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College: What’s the Point?


As nearly half of young American college grads work in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree while struggling to pay off crushing student debt, lawmakers and educators are beginning to ask a critical question: What is college for?

The answer isn’t obvious. Until recently, much weight has been given to the intellectual value of a traditional liberal arts degree. But as more students graduate without employment prospects, the notion that universities should spend more time on practical training in marketable skills has begun to take hold. Frank Bruni writes in the New York Times:

Colleges in Virginia are now required to provide information for a database that shows what graduates majored in and what they wound up earning 18 months after getting their diplomas. Florida lawmakers have toyed with encouraging students to study engineering by making their tuition cheaper than humanities majors’. Pat McCrory, the new governor of North Carolina, recently advocated legislation to distribute funds to the state’s colleges based not on their enrollments — or, as he said on a radio show, on “butts in seats” — but instead on “how many of those butts can get jobs.”

The Economist recently found that the countries with a low rate of youth unemployment are those that focus on providing their students with a practical education. Germany, for example, “has a long tradition of high-quality vocational education and apprenticeships, which in recent years have helped it reduce youth unemployment despite only modest growth.”

This is a compelling case. But not everyone is quite so ready to jettison the liberal arts. Scott Carlson at the Chronicle of Higher Education argues that the old model still has value:

But a single-minded focus on money pays little heed to one of the best aspects of the American higher-education system: its skill at developing curious, critical-thinking, culturally aware people. Those qualities may have greater financial rewards than critics realize….

The “soft” social skills and cultural lessons have plenty of value—even financial value, [David Brooks] argues. Employers want people who can write, who can intuit what others are thinking, who can learn from others. “These are actually practical skills in an economy that is based more and more on social relationships,” [Brooks] says.

Both of these points have merit. Different students in this country have different goals and aptitudes, and can avail themselves of a multitude of educational options. A single mother, for example, may simply need to be able to qualify for a job that pays more money—something she could accomplish through a vocational program. But for an 18-year-old from a stable, financially supportive family, a liberal arts education may make a lot of sense.

Because of this reality, the United States’ higher education system needs to embrace more diversity in the kind of programs and degrees it offers. We need to find ways to make all forms of higher ed more efficient and much, much cheaper. There are a lot of young people out there who are depending on it.

[College quad image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Andrew Allison

    The final paragraph has me confused. If half of graduates are working at jobs that don’t require a baccalaureate degree (how come the PC police haven’t put and end to “bachelor’s? LOL), why do we need to make higher education more accessible? Shouldn’t the focus be on vocational schools for the vast majority of students who will, for one reason or another, not benefit from higher education?

    • Jim Luebke

      The focus isn’t on vocational schools because the school system in America is seen by the Credentialed Elite (who make these sorts of decisions) primarily as a way for it to perpetuate itself, its politics, and its power.

  • charlesrwilliams

    An education in the liberal arts is appropriate for the future leaders of a free society. This requires a deep immersion into the roots of Western Civilization. There are not many colleges that offer a true liberal arts education. What passes for the liberal arts today is an indoctrination in the pieties of the secularist ruling elites – the pseudo-theologies of sustainability, diversity, multiculturalism and sexual license.

    • Andrew Allison

      True, but off-topic. The discussion is about “What’s the point of College”. The fact that the academy has been taken over by ideologues is an equally serious, but different issue.

      • Eric J.

        Not entirely off topic – I think a true liberal arts education would be producing more graduates, who, upon finding it difficult to find work in their field of study, would have enough entrepreneurial spirit to carve their own path and make their own employment, rather than passively accepting a coffeehouse job “until something better comes along.”

      • charlesrwilliams

        And what is a liberal education for? We are operating under the premise that a liberal education is appropriate for a large number of students, that it might lead to employment, and that liberal education is actually happening at colleges.

