Selling The Sizzle But Not The Steak

America’s lucrative education industry touts the meme that a college degree is necessary to success in life.  This notion is firmly embedded in our culture, in the minds of students and business leaders alike.  A typical article on this appeared recently in USA Today.  Its primary message was this:

Harvard University Harvard Yard Harvard Square...

Harvard University, via Wikipedia

The study is the latest, and most finely detailed yet to demonstrate a financial payoff for college. A study this month by American Institutes for Research found economic returns are greater for people with degrees from highly selective colleges than from less selective schools, but that even those degree holders were likely to earn $230,000 more over a lifetime than a person with no more than a high school education. (It also found that less selective schools generate a “much better bang for the taxpayer buck.”) And a Pew Research Center study out last week found that, even after the cost of going to college and the foregone income while in college is considered, an education reaps greater benefits.

Note that the article touts the higher earnings of the degree holders, but does not analyze for the effect of debt, i.e., the cost over time of student loans.

I do not question the value of advanced learning, but I do question the assertion that college is worth the cost being charged by the education establishment, and I question the quality of the product, most particularly the value of the easier and most popular majors.  Quality is in decline.

The admission in the above quote about bang for the buck is telling.  (Bold emphasis is mine.)  In a previous post I asserted that the quality of a college degree is more a function of talent and work ethic than it is of instructional quality, and that universities are basically selling prestige and a monopolistic imprimatur.  The more the prestige, the greater the cost.  As to the substance of the product, I can find no evidence of any standard for what constitutes a good college education.  I am not the only one who thinks this.

A writer on the MSN web site takes on the issue by asking, “Is a college degree worthless?”.   The title is misleading however.  The author isn’t suggesting “worthless” so much as he is “inefficient” or “a poor bargain”.

Regarding standards, he offers this:

Employers, meanwhile, want smart, capable workers. A degree is a decent enough proxy for intelligence, but we want it to be more than that. We want degrees to mean that students have learned the foundations of human knowledge: literature, chemistry, physics, composition, metaphysics, psychology, economics and so on. If we didn’t, we’d replace degrees with inexpensive vocational exams.

Instead of standards, what are students getting in college today?  Consider this from the article:

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Charles Murray, a fellow at American Enterprise Institute, calls for just that in a recent book, “Real Education.” He argues that too many kids who lack the ability to complete a liberal-arts education are being pushed into four-year liberal-arts schools, because there’s a steep societal penalty for not getting a degree. Schools, in turn, have made their degree programs easier. Murray provides a sample of courses that students used to fulfill core degree requirements at major universities in 2004, including History of Comic Book Art (Indiana University), History and Philosophy of Dress (Texas Tech University) and Campus Culture and Drinking (Duke University). He documents not only falling standards but rampant grade inflation.

So what’s the alternative?  Hough offers this:

As I write this, Google is putting every book ever written online. Apple is offering video college lectures for free download through its iTunes software. Skype allows free videoconferencing anywhere in the world. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and many other schools have made course materials available for free on their Web sites. Tutors cost as little as $15 an hour. Today’s student who decides to learn at 1 a.m. should be doing it by 1:30. A process that makes him wait 18 months is not an education system. It’s a barrier to education.

The entire MSN article is worth reading.  In my opinion it is the best treatment of the subject I have seen.  A startling hypothetical example is offered to show how a student who does not go to college can have lifetime earnings larger than an otherwise equal student who does.  How?  Simply by avoiding the student-loan debt and investing conservatively and wisely.

While I am not optimistic that a meme so firmly established in our culture can be turned around, if it is to be done it must be done by starting somewhere.

Why should there be any hope at all of changing the system?  Because the cost of a college education is reaching the breaking point.  The rate of increase, which has little relationship to value received, is unsustainable and today’s graduates are burdened by student debt like no time before in history.  That will be the subject of a different post.

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About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Independent, tending progressive as the GOP recedes from its Eisenhower roots.
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2 Responses to Selling The Sizzle But Not The Steak

  1. Pingback: Student Loan, Leech on Society? | Still Skeptical After All These Years

  2. Pingback: What Would Socrates Say? | Still Skeptical After All These Years

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