(NY Magazine) The University Has No Clothes

As long as there have been colleges, there’s been an individualist, anti-college strain in American culture””an affinity for the bootstrap. But it is hard to think of a time when skepticism of the value of higher education has been more prominent than it is right now. Over the past several months, the same sharp and distressing arguments have been popping up in the Times, cable news, the blogosphere, even The Chronicle of Higher Education. The cost of college, as these arguments typically go, has grown far too high, the return far too uncertain, the education far too lax. The specter, it seems, has materialized….

[Indeed]…the skepticism is spreading, even among foot soldiers on the academic front lines. In March, “Professor X,” an anonymous English instructor at two middling northeastern colleges, published In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, an expansion of an Atlantic essay arguing that college has been dangerously oversold and that it borders on immoral to ask America’s youth to incur heavy debt for an education for which millions are simply ill-equipped. Professor X’s book came out on the heels of a Harvard Graduate School of Education report that made much the same point. The old policy cri de coeur “college for all,” the report argues, has proved inadequate; rather than shunting everyone into four-year colleges, we should place greater emphasis on vocational programs, internships, and workplace learning. Then, last month, a front-page article in the Times delivered striking news: Student-loan debt in the U.S. is approaching the trillion-dollar mark, outpacing credit-card debt for the first time in history. With all that debt, more and more are asking, what are we buying?


Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Economics, Politics, * International News & Commentary, America/U.S.A., Consumer/consumer spending, Economy, Education, Personal Finance, Young Adults

24 comments on “(NY Magazine) The University Has No Clothes

  1. Anglicanum says:

    I couldn’t agree more. My wife and I both teach college classes, and few of our students are really up to the academic challenge. Maybe a third of the students in each class are suited for college, but the other two-thirds would be much better helped by entering a vocational program of some sort. And yet, all of them are sure that college is going to help them get ahead.

  2. Marie Blocher says:

    I could say “Blame the employers who require a degree for jobs that really shouldn’t require a degree.” But the root of that is in the high school diploma is of skeptical value due to so many high schools graduating students who can barely read and write, and can’t do math at all. (I can remember when I was living in Massachusetts, giving a checkout clerk a 5 dollar bill and a nickel for a purchase of $4.80 and them having to call someone esle over to figure out I should get a quarter back.)

    And then there is also the aspect Anglicanum wrote about,
    young people who have not been prepared in high school for the academic challenge in college. These young people slow down the learning for the whole class making the College
    experience/degree less valuable for all.

    When the high school diploma regains some credibility, then maybe employers will drop the college degree requirement for a lot of jobs and our young people will stop having to go deep in debt to get a piece of paper that allows them to get a job. And Colleges can get back to teaching college level classes, instead of remedial reading, remedial math, etc.

  3. BlueOntario says:

    College has become mearly what we expect of our public school system: a venue to “train” people for the workforce. Both have failed abjectly in that, and the added horror is that in the conversion of those institutions we have given up trying to introduce the basics of morals and citizenship with “the Three R’s”.

  4. Mark Baddeley says:

    The kicker is in the last page or so of the article. The outliers can afford to not do college – they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and are probably better off going off and doing that, unless they want a college education for other reasons. The ‘average’ person doesn’t have those entrepeneurial traits and needs a system like college – they can learn if they’re taught, but can’t pull themselves up. In my view, education is always for those within two standard deviations of ‘average’ – they can learn, but can’t teach themselves. But those ‘average people’ now face a choice between a college degree of questionable value and high cost, or the high probability of very limited professional prospects at low cost. High cost roll of the dice or low cost low opportunity.

    My impression is that the problem is grade and degree inflation. College should be for an elite, those with significantly above average academic abilities. Open it to all and you debase it for all – the desire to not exclude people from the chance to get the college experience and boost means that the reality behind the course and the degree is removed.

    Most people who get into college should graduate. And there should be a noticeable improvement in knowledge and skills after two years of college. Make those two things the drivers and I think you could fix the problem – but the cost will be a significant reduction in the number of college students.

    On another front, how predictably voyeurish does the MSM have to be? What is gained by putting a mixed group of young models naked but for strategically placed academic boards/hair at the start of a multi-page article like this? “This article is going to take some effort so here’s some gratuitous sex at the start to make up for that.”

