of the salary said education can command, that that is the only form of ‘return’ to be considered. I don’t think it ever occurs to you that other folks may have other measures of worth, other measures of return.

  48. john personna says:

    You play a game, sam.

    You want to treat a high dollar purchase as a non-economic decision.

  49. john personna says:

    BTW, if you want to get active on Meetup, and create salons, places for people to gather in the old collegiate way, to learn philosophy or whatever, for free – more power to you!

    But you aren’t really giving us a low-dollar option, are you? No, you are bundling your idea of non-economic return on the high-cost purchase.

  50. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: We do that ALL THE TIME. Why do people buy new cars when a late model used car is a better financial investment? Who do people put in swimming pools when they add nothing to–and perhaps even diminish–the resale value of the house? Why do people eat at expensive restaurants when eating at home is cheaper? ROI isn’t simply monetary.

  51. john personna says:

    This shouldn’t be hard, James.

    Q: What is different between your car purchase and your son’s choice at a state school?

    A: Tax and subsidy.

    (if there are still rich parents who pay tuition to fully private institutions, they can all do the basket-weaving for all I care.)

  52. john personna says:

    (Note that this discussion started with Pell Grants.)

  53. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: I’m not sure I’m getting your point here. We’ve chosen, for the past century or so, to subsidize public education. We require even Amish kids to go to school through 8th grade. We require pretty much everyone to go to school until they’re 16 and, increasingly, tie getting a driver’s license to staying in school until 18 or graduating high school. We do so even though a large number of these people will never repay the investment in them by becoming engineers.

    Similarly, we’ve invested in state schools to train future doctors, lawyers, engineers, schoolteachers, accountants, businessmen, and managerial employees. The schools have always been built on a classical education core curriculum but have substantial “practical” courses on top of them.

    You’re not suggesting that we stop training schoolteachers, even though the ROI in terms of recoupment via tax revenue is less than it is for engineers and physicists?

    Certainly, I wouldn’t suggest that. Now, I might close the Colleges of Education–or, at least, reserve them for those who are going to teach Special Ed and elementary school–and come up with a more rigorous academic program for future high school teachers. But we actually need teachers–even though we don’t pay them six figures.

  54. john personna says:

    You aren’t looking at that list the way I suggested. I never said everyone had to stop at the top. I only suggested students start there.

    Basically this last post is a straw man, built around stopping at the top of the list.

  55. john personna says:

    (Though I also think tax-funded schools should prune enrollment at the very bottom of the list. If something is non-economic, does not provide the state with an economic ROI, leave it to private schools.

    I don’t believe that we are rich enough in the US to fund personal-growth degrees to all applicants with subsidy.

    It becomes educational triage in a time of shrinking spending.)

  56. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: What’s your evidence that students don’t start there? The percentage of people who would have been great physicists, engineers, or medical doctors who accidentally found themselves majoring in philosophy because they didn’t understand that the others were more lucrative paths has to be vanishingly small.

    Indeed, all the pressure is to pick something “useful” so that “you can get a job.” Students who declare, say, a literature major are constantly asked “So, what are you going to do with that?”

  57. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: I’m not sure we disagree on the pruning bit. Indeed, most state schools are doing just that. Hell, they closed down our Sociology program while I was at Alabama in the mid-1990s. The attrition is mostly done based on cost of the program vice graduates produced rather than expected economic return to the state by graduates. But I suspect the overlap is high.

    But I wouldn’t call, say, philosophy or even literature “personal growth degrees.” People with those majors develop very strong analytic skills that serve them well in future careers.

  58. john personna says:

    lol, well I’m pushing back at two guys who don’t like “start at the top” and aren’t coming across as being real happy that there is a list is the first place.

  59. john personna says:

    But I wouldn’t call, say, philosophy or even literature “personal growth degrees.” People with those majors develop very strong analytic skills that serve them well in future careers.

    You are letting yourself fall back into this loop that since any degree is on average good, any degree should be encouraged. That is still just the base hit and not the home run.

    Maybe those guys need philosophy or literature as their minor.

  60. JKB says:

    This keeps going in a circle. If a philosophy or literature degree imparts skills then why are so many whining about having to payback their student loans. They were provided skills for the money and therefore should pay off the loan even if those skills are being used at the drive-thru window.