    • foobarista

      Part of the problem is what people think of as “liberal arts” isn’t actually liberal arts. We have a notion that you either major in “STEM” or “everything else”, which includes the traditional liberal majors such as history and philosophy (which have their own corruption issues in the modern academy), but also “studies” majors and related nonsense such as “social justice” (yes, it’s a college major in many places) and “sustainability” (but don’t expect this “discipline” to sustain your student loan payments).

      If you’re in these fluff programs, there’s definitely no “point” in college other than providing useless academic departments with cashflow from idealistic suckers.

    • Old_School_Conservative53

      Nail head, meet hammer. Very true, and a sad state of affairs.

    • Vercingetorix

      “What passes for the liberal arts today is an indoctrination in the pieties of the secularist ruling elites – the pseudo-theologies of sustainability, diversity, multiculturalism and sexual license.”

      Eggzactly. Instead of philosophy, we dole out pap. Instead of history, we waste time on perking up the most supine, intellectually-complacent human beings–college students wearing warm-ups and nursing a hangover with machine-brewed coffee–into ‘analysis.’ All in the name of wringing out every last drop of actual information from the curriculum so what remains is dry, hoary, predictable, comforting as the grave.

      Like with painting, some people paint pictures well and some do not, and in music, some people compose well and play well and some do not. But if you bandy about a term called ‘art!’, then everything, no matter how well or how poorly executed can be lionized by the subjective whims of whatever fool happens to be within eye or earshot. Who needs skill or talent when you have the caprice of a mob? Not us, says our brave, brave iconoclasts, busy at work gaudying up their own busts to give to the ages.

  • Corlyss Drinkard

    When I graduated from American University’s School of International Service in 1968, I knew I didn’t want to go into the Foreign Service, the Peace Corps, or grad school like a lot of my fellow grads were bent on. While I was deciding what I wanted to do I took the then useful civil service exam and was offered a job in federal procurement. I found I loved the field, esp. working for DoD, which I felt was my true niche. I never looked back. I never regretted the education I got in international relations. It’s proved to be a guiding star of a different sort than a profession. I worked in federal procurement for 35 years, most of it at the highest levels of policy making. I had a satisfying and rewarding career I never could have imagined in college.

  • Anthony

    Different students and youths have different goals and aptitudes; question to consider is whether four year college education remains relevant for purposes of all post secondary graduates while recognizing changing U.S. socio-economic arrangements.

    • Andrew Allison

      There’s a question? ” . . .nearly half of American college grads work in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree”. This represents misallocation of (scarce) resources on a truly spectacular scale!

      • Anthony

        I agree. Though in considering your reply I have had a thought: perhaps prolonging routine schooling as a public policy lends itself to labor force number manipulation (those in school are not counted as unemployed).

      • Sabinal

        based on that, I agree. But unfortunately I see a bunch of comfortable college profs telling others what to do

      • Jim Luebke

        We live in a free country. One of our most important freedoms is that we are not someone else’s “resource” — we “allocate” ourselves.

        If students can’t start their own businesses based on what they learn in
        college, they’re missing some of the most important lessons they can

        • Andrew Allison

          I fear that you misunderstood me. The resources to which I was referring were those spent on education, not those being educated.

      • Joel Ryan

        I believe he is not just talking people, but the amount of money society sinks into educating those people.

  • Luke Lea

    “Because of this reality, the United States’ higher education system needs to embrace more diversity in the kind of programs and degrees it offers.”

    Not just the higher education system, but our high schools and middle schools too.

    • Andrew Allison

      I beg to differ. IMO, middle- and high-schools need to inculcate the cultural values of a civil society and we already have waaay to much diversity in the kinds of programs and degrees offered by the higher education system. Diversity is, I would suggest, the province of the advanced degree.

      • Tom

        I think what he was referring to was a shift away from making high school exclusively about college prep and including vocational ed.

        • Andrew Allison

          First, apologies to all for taking up so much space on this, but I think the subject very important.