  5. Creedal Episcopalian says:

    [b] College has become mearly what we expect of our public school system:[/b]
    Is that true? what is it that we expect from our public school system?

    As recently as 50 years ago you could expect that someone who earned a high school diploma could meet the fundamental requirements of commerce. 100 years ago, a man with a sixth grade education could qualify to teach primary school, as my grandfather did.

    Today concerns of “fairness” and egalitarianism, coupled with the unproven idea that providing an equivalent educational experience to every student regardless of ability can produce similar outcomes and opportunity for every individual, has resulted in lowered expectations for all individuals. When the desired result was not achieved, the “correct” outcome was forced by lowering the standards for everybody.

    This has forced employers to seek college graduates in order to insure competence. Unfortunately, the process has been extended to the university level and many degrees no longer convey confidence. Virtually any student can attend college now, the more “disadvantaged” the better, with the help of government financed student loans. The university system and it’s costs have expanded at a rapid pace as a result.

    This is all just another case of the market putting the lie to manipulation for a well intentioned but mythical social result.
    Another example would be the Community Redevelopment Act, where lowering mortgage standards to create egalitarian housing availability created inflation and a bubble in the housing market. We are living through the results of that bubble exploding now. The education system is another bubble, and it will of necessity explode soon, if it has not already.

  6. DavidBennett says:

    I think a lot of us believed somehow college would help us achieve the American dream, and it really doesn’t for most people. I did enjoy the college experience and did quite well (3.99 GPA at grad school). However, at age 32, I am finding my degrees (in Psychology and theology) have pretty much doomed me to struggling to get by for the rest of my life, if I find a job in which I use my degrees. Paying back student loan debt and competing with a saturated market of people with theology degrees that want a teaching job has made me take a much different view on college. Right now student loan payments take up 10 percent of my salary! These days I tell my students to critically analyze the belief that everyone needs to get a 4-year degree, and that they should very closely analyze college cost with future employability before signing anything.

    Lately I have self-taught myself certain strategies of success by reading and discussion with others: good communication skills, how to read body language, financial principles, entrepreneurship, motivation, etc. These are things I didn’t learn in college, but are things financially successful people know. The cost to me for this self-directed education has amounted to about 600 dollars, and it has been more helpful overall than the roughly $40,000 I spent on college and grad school. I think formal education is great in theory, but we need to really start assessing whether $10,000+ a year to study English poetry is really a good idea when your job prospects involve serving coffee for a living. Unfortunately, school administrators and professors do not have an incentive to tell the truth to a good chunk of college students, which is to say they won’t tell them that many bachelor’s degrees are pretty much worthless unless you go on for a PhD to teach other misled undergraduates.

    I know there is more to life than money. However, when you reach 32, and are starting a family, at the very least you would hope your college and graduate school education would qualify you to afford a home, transportation, and health care for you and your family.

  7. deaconmark says:

    “Today concerns of “fairness” and egalitarianism, coupled with the unproven idea that providing an equivalent educational experience to every student regardless of ability can produce similar outcomes and opportunity for every individual, has resulted in lowered expectations for all individuals.” I cannot speak for elsewhere, but that was simply not true for my children’s high school educations here in a large liberal city on the West Coast. Student’s were “tracked” meaning those with ability and/or parental support and/or willing to work hard were put in demanding classes with fine teachers and given a very good education. My daughter emerged with 4 years of foreign language education, an ability to write well that i find rare today, and a reasonable ability in math and science. The less willing and able could make use of a good vocational preparation. Low ability, low parental involvement, and/or lack of work ethic usually resulted in a student dropping out. Whites were a very small minority in this system. Certain ethnic groups were given the opportunity to choose any school in the city but they had to maintain the same standards. They rarely made the choice to put in the hard work but when they did they succeeded. I do not attribute this to any predisposition other than lack of expectations and poor preparation for high school learning.

  8. Ross says:

    My personal feeling is that grade school and high school ought to provide basic competencies in math, reading, history, geography, and so on — the fundamentals that everyone ought to know to be a productive citizen.