    College is a a scam in that although an education, vice instruction, is a good thing, it is being overcharged for through false marketing and promises and far to many really end up with a certificate of instruction rather than an actual education. Although, the last is in large part to those attending not grasping the difference.

    An education is good. Going in debt for an education in knowledge that has a tenuous link to a job able to pay off that debt is ignorant. Perhaps we need to examine how much debt is rational for different degrees, i.e., more debt for an engineering degree than for a literature degree is probably rational. I presume we’d need to agree on some realistic loan repayment period as well.

  61. mantis says:

    This English major is doing quite well, thank you very much.

    I didn’t pick my school based on ROI. I didn’t pick my majors based on ROI. I picked my majors because they were of interest to me (I double-majored in biology and English). I picked my school based on the strengths of the programs I wished to enter and affordability. Now I have a good job, with two promotions under my belt, in a field directly related to my English degree (but not at all the biology degree). I’ve never been out of work, other than about two months after graduation.

    The world still needs writers and editors–people who can understand and translate complex ideas into understandable communication for different audiences.

    Oh, and by the way, I got Pell grants to fund my undergraduate studies. Thanks for funding my “personal-growth degree,” United States! You’ve gotten it all back in taxes by now, but I’m sure I’m still just a trust fund moocher. I must be; I have an English degree!

    Also, I have had plenty strong enough scores and grades for any type of degree I could want to pursue. I didn’t choose ChemE not because I don’t know how to gauge the investment, but because I’m not interested in becoming a chemical engineer. James is absolutely right here:

    Rather than starting at the top of the career earnings list and striving to get into a program, most people are better off figuring out what they’re passionate about and then matching that to a program of study and career options.

    jp doesn’t like that because he can’t figure out a way to quantify passion, I guess.

  62. john personna says:

    You aren’t really answering me directly, mantis. Your anecdotes come at it from an angle.

    Per the data, English majors have a starting salaries of $37,800 and a mid-career $67,500 (both medians).

    Do you think you just disproved those, and moved English up in the rankings? Maybe a little more logic and mathematics would help …

  63. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: Is it your contention that a significant number of English majors would instead have become nuclear physicists or neurosurgeons had studying literature not been an option?

  64. Barb Hartwell says:

    @john personna:

    I accepted money from the stimulus plan through work source I was happy to be able to go to school while collecting unemployment benefits. Was I shocked when I entered the school to find I had only 2 choices of classes to pick from and had only 2 weeks to get everything started. First stop: get on line and see if your job was on the decline list, it was.(manufacturing) next see if you qualify for other grants, no my husband made too much money, next talk to councilor to see what would be best fit for you. check Her conclusion manufacturing processes. My reply Are you kidding me manufacturing is on the decline list. Her reply This is all we have left. I signed up because I had a choice of no school or joke school. I was along side a 30 year veteran welder in a welding class he too was scratching his head. This is what government pays for. I know they meant well but when you give a blank check to these colleges you should check up on them.

  65. mantis says:

    Do you think you just disproved those, and moved English up in the rankings?

    No, I don’t. I do think you miss the point, however. What careers we choose to pursue are often not best decided on a strict cost-benefit analysis. There is more to life than ROI.

    Maybe a little more logic and mathematics would help …

    Maybe patronizing comments like that would be more effective if you weren’t so wedded to faulty premises.

  66. john personna says:

    How much patience should I have when someone again tries to play both sides of the argument?

    It’s your choice what you learn, right?

    But you like those Pell Grants, right?

    I’m sorry but this is not an argument that hangs together. It is a patch job, designed to protect your sensibilities.

    Not to mention your entitlements.

  67. john personna says:

    You don’t even have the balls to say “I’ve got so much dang passion, I’ll spend my own money!”

  68. john personna says:

    Is it your contention that a significant number of English majors would instead have become nuclear physicists or neurosurgeons had studying literature not been an option?

    No.

    (quite a few points off for trotting out the same old strawman)

  69. john personna says:

    Barb, that sounds like a messed up program. What can I say. It doesn’t sound like something any one of us would have designed.

  70. mantis says:

    It’s your choice what you learn, right?

    Ok, sure.

    But you like those Pell Grants, right?

