Friday, October 30, 2015

May we please stop pushing college degrees for all?

Consider the following, which are the concluding sentences from James Surowiecki's "Financial Page" column in the New Yorker:
We should also rethink our assumption that college is always the right answer, regardless of cost. Politicians love to invoke education as the solution to our economic ills. But they’re often papering over the fact that our economy just isn’t creating enough good jobs for ordinary Americans. The notion that college will transform your job prospects is, in many cases, an illusion, and for a while for-profit schools turned it into a very lucrative one.
Now, read the following sentences from the concluding paragraph in Rebecca Schuman's column at Slate:
The university classroom benefits from a diversity of backgrounds, including first-generation students who absolutely should get any support they need with college readiness. Every American who wants to attend college should be able to (and for a lot less money than they’re currently laying out). But those who don’t want to shouldn’t feel like they have to
Here is the problem: Surowiecki and Schuman are not higher education "insiders."  Yes, Schuman, is an adjunct faculty after earning her doctorate.  After being on the doctoral path at Yale, Surowiecki became a journalist/writer.  For all purposes, both are "outsiders" looking in at higher education when they conclude that the push for college degree for all is not worth the talk, leave alone the money that we invest.

It is an open secret anymore that we are unnecessarily pushing college degrees down the throats of young, and older, adults.  All we have managed to achieve through this is an enormous level of credential inflation.  Which is what Schuman notes as well:
the solution is to stop requiring a bachelor’s degree to be an office assistant, or a paralegal, or any number of professions that up until recently could be staffed—successfully—by the holder of an associate’s degree or high-school diploma.
The first ever op-ed of mine that was published along these lines was about two decades ago.  Yep, back in California, not too long after earning my doctorate, I argued in that opinion piece that we were committing a double crime of pushing college degrees and undermining vocational education.  Nobody cared then because I was an outsider--I was not in academia at that time.  (Well, ok, there was one wonderful benefit from that--a Mike contacted me after reading the column, which later led to dinners as well.)

As an academic, of course, I have written quite a few op-eds by now criticizing the overselling of college degrees and the under-investment in vocational education.  The only time that a fellow academic responded to it, well, it was pretty much a personal attack.  Otherwise, the higher education professionals remain silent as ever.  Why?  It should not surprise you by now--this college degree issue is merely one of the many examples for why I loved the George Bernard Shaw quote as the title for this blog itself: every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.

(BTW, keep in mind that the criticism is against the push for college degrees; having a degree is not the same as having been educated, wherein lies a huge part of the problem.)


Anne in Salem said...

It used to be that if one couldn't afford it, one didn't buy it. With the government leading by example, how many people now live way beyond their means? College for all is ridiculous. Not everyone needs a college education, not everyone is smart enough or prepared enough for a college education, and not everyone can afford a college education.

Are there limits on the loans as there are on mortgages, i.e., the borrower has to prove he has or will earn X% of the cost of college? What are the requirements to secure a loan? Is a certain GPA or SAT score required? I know those are not necessarily indicators of future success or ability to repay, but it would be a good place to start.

Trade school is much maligned today, to the detriment of those who would benefit most. How many unemployed and hugely-in-debt EEs would be prospering as a fully employed, barely-in-debt electrician?

There is no shame in not going to college. Some of the smartest people I know did not attend college. Merely possessing a degree does not prove one's intelligence or abilities. I'll hire a self-taught, curious non-graduate over a rote-thinking graduate any day. I'll hire a non-graduate who reads the paper daily over a graduate who plays video games in all his free time. No question.

Sriram Khé said...

I agree with you almost entirely, except for the implications of this one: "not everyone can afford a college education."
It is a noble idea that for want of money a young person should not be denied college education. Higher education should not be available only to those who can afford it.
We can't use SAT or GPA scores as sole measures either--these are highly correlated (with significant causation) with incomes and other measures of material affluence.

However, like with most things in life, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Which is essentially what this higher education mess is about.

If only the educated elite would get away from the atrocious condescending attitude towards the trades ... until that happens, we are going to be pushing every kid on the college path :(

Ramesh said...

We return to a familiar theme - set in the context of current day US of A.

The opposite situation exists in your "old country". Of course education and college are not synonymous, but from where we are, sending more Indians to college is a very desirable thing.

Sriram Khé said...

Oh, it is worse in India. Which is why, for instance, India graduates so many engineers every year but who are far from being engineers in the workforce. When engineering is such a paper diploma, then other degrees--especially from rural/small town colleges--are practically worthless. For the most part, college degrees for the vast numbers are a way for employers to filter the applicants.
A few years ago, I met with the principal of your old college, Loyola, (you went to Loyola, right?) when I was in India after reading in The Hindu about his efforts to start community colleges in India in order to provide training like how community colleges in the US were set up. I recall he even convinced the national folks about such a need ... but, it seems like he could not convince the real people about this.

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