          If you are right, it’s still misallocation of increasingly scarce resources: why prepare for college somebody who’s not going to benefit from a college education? Not to mention the debt acquired in acquiring same. Perhaps Prof. Mead would be good enough to weigh in with more thoughts on secondary and post-secondary education?

          • Tom

            Perhaps I should have made myself clearer. The “high school as college prep” model is the one we have now. What I think Mr. Lea is suggesting that vocational ed be included in high schools and middle schools.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Great to see the reference to the German system which I believe goes back to Bismark’s time when the Germans looked at the British success with the industrial revolution and decided to train double the number of technical level graduates. I know a brilliant mechanic in Southern California who has made a good income all his life servicing high end industrial machinery without benefit of technical education. His son works for Mercedes servicing their diesel truck engines. But here is the kicker – Mercedes approached him after he had established himself as a heavy diesel mechanic – not the other way around – and sent him to their own school for 6 months and paid him to do it. To me this is an example of a good company routing around a blind spot in the US education system.

    • DefendUSA

      Indeed. Gone are the days- the mechanic is clearly an exception that working on a job could get you the job. People believe t that a piece of paper is needed. I was a soldier. We are trained for one job and then cross-trained on other jobs to be as expert our counter parts. I took a practice LPN exam after only working with others and learning on the job. Had it been real, I could have been credentialed. I was also a phlebotomist and a trained lab tech. Since standards changed, I am not allowed to challenge any of those exams even though I know I could pass them. I have a degree and 20 years of experience, but I am unable to gain employment because credentials mean more than what I actually know. I don’t want to make a ton of money. I just want to do what I love. I would love it if trade schools were more prevalent in the US. THis could be a boon for those kids who already hate school but want to be productive citizens. College is over rated.

  • jbkburack

    I am not sure this gets at the issue correctly. That single mother absolutely needs the literacy skills of someone who can read critically and write with some competence. She needs that from schooling even more than the middle class kid who probably already has some of it. It is not a matter of reading Plato versus reading interoffice memos. It is a matter of becoming competent at thinking flexibly, logically and creatively.

    The Common Core standards under assault now from the fringe right are in fact a decent, tepid start to pushing education in this direction. This opposition to Common Core is both tragic and ironic. Tragic because it is destructive. Ironic because it is essentially a conservative push to toughen up our schools, now under attack by people who claim to be conservative. I understand Common Core has more to do with k-12 schooling than college, which is what this entry is about. However, if young people are to feel free to pursue non-college alternatives given the economic future they face, they must get liberal arts-rich literacy training on the high school level. Should the fringe right prevail in undermining Common Core, they will be complicit in protecting the entire educational establishment in its complacency and consigning the next generation of students to more wasted, duplicate motion in an educational system out of line with the needs of the modern economy and culture.

    • Andrew Allison

      “That single mother absolutely needs the literacy skills of someone who can read critically and write with some competence.” and should acquire those skill in secondary school!

  • Skip V. Patel

    And yes we need to import more “Highly skilled” engineers and High Tech workers. Of course, these days our own engineers are being offered $10 per hour,,,,, $4 less than flipping burgers at McDonalds. Passage of the Amnesty Bill will ensure that American engineers with $200,000 of
    student debt, will be paid even less…. how about $9 per hour ?

    • John Smith

      Are you purposfully lying, or just willfully ignorant? Currently our starting salary for new engineers amounts to $30 dollars plus benefits. And frankly, if you amassed 200k in debt, you’re too stupid to be hired.

      • Skip V. Patel

        Are you implying that we have a set wage in the USA? And who is “our”?

        • John Smith

          Yes, wages are set by the market, the market for Electrical Engineers in central Texas is currently starting at $30 an hour. Dont know where you are living, assumed at an American website you would be living in the United States, if you are not, then your post makes more sense, if you are in the USA, then my original question stands.

          • Skip V. Patel

            “…Yes, wages are set by the market, ”

            The market in Mumbai and China.

          • Skip V. Patel

            When you pay peanuts… you hire monkeys. Which is why the US lags so far behind in technology.