    They were helpful, yes. I would have done nothing different without them, apart from taking out some more loans.

    I’m sorry but this is not an argument that hangs together. It is a patch job, designed to protect your sensibilities.

    Not to mention your entitlements.

    No idea what that is supposed to mean. What does the fact that I took Pell grants have to do with the idea that I should choose my career based on ROI?

    You don’t even have the balls to say “I’ve got so much dang passion, I’ll spend my own money!”

    I spent quite a bit of my own money, as a matter of fact. Pell grants are nice, but they didn’t cover more than about a third of the bills, and I only got them two of my years in school.

    How much patience should I have when someone again tries to play both sides of the argument?

    Establish a coherent argument, and it may become clearer which side others are on.

  71. john personna says:

    If you cannot see a connection between subsidy and outcomes, that isn’t really my problem.

    I mean do I really need to explain this to you?

    There are happy little countries with enough oil revenue that they can give a free ride to everyone who goes to college. More power to them. With enough money, especially a revenue stream like that, there’s no need to sweat ROI.

    But we aren’t that happy little oil country, are we? No. We have states declaring their college systems in peril. We have rising costs for students. And we have trend lines that say this will get only worse.

    Stop and catch that. If there is a problem with state schools, their subsidies, and their tuition, it will only be worse next year. And five years after that.

    Into this fiscal nightmare walks the argument that “every degree is precious” or “there’s nothing we can do, it’s little Sally’s passion.”

    Seriously?

  72. john personna says:

    Perhaps you really are making a leftist “personal growth” argument that colleges should fund passion, for passions’s sake.

    Perhaps you only dress it up occasionally with weak ROI arguments because you can’t bare to come clean with that.

    To be honest, while I disagree with the first course I think it has more integrity that the second.

  73. mantis says:

    Into this fiscal nightmare walks the argument that “every degree is precious” or “there’s nothing we can do, it’s little Sally’s passion.”

    You were saying something about strawmen? It’s all you’ve got.

  74. mantis says:

    Perhaps you really are making a leftist “personal growth” argument that colleges should fund passion, for passions’s sake.

    No, I was objecting to your categorization of certain degree types as pointless, “personal growth” pursuits not valuable in the marketplace. While that may be true of some people, it is not true of the degrees themselves. That was my point. You prefer to wail against strawmen. Have fun with that.

  75. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: It’s not a strawman. I’m honestly not sure what your point is. Or that you even have a single point.

    1. Some degrees tend to lead to better paying jobs than others. Agreed!

    2. To the extent taxpayers are funding higher ed, we shouldn’t subsidize people who are simply having a good time in school and likely to come finish without the prospect of a job that contributes to society. Agreed!

    3. To the extent taxpayers are funding higher ed, we shouldn’t encourage people to undergo studies that yield very little prospect of employment sufficient to pay off that investment, Well, agreed. But what programs are those? Why are people going into them? How many people are going into them.

    4. To the extent taxpayers are funding higher ed, we should only fund those which yield the highest paying jobs. Disagree. Again, schoolteachers are a classic example. Or nurses. Yes, physicians earn more and some of the same skillsets are involved. But we need nurses, too. And both schoolteachers and nurses — or museum curators or journalists — make enough money and contribute enough to society to make subsidizing their education worthwhile.

  76. john personna says:

    It’s a strawman because every time we talk about this you say “not everyone can be an engineer,” when I never said “eveyrone should be an engineer.”

    I have said we can use more engineers, which is true, but a different proposition.

    Basically 3 is my point and has been all along.

    Oops, with 4 we are back to the strawman again. I never said “only those which yield the highest paying jobs.”

    Technically, since this is state money, they should survey the value added to the state economy by degree X. How many UCLA film degrees does it take to keep Hollywood humming? Can film degrees in Arizona do as well?

    Survey it and find out.

  77. john personna says:

    No, I was objecting to your categorization of certain degree types as pointless, “personal growth” pursuits not valuable in the marketplace. While that may be true of some people, it is not true of the degrees themselves. That was my point. You prefer to wail against strawmen. Have fun with that.

    I think you missed something important.

    I am differentiating between the degree and the state funding of the degree.

    I’ve said I’m fine with people spending their own money at private colleges on any degree.