    A four-year college ought, IMO, to provide a broad exposure to the arts and sciences, with a modest emphasis on the student’s area of interest. An undergraduate education should be about becoming a generalist.

    Graduate school is about specializing, and should only be undertaken by people who are very certain that they want or need that narrow, focused education.

    I am aware that in this area, as in so many, reality fails to conform to my expectations.

  9. Rich Gabrielson says:

    Mark Baddeley [#4] wrote:
    [blockquote]… how predictably voyeurish does the MSM have to be?[/blockquote]
    At first I thought the layout editor missed the point of the article – it’s not the students who have no clothes, it’s the faculty, administration and accrediting boards. But that photo would not be nearly as titillating (part of the predictability of the MSM, I guess, not to mention the obvious commercial motive implied by the photo credit.)

    OTOH the article does imply pretty clearly that most students [i]graduate[/i] inadequately clothed (i.e., prepared) to enter the professional work force.

  10. Tamsf says:

    There’s also the issue of cost. Even if we suppose that colleges teach their students more than just how to binge drink and party, why does it cost so much? Why has the price risen at 3-times the rate of inflation over the past generation?

    So there are 2 issues with which I’m struggling, as my kids are in college now. Are they learning anything useful? How much debt are they (and I) going to have when they graduate?

  11. deaconmark says:

    I agree, the cost is outrageous. I was thinking about working on my doctorate after i retire, but i just cannot justify the expense. It’s certainly not because the rank and file are getting high salaries. Too many times adjunct staff are teaching huge classes of undergrads.

  12. lostdesert says:

    [blockquote]It’s certainly not because the rank and file are getting high salaries. [/blockquote]

    Really? Go to the Boston Herald and get to “Your tax dollars at Work” which is so laughable. Then click on State Payroll, order the list by salary; you will find mere professors at the UMass system earning $200,000 and up. In fact, UMass salaries dominate the upper levels of the state payroll. What was created to be an affordable education option for the average family is now very expensive – $20k and up after fees, etc, and shows no sign of decreasing. Not exactly Harvard or Berkeley but still big money. UMass is now a real competitor with other private instiutions and pays well above many of those – all at the taxpayer expense.

    Another state fiefdom for handing out jobs, and that wonderful kiss at the end, the HUGE pension and health benefit. The state is so into higher ed on every level: loans, state schools, etc that they virtually set the price for higher ed. If govt got out of higher ed, I believe the cost would drop, perhaps precipitously, rather that outpace inflation 2:1 as it has for over 35 years.

  13. Larry Morse says:

    When you flood a system with mediocrities, the system has two choices really. It can fail the mediocrities and so purge the system without compromising its standards, or it can lower it standards because massive failures, using the first alternative, would bring massive reprisals from parents, government, and the wealthy whose children could not make the cut and who therefore will not leave the college money. Most colleges and universities have chosen the second course because it brings them the most and easiest revenue; grade inflation was the simplest means to that end, and the next easiest was a curriculum that made course work less rigorous – women’s studies and the like, ethnic studies and “basketweaving” courses of all sorts so that the powerful but intellectually feeble athlete had a way of meeting NCAA standards, because these “winners” made the successfiul teams that drew enormous sums from commercial endeavors and alumni.
    the Ivy Leagues could keep their standards higher because their appliicants stand so high on the SATs and the like, and there are so many of them, so many who come from families already wealthy. But they too succumbed to grade inflation. nevertheless, we can see the creation of a wealthy elite and the creation of a true class system.
    The broad social response to these threats has been the creation of ignorance as a credential, i.e. the Tea Party. Donald Trump and all their ilk. Larry

  14. Scatcatpdx says:

    I am my sister make 17.00 the difference is my sister has a master degree and I did not go to college.

    I see two strike against college, first the changes since 1980’s with the rise of Political Correctness, and radical leftist (remember hey hey ho ho Western civ has to go). If I die go after my Navy career I would not lean anything and probably get into troubled being a conservative, orthodox Christian, creationist.
    Second problem is job requirement creep; where job and pay rate remains the same but the requirement is now a college degree when vocational school was enough. As an electronics tech I am seeing a engineering degree required for assembler job : case in point:

    Seeking candidate for a contract position as a Manufacturing Technician for a major pharmaceutical company. This is a one year contract assignment.