          • Skip V. Patel

            US lags behind in broadband access

            Millions of Americans still lack access to broadband internet. With high prices and a lack of infrastructure, the US is falling behind other developed countries.


            The bad news? Our speeds are half those enjoyed in South Korea. In fact, we’re ninth on the list among nations, limping along behind Latvia and the Czech Republic. And we drop to 14th when it comes to average peak speeds, according to the study from the Cambridge, Mass., firm, which helps websites accelerate content delivery.


          • Skip V. Patel

            United States lagging behind on Internet Speeds

            As you travel away from the cities you will see that the rest of the country has greatly slower internet speeds than we do. Remember the days when you would have DSL or Dial-Up even? Well many parts of the country still have that. And in a world where every little device or business seems to be interconnecting with the internet, this is a problem.

          • John Smith

            So, apparently not satisfied with failing economics, you reach for geography as well. Strange that the countries you quoted are small countries with high population densities in major metropolitan areas. Wonder if that might have skewed your statistics.

          • gekkobear

            I think I see the problem.

            Skip only sees progress when the Government funds, controls, and dictates how everything works… the market is a failure for Skip by definition.

            Internet speed? Let me guess, you just want another couple trillion dollars borrowed or taxed to enforce high speed internet at below costs to rural areas…

            Do you live in a rural area and play games, or do you run cable for internet and think this will get you better pay?

            I can’t see much other reason for you to be making this argument.

            Oh wait, maybe you work for the government and want more funding, power, and control?

            Now I can’t think of another reason.

          • Jim Luebke

            Next thing you’ll be complaining about is the fact that we’ve still got overhead telephone wires.

            You can get a very good engineering education at a state school, and graduate with orders of magnitude less debt than you quote. Plus, even internships in engineering tend to be paid.

            Engineering isn’t about “connections” from an elite school, it’s about learning the tools to manipulate the physical world. If you’ve got that, you can even start your own business.

          • John Smith

            Well, United States is currently leading in technology. Engineers starting salary is three times what you quoted. And you ended with a vaguely racist comment. If you are an American, you haven’t exactly cover yourself in glory today as to explain why I should hire an American.

  • Donald Campbell

    “Its skill at developing curious, critical-thinking, culturally aware people”… Don’t make me laugh. Outside of STEM, there is very little thinking of any sort, and way too much cultural awareness. Unfortunately, the cultural awareness does not include Western Civilization. How many experience Latin, Greek, the classic backgrounds of our own culture.

    History is taught without the context of when events occur, and mostly with examples of evil dead white men’s suppression of others. Judeo-Christian ethic is absolutely verboten, even though one of its most radical concepts is linear time.

    College has been so watered down so everyone can graduate and everyone ‘feels good’ about it, that when these young unskilled people get out in the real world, they have nothing to offer. Way too many administrators and socializing and striving for ‘diversity’, when striving for acedemic excellence gets the short shrift.

    Graduates can not write, they can only ‘intuit’ the same progressive mind-set they have been immersed in and only sneer at the plebians. Learning is limited to googling the topic and discovering the solution that others have used. While this last may have some efficiency, how does it advance civilization?

    When the minority white males on campus are afraid to contribute to the discussion, simply because they tire of being called sexist or racist, there goes that wonderful practice of intuiting other people’s thoughts and values. When Ann Coulter gets pies thrown at her for ‘daring to speak’, where is the tolerance and learning gone? What is the lesson they are learning?

  • Furniture Rental

    yes! what is college?well for me college is the last level of studies of all pupils.Educational Performance Licenses

  • vepxistqaosani

    My experience of recent college graduates is that it is only those who are conservative or libertarian who have learned how to think critically; liberals have learned only the party line.

    That is, any conservative or libertarian graduate can provide an effective argument for the liberal point of view; liberal graduates cannot argue for a conservative or libertarian proposal. This is, of course, the natural result of the ideological monoculture of today’s academia.