    I’ve also said I’m fine with flush countries funding everything they can.

    You are dodging, because you want subsidy for weak majors in an impacted economy.

    Or do you actually agree with James’ 3?

    And it’s only the positions you’ve made up for me that you disagree with?

  78. john personna says:

    Note that my definition for success is actually broader, and easier to pass, than merely tax revenue from the student himself:

    “they should survey the value added to the state economy by degree X”

    There is a chain of revenue associated with each degree.

  79. john personna says:

    Note also that if the ROI for the state is high enough, this is an argument for a full ride, free tuition, in the major.

  80. mantis says:

    Actually, John, I think I misunderstood your original position vis a vis Pell grants. My apologies for that. If your position is that government grant funding should focus on majors most needed or beneficial to the economy, then I agree with you. That is a good idea.

    However, I still disagree that one can categorize some degrees as pointless “personal growth” pursuits. As I said before, that may be true of some people who pursue those degrees, but not the degrees themselves.

    Also, keep in mind that my original objection had to do with your position on how people should choose their majors, not how their college should be funded.

  81. john personna says:

    OK mantis, partial agreement.

    FWIW, I think a Business Administration major with Philosophy minor is better preparation for a life in business administration than Philosophy alone. We do hear Philosophy touted as preparation for business. I’m just offering a more direct path, with passion on the side.

  82. john personna says:

    (Of course, if you are Philosophy as pre-law, never mind.)

  83. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: How about Philosophy as pre-journalism, as Matt Yglesias and Julian Sanchez and Will Wilkerson did? Or as pre-philosophy PhD, as every philosophy professor did? It’s actually a quite powerful major, attracting some extraordinarily bright folks.

  84. john personna says:

    Philosophy scores pretty sell on that table. Students should just be informed if the “pre-“s mean that post-grad education is necessary.

    (Bloggers as a group may not justify the high-fliers as anecdotes.)

  85. george says:

    Rather than starting at the top of the career earnings list and striving to get into a program, most people are better off figuring out what they’re passionate about and then matching that to a program of study and career options.

    Especially since the one thing we can never get back is time. Years spent doing something you dislike rather than something you’re passionate about can never be recovered – life isn’t a computer game, we can’t reload our life in the past and try again. Might as well try to make your living doing something you enjoy – even if you can’t achieve your first choice (I’d have loved to be a MLB player), most can find something they still like if they put effort into it.

  86. BK says:

    A computer science degree is worth something?

    Not in today’s IT market where H1b visa holders have priority over US Citizens. See the Cohen & Grigsby video and see why US Citizens are not getting anywhere with their degrees.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCbFEgFajGU

    College degrees are worthless in today’s economy except if you’re from the big name schools – Ivy League, top 14 ranked schools.

  87. john personna says:

    IT != Computer Science

  88. Jon Weiss says:

    I am a graduate of both a two year Community College and a four year University, and until two years ago, I worked in the IT industry. In that industry (unless you are going to go to work teaching) an IT degree is a “Nice to have” add on, but the vast majority of employers have all hit me with the same questions…”What have you done lately and what certifications do you have.” A BS in IT is all well and good but A+/Net+/Server+ or MCSE/MCSA is what will get you the job. The degree is virtually useless if you have the certifications.

  89. Jon Weiss says:

    On another point, life experience seems to be in very low regard these days, if it is not directly related to the task at hand.

    I received a call from a Technical Services Temp Agency not long ago, I had successfully completed several contracts for them in the past, both as a team member and as an individual contractor working small projects. I had never failed to completa a job on time and on budget.

    Then they called me and said they were looking for a person to be the project leader on a small computer installation job, and wanted to know if I had any leadership experience, expecially experience dealing with supervising logistics. I told them that I had 22 years in the Army and 20 years of that, I had served in leadership positions and that I had been the senior person responsible for the deployment of a 117 man military unit with all equipment going to Haiti and back to the US and a second deployment to Bosnia and return.

    This was apparently not good enough.

    They then proceded to grill me on scenarios of what I would do in given situations dealing with possible situations related to the project.

    I gave straight forward answers, based on techniques I had successfuly used in the past, the interview concluded and I never heard from them again.

    So much for life experience being of any value.