    Must consistently adhere to current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP). Must follow strict adherence to standard operating procedures, work instructions and departmental policies. Must understand and comply with hazardous communications rules and regulations. Contributes to the development of documentation for the device master record.

    Assists in the planning, execution, and interpretation of designed experiments to identify and characterize critical process factors under the direction of Scientists.
    Build/wire/solder major and minor assemblies of moderate complexity using hand tools as required and working from Work Instructions and 2D Drawings.
    Operates manufacturing equipment and test instruments.
    Performs in-process and final testing of medical devices.
    Performs data analysis of moderate complexity.
    Performs routine equipment maintenance and cleaning.
    Recognizes and reports process and equipment anomalies to Engineering.
    Monitors manufacturing metrics such as OAE and OEE.

    Qualifications: Technical Bachelor degree (Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Physics, etc.) or equivalent. 1-2 years work experience, in the medical device/pharmaceutical field (FDA or ISO regulated environment). Ability to present ideas in business-friendly and user-friendly language. Exceptionally self-motivated and directed. Energetic, forward-thinking, and creative with high ethical standards. Candidate must be computer literate with good analytical skills. Must be detail oriented with good dexterity for handling small components and capable of working in a class 10,000 clean room. Good communication skills with all levels of the organization, multi tasking, and good problem solving skills. Must demonstrate good leadership skills with experience in teamwork and team building.

    •Location: Wilsonville, OR
    •Compensation: $15/hr ”

    Study hard, take higher math and science courses, and spend 50,000+ to work as an assembler test operator, a job that take at most on the job training plus a high school degree.

  15. FrCarl says:

    #12 You are correct in identifying the basic problem with higher ed these days. There is an amazing – well perhaps not – correlation between the rise in gov’t support – direct, as in subsidies to the school itself, and indirect, as in the confidence game known as student loans – and the inflated salaries and teaching loads of the professoriate. Sour grapes? a little.

  16. Creedal Episcopalian says:

    Two other issues with the cost’s of higher education.
    – Building and expansion plans to help attract more of those student loan dollars. [url=http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2007/01/12/harvard_unveils_its_vision_of_campus_across_charles/ ]Harvard[/url]
    – undergraduate tuition pays for [url=http://collegeaffordability.blogspot.com/2010/10/tale-of-40-professors-at-texas.html]research and expensive graduate programs[/url].
    This is where the manifestly liberal political power of the ivory tower comes from.
    Follow the money. Who benefits from tuition inflation?

  17. DavidBennett says:

    I think the real problem is that people suspend their judgment with college. They have been taught that “college=more opportunities,” when in reality when you take out the outliers (highly profitable careers) from the equation, college grads aren’t making that much more than their peers. John Stossel did a special on this awhile back (see http://townhall.com/columnists/johnstossel/2009/01/28/the_college_scam for the summary). This is why it is a scam for some people, because someone goes into debt $100,000 to get a BA and MA in English literature, thinking “college education=success” and then discovers they can either adjunct or work at Starbucks (for about the same salary). Now, if you could get two English Literature degrees for $10,000 and a few years of your time, it might be worth it, but 6 years and $100,000 is a simply horrible price for an unprofitable degree. How many degrees and programs fall into this category? Many? Most?

    Maybe we should develop a futures market for degrees and figure out a fair market value for a degree, i.e. the price it is worth in dollars and time. Most degrees probably wouldn’t be worth the thousands of dollars and hours of time required to get them.

  18. FrCarl says:

    #17 Your comments are spot on. At least two, not unrelated, events brought about the current sorry state of affairs:
    The post WWII mindset that college = vocation + $ (which was for the most part true through the 1980s; and remains so, for certain areas).
    And a relatively obscure one: the judicial injunction in the late(?) 50s against the use of “intelligence” tests for evaluation for employment. Businesses quickly adopted the college degree as a proxy for this testing. (BTW I am not vouching for the validity of such tests – just noting the unintended consequences of their disallowance).

