April 30, 2008

Mitigating the College Oversell

Justin Katz

Our society appears to be in the process of deciding that college oughtn't be a foregone conclusion for every young American. Indeed, Marty Nemko calls the Bachelor's degree "America's Most Overrated Product":

Even worse, most of those college dropouts leave the campus having learned little of value, and with a mountain of debt and devastated self-esteem from their unsuccessful struggles. Perhaps worst of all, even those who do manage to graduate too rarely end up in careers that require a college education. So it's not surprising that when you hop into a cab or walk into a restaurant, you're likely to meet workers who spent years and their family's life savings on college, only to end up with a job they could have done as a high-school dropout.

Such students are not aberrations. Today, amazingly, a majority of the students whom colleges admit are grossly underprepared. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007 who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of English, math, reading, and science.

Perhaps more surprising, even those high-school students who are fully qualified to attend college are increasingly unlikely to derive enough benefit to justify the often six-figure cost and four to six years (or more) it takes to graduate. Research suggests that more than 40 percent of freshmen at four-year institutions do not graduate in six years. Colleges trumpet the statistic that, over their lifetimes, college graduates earn more than nongraduates, but that's terribly misleading. You could lock the collegebound in a closet for four years, and they'd still go on to earn more than the pool of non-collegebound — they're brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.

College can be a rewarding and edifying experience, if the student is determined to make it one. The average family should raise the question around the dinner table, however, with the understanding that the right answer can be "not necessary." If, after a few years of life in the workforce, the young adult concludes that higher education would represent time well spent, then by that very thought process, the conclusion is more apt to prove true.

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I started college when I was not quite 17.Terrible mistake.I didn't want to be there,but state law made most jobs unavailable.Back then,the city university in NYC was tuition free and I had a state scholarship to cover books,fees,etc.
I didn't do very well academically and when I was 18,I dropped out and went in the service.When I was discharged over 4 years later,I was married and much more mature.I returned to college full time while working full time and was always on the dean's list.I got a lot more out of college at that time because I took a course of study related to my occupation and it served me well throughout my career.
I think a draft or two years of national non-military service would make college more effective,but it will never happen.Certain people would be "exempt"-I need not explain further.

Posted by: joe bernstein at April 30, 2008 8:16 AM

I noted this -

"Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later."

which was not qualified by the statistic that nearly one-third of people entering a four-year college do not return for the sophomore year. So I am uncertain of the rest.

But I do agree that an undergraduate degree is not necessarily a road to riches. True, I have been out of the work force for quite a while, but when I was starting in the Seventies this 3-semesters-of-college guy was doing the same computer-programming job for the same pay as the PhD at the next desk. But then, I was friendly with a barely-graduated-high-school truck driver who was making more than either of us.

OTOH, even at the time there was a lot of movement for requiring sheepskins. While it is not the reason I quit, I did feel insulted at my first job when I was asked to train a person who had been hired at more than three times my salary but who had never even seen a computer. Hey, I was told, he has a degree (in architecture: brick-and-mortar, not circuitry)!

Posted by: teqjack at April 30, 2008 9:50 PM
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