Tuesday, January 11, 2011

College: a national treasure or America's most overrated product?

I have presented these statistics in previous writings but they're so important that I want to aggregate them for you here.

Despite having been a poor student in high school, are you or someone you love considering attempting a college degree? Are you wondering whether it might be wiser to pursue an alternative such as a short-term career-prep program, an apprenticeship, the military, or on-the-job training, perhaps at an ethical entrepreneur's elbow?

Consider these:

The New York Times reports, "The National Assessment of Adult Literacy revealed distressing declines in literacy, especially among those with the most education. (emphases mine) For example, "Fewer than one-third of college graduates--down from 40 percent a decade ago--were deemed 'Proficient' in terms of literacy as defined by the ability to read and understand lengthy passages. A small but still alarming percentage of college graduates scored 'Below Basic,' meaning they were incapable of all but the simplest tasks."

USA Today reports that according to a study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, "Nearing a diploma, most college students cannot handle many complex but common tasks, from understanding credit card offers to comparing the cost per ounce of food...More than 50% of students at four-year schools and 75% at two-year college...could not interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers...Most students at community colleges and four-year schools showed 'intermediate skills,' meaning they could...identify a location on a map or calculate the cost of ordering office supplies."

Just think of how much professors have to dumb down their classes to accommodate to such students. When I was teaching, even at Berkeley, I had to dumb down my classes, dramatically. But I would not inflate grades. When I dared fail a student who truly, truly had terrible writing and thinking skills, I received a call from a dean urging me to give her a passing grade: "Society really needs more minority woman role models." I refused to change her grade. Despite my having excellent student evaluations, I was not rehired.

Dr. Clifford Adelman, senior researcher at the U.S. Office Education, reported that of freshman at four-year colleges who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class, only 1/4 will graduate...even if given 8 1/2 years!

And according to a just-released study of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article called The Great College Scam,, 60% of the increased number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 work on jobs requiring just high school!

As colleges dig ever deeper into the barrel of high school graduates to extract maximum profit and meet government-imposed and other pressures to increase minority enrollment, those colleges are shepherding students into college when they know that's not the person's wisest post-secondary choice. As bad, the colleges do not inform the students of the terrible odds against them. If a physician prescribed a treatment requiring years, a fortune, and huge opportunity costs and which had a small chance of success, without obtaining the patient's fully informed consent, that doctor would be sued and lose in every court in the land. Yet our government not only doesn't sue the colleges, it rewards them by giving students ever more financial aid, which merely allows colleges to raise tuition more!

We simply must stop allowing colleges to ruin countless students' lives. Government should withhold financial aid to institutions that produce the above results, and of course, should mandate the College Report Card I've urged for so long. Only that way, can prospective students have the information they need to decide if, for them, a college education is the national treasure that colleges tell us it is, or America's most overrated product.


Jacked Up said...

Difficult to find flaws in this post. Now we just have to deal with tradition. If there were a fundamental shift in higher ed, it would actually save money in terms of faculty costs.

Anonymous said...

I think what's missing here is a list of jobs that do not require a college education.

If, for example, a student decides she's not cut-out for the rigors of a college education then she's doomed to a life of low-wage jobs. Even with a college education or an advanced degree it's difficult to get meaningful and fulfilling work.

Employers expect the minimum of a college education. Maybe then the change needs to start there, with the employers.

Serge said...

I guess society is desperate for an answer to tectonic economic shifts. It seeks answers of how to maintain a luxury lifestyle (according to global standards), when there is no answers.

Education is supposed to the solution, however it may be a problem, especially when it is neither a geniune liberal arts education, nor it is a solid training.

I think I got a nice liberal arts education, but that is because I was like a sponge sucking all the professor could give. Most of my classmates seemd bored.

While going to school, I was shelving books in a library, and while doing so I was often listening to audio lectures from Teaching Company. I believe I gained just as much from those free lectures (i.e. library materials) as from paid ones.

While 50 years ago, only people with intellectual curiosity could have graduated with liberal arts degree. Now any slacker with a pulse that pays Indians to write his essays, can get the BA. Thus they lost much of their meaning and value!

Shawn said...

No college or university is actually "non-profit;" it's just a designation stating how the residuals get spread. There are still many stakeholders looking to get their money.

That said, colleges have huge incentives to lie about their placements, starting salaries, etc. Even companies like Enron who get audited by public accounting firms could not resist the temptation to lie about their performance, so it goes without saying that colleges have been lying for a long time -- their is no downside for them. I propose that in order to be accredited, colleges and universities should be made to reveal their graduation rates, starting salaries, and placements, so that prospective students would be able to take advantage of information that is more symmetrical in nature.

Marty Nemko said...


Employers are getting dozens if not hundreds of applications for each decent, non-rare-skill-requiring job so to weed out applicants in a way that the EEOC can't object to, they require a degree. That said, some well-paying careers don't require degrees. Examples: robot or medical equipment technicians, chefs, welders, machinists, many sales positions. And of course, start your own business and you instantly go from schlepper to CEO, even if you're a high school dropout. Of course, there is an art to being a good businessperson, and only some of it can be learned quickly enough. Aspiring entrepreneurs should get even a low-level job at the elbow of a successful, ethical entrepreneur, and ask lots of questions and show tons of initiative.

Dave said...

"Aspiring entrepreneurs should get even a low-level job at the elbow of a successful, ethical entrepreneur, and ask lots of questions and show tons of initiative."




This looks like a wonderful apprenticeship program.

Jeffrie said...

Perhaps you can add this study to your list.

From the article: "Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn't determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin."


blogger templates | Make Money Online