  19. Creedal Episcopalian says:

    An aptitude for doing well on “intellegence” tests does not translate into success at University. 🙁

    It is plain that the value per dollar of a university education is way out of balance. If we could disregard the influence of government (Carter’s DOE doesn’t provide much bang for the buck either), I believe that a new model will develop. [url=http://www.khanacademy.org/ ]There are signs of that now[/url] . Not counting online diploma mills like University of Phoenix, there are web based services already providing opportunities for education. Expect to see provisions for testing and qualification emerge as market forces attack the soft underbelly of the educational establishment. Also expect massive resistance to this from the education/political bloc whose ox will be gored.
    Of course online study would eliminate the opportunity for [url=http://www.pubclub.com/collegefootball/index.htm]pathological[/url] socialization that today constitutes much of the university experience.

  20. Ralph Webb says:

    DavidBennett (#6 and #17), I empathize with your tight money situation. Still, as someone who graduated in the ’80s with an English degree and never “serve[d] coffee for a living” (not that it would have been a bad thing if I had for a time), I’m puzzled by your implication that college administrators and professors lie about job prospects for majors in English and other liberal arts and sciences degrees (including psychology and theology). Besides myself, other liberal arts majors who I knew at my college were well aware that, with the exception of high-school teaching, jobs that most directly related to our majors essentially required a Ph.D. (Those with an M.A. who were teaching English at my college made $13K per year in early-to-mid ’80s dollars, and these full-time jobs were limited to five years with no possibility of an extension.) Even if you got a doctorate, it was well-known back then that it could take a while (even years) to get a job in your field, as had been true for some Ph.D. graduates in the ’70s and ’80s. (One of my professors recounted his stint as a taxi driver.) None of this was secret. The college career center staff was equipped to help liberal arts majors to think about how their major would translate into a job post-graduation. No one was promising a lot of money to liberal arts majors, but they were in no way forecasting doom either.

    Nor should they have done so. In my experience in the business world, at least prior to the current economic crisis, liberal arts majors were doing quite well. Businesses had realized that liberal arts majors were better picks than most software developers to write about information technology and serve in other support roles. These jobs indeed provide a solid income, although rarely an extravagant one. Even outside of technical fields, writing/editing and researching jobs have often provided a solid source of income for liberal arts majors.

    Also, most liberal arts majors I’ve known have not had pursuing the American dream as their primary objective. Most I’ve known tend to be more idealistic than, say, your average business or engineering major. They tend to be more desirous of pursuing something that uses their strengths, talents, and/or interests than something that is more certain financially. I’ve known a few who have held out for something directly related to their interests (even with just an MA) and have succeeded; they tended to wait several years and accepted their less-than-ideal, very-low-paying jobs in the interim as a necessary stepping stone. (The long-sought-after jobs they have received have paid better but not necessarily been high-paying either; that has not bothered them.) Others ended up finding work that used some of their skills, if not their interests, in the corporate world or governmental employment. They do well enough financially, and they’re often content with that.

    Were (or are) these degrees “worthless”? I don’t think so, but that may depend upon your personal criterion. The rising cost of higher education is a serious matter indeed. Still, in these times, all job types seemingly are insecure — if automation isn’t taking them away, company cuts are hitting all types of employees with the aim of making the organizations more lean and profitable. In the end, we all have our gifts and talents given to us by God that we are to use, and if we don’t get to use them in our jobs, we are to find other outlets for them.

  21. lostdesert says:

    [blockquote]Also, most liberal arts majors I’ve known have not had pursuing the American dream as their primary objective. Most I’ve known tend to be more idealistic than, say, your average business or engineering major. They tend to be more desirous of pursuing something that uses their strengths, talents, and/or interests than something that is more certain financially. I’ve known a few who have held out for something directly related to their interests …

    That is an interesting statement and it used to mean a certain thing to me. Now I see more prejudice in this statement. Most of those who are in acctg and engineering are accused of seeking a financial gain. Those who educate in the liberal arts are always presumed to be “more idealistic.” Today I would amend that to say that they pursue more liberalism. The folks I know who go into hard sciences and business are the most generous of any in my acqaintance, and often the least acknowledged for such. The liberal arts majors are those least rooted in their communities, least giving, and often demand the most from the rest of society whom they believe don’t give. Look at what the idealists left in the state house in Wisconsin, millions of dollars in damage to a taxpayer funded historic building while they protest the taxpayer with their “idealistic” demands, my guess is most were liberal arts majors w/ed masters. Not interested in what degree one pursues but don’t cast the liberal arts candidate as idealistic.

