The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The Tyranny of College

Quad

College isn’t for everyone, and there’s data to prove it. During the 2011-12 academic year, the number of students enrolled in American colleges and universities dropped by 1.6 percent, while the number of degrees awarded increased by 5.1 percent, according to a new study. As colleges attract fewer marginal students who wouldn’t have succeeded in attaining a degree, completion stats go up. This is largely good news. Students who fail to complete their degrees take on the costs of college with none of the benefits of a degree.

This is an important lesson we’re just beginning to learn, as a four-year college degree is still a prerequesite for nearly all decent jobs. This is a colossal waste: that degree can be exorbitantly expensive, and it requires young adults to spend their prime working years confined to classrooms, often studying subjects that do little to prepare them for their future careers. For many of them, real-world work experience would be a better use of that time.

Naturally, there are some jobs for which a traditional education is important (medical research and professorships are two obvious examples), but for other careers apprenticeships or vocational training would provide a better path to the workforce. There is still value in the traditional four-year degree, but it’s a model that suits some people better than others. It should not be considered mandatory.

[College quad image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Published on May 23, 2013 3:00 pm
  • Jim Luebke

    Something that needs to be addressed here –

    I have heard from people who actually do a bit of hiring, that they hire on the basis of college credentialing because competency tests were ruled to have a “disparate impact” on minorities. This is alleged to have led to most jobs requiring a credential (degree) instead of just being given to people who can prove they know the field, but haven’t paid their money to a college.

    One might expect that Credentialed Elites who get to decide who gets a degree and what they’re going to be taught to get that degree love this system, despite the fact that it hurts companies and discriminates against people who actually know what they’re doing in fields outside the traditional purview of the credentialing process.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Doug-Wenzel/100000156834654 Doug Wenzel

    This could just be a momentary blip. Many state schools, for instance in California, have previously had one or more courses in a prerequisite sequence that were oversubscribed. As a result, in many cases, it was impossible to graduate in four years; now, with a little less crowding, you probably can.

    That would bring forward some graduations that would have previously taken more than the “normal” four years. However, that would be a one- time effect. We shall see.

  • http://www.facebook.com/newclasstraitor Finally Free

    Now if high school would only turn out graduates who can read at 12th grade level, can write a coherent sentence, and are not totally innumerate… sadly, half the freshmen at some large colleges don’t even meet this standard anymore…

  • Mogumbo Gono

    I was mad at my boy for dropping out of Berkeley. But he got a job at a big company, doing what he likes: installing HVAC equipment in new buildings.

    He now earns $90,000+ [with overtime], and a competitor just offered him a very substantial raise to come work for them.

    I am also a high school grad [some college]. Self-made. So you don’t need college. It helps, by opening doors to jobs that require a degree, and in the case of top-tier colleges, with networking. [Obama didn't get where he is with what he learned at Harvard; he networked his way up.]

    In many cases a college degree is not worth the 4 to 5 years of lost wages and promotion possibilities. After 4 years on my job, I was making more than a newly-hired engineer. Those engineers, on average, never caught up, especially considering the money and time their degrees cost them.

    Habits like saving money [always paying yourself first] and living frugally [well within your means] will make the average worker wealthy after 30 years. I drive a car that cost $15K new. But I could pay cash for a Lamborghini if I wanted, and buy a house all cash — with plenty left over.

    IMHO, a college degree is overrated. With more and more people going to college, the degrees are worth less and less. And any degree with “Studies” appended is a total waste of time and money.