The Case Against College

Success Without College; Why Your Child May Not Have to Go to College Right Now – and May Not Have to Go At All

By Linda Lee

All truths begin as blasphemies – George Bernard Shaw

Here is who belongs in college: the high -achieving student who is interested in learning for learning’s sake, those who intend to become schoolteachers and those young people who seem certain to go on to advanced degrees in law, medicine, architecture and the like. Here who is actually goes to college:  everyone.  That everyone includes the learning disabled and the fairly dumb, those who have trouble reading and writing and doing math, slackers who see college as an opportunity to major in Boers of the World, burned-out book jockeys and the just plain average student with not much interest in anything.

Think about your high school class.  Now think about the 76 percent of those students (80 to 90 percent in middle-class suburbs) who say they expect to go to two-year or four-year colleges.  You begin to see the problem?

Pamela Gerhardt, who has been teaching advanced writing and editing at the University of Maryland for six years, says she has seen a decline in her students’ interest in the world of ideas.  In an article in the Washington Post on August 22, 1999, she notes:  “Last semester, many of my students drifted in late, slumped into chairs, made excuses to leave early and surrounded my desk when papers were due, clearly distraught over the looming deadline.  ‘I can’t think of any problems,’ one told me.  “Nothing interests me.”

Her students, she said, rejected the idea of writing about things like homelessness or AIDS.  Five mail students, she said, wanted to write about the “problem” of the instant replay in televised football games.

Ever since the Garden of Eden, people have been complaining that things use to be better, once upon a time, back when.  I suppose it is possible that, thirty years ago, students were just as shallow and impatient with education as they are today.  But I don’t think so.  It could be that a college education is wasted on the young, but it is more likely that a college education is especially being wasted on today’s youth.

Of course, there was a period twenty-five years ago when Cassandras argued that college was a waste of time and money.  Around the time that The Overeducated American was published, in 1975, Caroline Bird wrote a book called The Case Against College.  Her book has been out of print for decades.  But there are arguments that seem very familiar to me:  that Madison Avenue sells college like soap flakes, that going to college had become a choice requiring no forethought; that students weren’t really there to learn and that college was no longer an effective way to train workers.

But primarily Ms. Bird argued that “there is no real evidence that the higher income of college graduates is due to college at all.”  She cited as her proof Christopher Jenck’s report “Inequality:  A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America,” which pointed out that people from high status families tended to earn more than people from low-status families, even if they had the same amount of education.

College, Bird pointed out twenty-five years ago, “fails to work its income-raising magic for almost a third of those who go.  “Moreover,” she said, “college doesn’t make people intelligent, ambitious, happy, liberal or quick to learn new things.  It’s the other way around.  Intelligent, ambitious, happy, liberal, quick-to-learn people are attracted to college in the first place.”

Or, as Zachary Karabell asked in the 1999 book What’s College For?  The Struggle to Define American Higher Education, “on a more pragmatic level, does college truly lead to better jobs?”  He answered his own question with “Not necessarily.  The more people go to college, the less a college degree is worth.”  He goes on to point out that the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes in its list of jobs that require a college degree “insurance adjuster” and “manager of a Blockbuster video store.”  Is that what you were foreseeing for Joey when you wrote that $25,000 tuition check?

Caroline Bird was outraged over the expense of college in 1975.  A Princeton education, she said, would cost $22,256 for tuition, books, travel, room, board and pocket money-for four years. Twenty-five years later, the price for that Princeton degree has grown to $140,000, including room and board and books, but not including travel money and pocket change.  It’s even more than that, if you factor in the student’s lost wages.  Because of the low unemployment rates at the end of the nineties, anyone with the IQ to go to Princeton could make at least $15,000 a year with only a high school diploma, and perhaps more.  So tack on at least $60,000 (if the student knows computers, make that $120,000 in lost wages while Jared and Jessica were busy at Princeton studying Shakespeare.  That puts the price of a college degree from a fine Ivy League school at more than $200,000.

Is it worth it today?  Perhaps even less so than in Caroline Bird’s day, primarily because students no longer seem interested in ideas, and because it is so much easier to make money just by hopping onto the Internet. “I agree that from the perspective of society as a whole, it would be better if fewer people went to college,”  Robert Frank told me.  He’s the popular Cornell economist, and the author of Luxury Fever and other books.  “Economists often challenge this notion by citing studies that show significantly higher wages for college graduates, ” he said.  “But all these studies say is that the people who attend college are better, on the average than those who don’t.  They don’t tell us how much value is added to them by attending college, since employers so often use education as an initial screening device.  Everyone wants the best -paying and most interesting jobs, after all, which assures that there will always be a surfeit of applicants for them.  So employers who offer such jobs have every incentive to confine their attention to college graduates.  But that doesn’t mean that we’d be poorer as a nation if fewer people went to college.”

An article in Newsweek (November 1, 1999) by Robert J. Samuelson said:  “Going to Harvard or Duke won’t automatically produce a better job and higher pay.  Graduates of these schools generally do well.  But they do well because they are talented.”  The article was titled “The Worthless Ivy League?”   

Brigid McMenamin wrote a blistering piece in Forbes magazine (December 28, 1998) called “The Tyranny of the Diploma.”  Beyond listing the usual suspects in the computer field who did not complete college – Bill Gates, Michael Dell – she pointed to the young digerati who are making $50,000 to $80,000 a year and more at age sixteen.  At a time when most kids in college say they are there “to get a job,” these kids may well skip college in order to jump inon the booming internet business.

Moreover, as Ms. McMenamin recounts, almost 15 percent, or 58 members, of the Forbes 400 (a yearly listing of the most successful business leaders), had either, as she put it, ditched college or avoided it altogether.  In terms of wages, she said, brick masons and machinists had it all over biology and liberal arts majors.  As a capper, she stated:  “A hefty 21 percent of all degree-holders who work earn less than the average for high school grads.”  She didn’t even bring up plumbers, electricians and car mechanics.

About the Author

Linda Lee is an editor and writer for the New York Times.  She frequently contributes to the Style, Art & Leisure, and Business sections.  The article she wrote for the education life supplement in 1998 entitled “What’s the rush?  Why College Can Wait” generated an enormous amount of mail.  In addition to the more than eighty articles she has written for the Times, Lee is author of several books.  She lives in New York City.

“Degrees of Success” captures short inspirational stories of every day people who became successful without a college degree.

“Claudia Fox has written an enlightening book that will demonstrate to you, that although education may be the key that will unlock doors, with only dedication and desire, you can blow them right off their hinges.”
– John Roland, WNYW, FOX 5