  22. Ralph Webb says:

    lostdesert (#21), you misunderstand my point, as no prejudice was intended. The liberal arts majors I have known often think less about future jobs (and, often, are less concerned about making a high income or pursuing some variation of the American dream) than others in more directly professional majors. Their skills and/or interests tend not to line up with those more professional majors, and so they choose to go into something that is often considered impractical by others because that is where their heart lies, or because that is what they know they are good at doing (e.g., writing about literature, studying psychology or theology, etc.). I called them “idealistic” because most of them realize that what they do with their degree after graduation is an open question if they don’t teach, and because they realize that they very possibly will make a substantially lower income (at least to start out with) than those in many other majors. (Financial generosity is another subject entirely, and one that was not in my mind.)

    Those liberal arts majors who only have a BA have been able to do just fine outside of college when they have figured out how their skills translate into jobs. They may not be doing something directly related to their interests, but they’re more than able to make a solid living. A few I know who would like to do work that requires either an MA or a Ph.D. (e.g., working at a history museum) have gone on to get their MA and waited for years to get what they want, but have finally done so. Their persistence paid off after some lean years. Others with the same educational background ended up finding jobs in the workplace that used some of their skills, just like those with a BA that I previously mentioned.

    Part of all this seems due to temperament. If I recall correctly (and I may be wrong here), some studies show that a lot of NFs on the Meyers-Briggs scale major in the liberal arts. I’d wager personality type is a far better indicator than political liberalism or conservatism in terms of major selection.

  23. DavidBennett says:

    Ralph Webb,
    I agree liberal arts majors are capable of finding work in and out of their field. I know that when the US economy was humming back in 2000, liberal arts majors such as myself were in high demand in pretty much any field that didn’t require a specialized education (such as medicine, etc). I didn’t mean to imply English majors were only capable of working at coffee shops, and it wasn’t meant to be a slam. After all, plenty of religion majors are pouring coffee too!

    My main issue is with cost balance. Since education costs are rising much faster than inflation, we can assume that in the 1970s and 1980s, the cost relative to job prospects was much better and more in line with what the market will accept. Trust me, I am an idealistic guy (and ENFP personality wise) and I totally agree that money should not be the only factor. I would hate life if my career consisted of being a corporate tool. My basic concern is that many people I know with undergrad and grad degrees are either working jobs they hate in the service sector, unemployed, or working in their field but barely able to afford basic necessities. Perhaps some are called to this, but this is hardly the “dream” that we are sold about college.

    I also think the situation has gotten worse. First, after years of tuition cost hikes greater than general inflation, the educational cost relative to earning power is much more out of whack than 20-30 years ago. Second, with 10% unemployment and around 20% underemployment, if a business wants to hire somebody, there are plenty of unemployed people with specialized degrees looking for work, so playing the liberal arts degree line isn’t going to be as effective. Third, we have allowed our government to overly regulate the workforce, so a lot of jobs are licensed which protects those with highly specialized degrees regardless of competence (for example, in Ohio, a prestigious English PhD can’t teach in a high school, whereas someone who graduated with a C average from an education college can).

    I have always been an ardent defender of a college education. However, with student loan debt surpassing credit card debt for the first time, skyrocketing tuition costs, unemployment and underemployment high, etc, I think it is time for potential students to critically examine the common practice of mindlessly throwing thousands of dollars at an education without analyzing if it is a good investment.

  24. lostdesert says:

    Govt is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. They control it all, they subsidize students, offer loans, regulate and have their grubby hands into every aspect of the economy. Were govt not there, wouldn’t one expect higher ed costs to drop? If not, why not? Why do we now have the feeling that the overblown tuition costs at schools is really just the redistribution of wealth? Is Karl in the house? I think so.