Thursday, August 21, 2008

What I Plan to Say About College on ABC-TV's 20-20

I've been invited to appear on ABC-TV's 20-20 to discuss whether college is worth it. Here are my planned talking points:

After adjusting for financial aid, the amount families pay for college has skyrocketed 439% since 1982--to subsidize silly research, pay for fancy buildings, bloated administrations,
palatial dorms, and fancy gyms complete with rock-climbing walls.

The statistic that colleges most often cite to justify their astronomical costs is that you earn much more with a college degree. That’s terribly misleading: If you locked the pool of college-bound students in a closet for four years, they’d earn more than the pool of non-college-goers: They’re brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.

Yes, employers increasingly require college degrees, but there’s no need to attend an expensive college. That’s especially true of the thousands of private colleges that do not have a designer label, but it’s even true of a designer-label college:

A study by Princeton professors Krueger & Dale found no difference in earnings whether a student graduated from an Ivy League institution or State U. Implication: Start at a community college: Dorm life is overrated anyway--kids living together for the first time too often end up creating Animal House environments. That’s why the dropout rate is so huge: More than 40% of students attending so-called four-year colleges don't graduate even if they're given--and pay for--six years of college. And the learning rate is equally low. (See below.) Besides, teaching quality is usually BETTER at community colleges than at the Ivies because faculty is hired and promoted mainly on how well they teach, not how much research they crank out--The kinds of people likely to be good researchers are the OPPOSITE of the kinds likely to be good undergraduate instructors.

Parents can save the money without short-changing the child if they beg their kids to do the few things that enable one to make the most of college:
-- Choose professors carefully; for example, read online student reviews of them. Pick the professors most likely to teach you to think and write better and who will inspire you.
-- Take writing-and reasoning centric courses: for example, rhetoric.
-- Participate in extracurriculars such as debate, student govt, and student newspaper.
-- Take classes that expose you to a wide range of political perspectives.
-- Search out great peer and adult mentors.

If your child did poorly in high school (bottom half of his high school class), do NOT take a four-year college’s willingness to admit your child as an indication of his likely succeeding there. Among students at so-called four-year colleges who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class, 2/3 never graduate even if given 8 1/2 years. Meanwhile they’re accumulated a mountain of debt, devastated self-esteem, and the huge opportunity cost: what they could have been doing if they hadn’t been taking academic courses. Such students should consider apprenticeships, career-prep programs at community college, the military, or learning at the elbow of a successful small business owner.

The higher ed lobby is very powerful (for example, ACE and AASCU)--pushing, for example, for increases in financial aid, which turn out NOT to mainly benefit students but the universities: giving students more financial aid allows colleges to raise tuition further. So, when a politician says “I voted to increase financial aid,” he actually mainly voted to use people's tax dollars to line the pockets of colleges, not to make college more affordable.

Those lobbying organizations also fight against colleges being required to be accountable for how much value they’re providing for all the time and money students spend on college. The Spellings Commission (a 2006 federal panel looking at higher ed) pointed out how frighteningly little learning accrues from college and recommended that colleges be held more accountable.

For example, a 2006 study supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors scored below "proficient" levels on a test that required them to do such basic tasks as understand the arguments of newspaper editorials or compare credit-card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. The students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station.

Unbelievably, according to the Spellings Report, things are getting even worse: "Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined … According to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, for instance, the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade. … Employers report repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today's workplaces."

But the higher ed lobby effectively quashed the Spellings Report’s recommendation that colleges be more accountable. Congress instead, in 2008, did just what the higher ed lobby wanted: increased financial aid without making colleges more accountable for the quality of education they dispense.

We require tire manufacturers to mold into the sidewall of every tire its treadlife, temperature, and traction ratings. Yet colleges, which are so much more expensive and could so affect students’ lives, have virtually no accountability.

Government should require colleges to prominently post on its website a College Report Card:
  • the amount of freshman-to-senior value added in writing, reading, thinking, and math reasoning
  • the percentages of students with varying high school records who graduate in four years
  • the average amount of cash families with varying income and assets must pay and the average amount of loan that is assumed
  • the results of its most recent student satisfaction survey
  • the executive summary of the institution's latest accreditation visiting team report
  • the average earnings of its graduates
The colleges should report how their statistics compare against their peer institutions (those admitting similar-caliber students.)


Anonymous said...

Let us know when it's scheduled to be on.

Now that you have made public what you plan to say to an audience full of people that fervently believe college is the answer, what do you believe is the likelihood that you will really appear?

Marty Nemko said...

It will air in Oct, on a date to be determined.

The show producer selected me because of my pro-consumer perspective, and he pre-interviewed me, during which I expressed much of this, so I doubt he'll cancel me. I'm confident enough of that that I actually emailed him this post.

Anonymous said...

You are dead right on this. It's the emperor with no clothes.

john said...

This was about an anti-feminist suing Columbia University, from They are really biased, but his views seem spot on on many things.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! I just saw your segment yesterday on 20/20's "What Are You Worth?". I'm glad that it seems that John Stossel and Suze Orman agree with your statements about the value of college and how sometimes it's not worth it and community college can be the better option. I hope the new Secretary of Education will be proactive in making higher education institutions accountable to the public. I'm tired of low standard universities cropping up and catering to low achievers who only attend college for the Financial Aid (especially those who borrow an exaggerated amount of loans only to default on them).


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