    Yes, I paint with a broad brush, and there are graduates of all stripes who fail to match my generalisation. Still, the generalisation holds.

  • jmatt55

    >>> Employers want people who can write, who can intuit what others are thinking, who can learn from others.

    You will not learn this in college.

    Liberal arts are a waste of time, as is David Brooks.

    Andrew Carnegie never went to school beyond the sixth grade, and yet went on the become the world’s richest industrialist? How is this possible?

    Because all it takes to succeed in business is common sense, hard work and the ability to multiply.

    Everything after the sixth grade is a waste of time.

    • Tom

      Carnegie also never had to deal with a bewildering maze of regulations and the like. This is not the late 1800s.

      • jmatt55

        Did you take a bunch of college courses that taught you how to deal with regulation? I’ve never heard of such a thing. What were the names of those courses?

        • Tom

          They’re called business administration courses, as far as I know.

  • Sabinal

    I do not like the idea of comfortable college professors telling others not to get a college education. Second, it sounds like ideological domination – our educated “betters” telling others what jobs to and not do. I don’t like it from liberals or conservatives

  • Joel Ryan

    A simple legislative fix, let banks ask the question “what’s your major?” The bank could then deny a loan for degrees that cannot pay back the loan.

  • RestlessLegs

    At the university where I teach in Illinois, enrollment is dropping significantly. We’re down 17% in the last seven years. Part of the reason is that the cost of attending here has doubled in that time. Also, the high school graduation rate is down because people are fleeing this liberal blue-state cesspool. We’ve recently shut down three dorms that used to house 2,000 students. (We actually imploded one of them last year with no plans to replace it.) The biggest enrollment drops have come in majors like communications, sociology, psychology, English, women’s studies, etc., as parents and students are looking for majors that might actually lead to a specific job. Also, many more students are going to community college for their first two years for less than 25% of the cost of taking those classes here. On top of that, tuition costs now exceed the amount of financial aid available to most students. Last week, the university administration had an open budget meeting with all faculty and staff. The message: We’re attracting fewer students each year, and it’s not getting better. Look for lay-offs and big cutbacks soon. The university deserves it, though. They’ve wasted money for years on pointless projects and ridiculous pay raises, they’ve instituted huge hikes in tuition and fees, and now they’re having to deal with the consequences of their actions.

    • teapartydoc


  • Dave Willmore

    Wrong. The University should be a place of research and classical liberal arts training. Business ed, programing, and many more need to return to the trade schools and mentorship programs within companies.

    The University has become keepers of entry level jobs when they offer little to justify the expense in money and time.

  • gekkobear

    “But a single-minded focus on money pays little heed to one of the best
    aspects of the American higher-education system: its skill at developing
    curious, critical-thinking, culturally aware people. Those qualities
    may have greater financial rewards than critics realize”

    So people should learn critical thinking… and invest in an expenditure that doesn’t have a positive ROI for the investment?

    If this is the level of thinking you’re expecting to teach others; I’m still not seeing the benefit.

    If you want to become “culturally aware” there are options that do NOT cost 20-30K a year. My local public library is still free, and the internet has tons of information.

    All you lose is the piece of paper showing you “graduated” which doesn’t seem to be a crucial piece when all you’re using that for is to show you’re “curious”.

    I’m curious why you think it was worth $80,000 in debt to encourage people to be curious.

  • Andrew Allison

    Today’s “news” about antimatter and gravity suggests that there is no longer any point to college education. Science & Technology “reporters”, presumably graduates, are breathlessly asking whether an antimatter apple would fall upward from the earth?”

    This is breathtakingly stupid: an antimatter apple hitting the earth would result in an explosion of the magnitude of an ICBM. The fact that matter/antimatter interactions occur seldom enough for both to coexist in our universe is evidence enough that it’s the “gravity” between them that’s negative, i.e., they repel each other, and only meet when a force stronger than anti-gravity forces them to annihilate each other..

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