We have more and more college graduates these days, but is it doing any good?
On our first day of college, at UVA back in the late summer of ’87, we didn’t feel the usual nervous excitement one gets from moving away from home, meeting new roommates, trudging through the various long lines to register for classes and get ID cards etc., and hearing the old “look to your left, look to your right” speech. We didn’t feel that way partly because we’d already been there and done that and more at military school, but mostly because we were feeling another emotion entirely that completely overpowered all the rest. It’s an emotion we can’t quite name, though there’s probably a great name for it in German — a great hopeful sensation of “at last, it’s about time!”
We were stoked to finally start getting an education. After years and years of schooling, we were ready to get learning. College for us wasn’t a prerequisite for getting a job or anything like that — it was a chance to gain as much knowledge about as many different subjects as we could cram into four (ultimately five) years. A chance, moreover, to learn how to use that knowledge and apply it and, maybe, start contributing to it. A truly liberal education that would prepare us for pretty much any future by preparing us to think critically and analytically and have the basic underlying data to do it well.
Back in 1987, most of our friends thought we were out of our mind. Most of them were there to get ready for a career, whether it be in engineering, business, architecture, teaching, or the arts. Or a career yet to be determined once they found the right major. Going to college was mainly about getting a good job after graduation.
Now in 2011, that seems even more the case than ever. College is seen as a prerequisite for a good job, period. Many kids are told this from kindergarten through high school, but it’s such an implicit societal assumption these days, that even if it wasn’t drilled into them they’ve picked it up by osmosis.
The problem is, college these days is not something you can rely on to prepare you for a job, unless you’re pursuing a technical degree in the soft or applied sciences.
Here’s how education is supposed to work:
- Elementary school — Here, you learn the fundamentals. The basic facts and skills needed just to get by in modern society. Reading, writing, arithmetic. Essential points of science. Socialization and roughly what our society is.
- High school — Here, you learn to be a functioning grownup. The details get filled in, the skills get honed. A graduate from high school is prepared to manage a household budget, plan one’s future, understand social issues and vote intelligently. Graduates of an intellectual bent are prepared to enter college and hit the ground running without any remedial catching-up courses. Everyone is prepared to enter the job market at the bottom and work their way up. Those who wish to work in jobs not requiring so much of the intellectual education have learned basic skills or have even started being certified. Very few graduates are what one would consider “unskilled,” and so very few are earning minimum wage after graduation.
- College — There are two kinds of higher education. There is the specialized schooling required for entry into intellect-intensive careers such as engineering, medicine and the law. There is also the classical liberal education that provides a broad set of data, the analytical ability to think about and cross-reference it all, and the rational skills to make sense and new ideas.
- Post-graduate programs — These are for those few jobs where higher education is still not enough, or for those desiring to remain in academia.
That’s how it’s supposed to work. Here’s how it does work:
- Elementary school — Whether or not the fundamentals get covered depends almost entirely on variables outside of school, such as family environment and neighborhood attitudes. Science is weak or nonexistent.
- High school — Elementary school with electives.
- College — High school that costs a lot of money. Those who do not have the intellectual wherewithal to succeed in college go anyway, because they need to. Those who do have the intellectual wherewithal are either in soft/applied science programs that most now quit because they’re too hard, or they’re in liberal arts programs that largely fail to provide the benefits of a liberal arts education. And those who do succeed in graduating with the ability to think clearly about a broad scope of knowledge find that the job market doesn’t pay enough for it to justify all those student loans.
- Professional school — Specialized schooling required for entry into intellect-intensive careers. Medical school is probably necessary, as are some engineering and science programs. Law school spends the first year teaching students the analytical thinking skills they should have picked up in a college philosophy class, the fact-checking skills they should have picked up in an undergraduate history seminar, and the rules of human interaction that should have been garnered in a few well-chosen classes in economics, psychology and sociology.
- Other graduate school — An apprenticeship for a job in academia, or a specialized program for a corporate management position.
It didn’t use(d) to be this way. What happened?
Good intentions. Lots of good intentions.
We forbade hiring based on IQ, even when above-average intelligence is a prerequisite for a given job. This turned a bachelor’s degree in any old thing into a proxy for an intelligence test. It meant you were smart enough to have gotten into college and to have completed the 120 hours or so of coursework without washing out.
We made other forms of work seem comparatively undesirable. An office job was “cushy.” Labor was somehow “menial.” Service jobs were “dead-end.”
We somehow got the idea that office workers are simply better paid. Not true. As we’ve often said, a good plumber makes as much as a good lawyer, starts working 7 years sooner with no debt, works fewer hours, has a better quality of life, etc. (Other lawyers will tell you the same thing.) Most college graduates in those tall office buildings are in cubicles à la “Office Space” and “Dilbert.” The big bucks are made by a small number who got lucky, maxed out a natural talent, or took some big risks.
At the same time, because a college degree was so damn important, not only were too many people going to college, but there was incredible pressure to start inflating grades. “D” and “F” grades practically disappeared. The “C” average became a “B” or even “B+” average for just a passing grasp of the subject area. (Well, not in math and science, because the answers are either right or wrong. Can’t magically lift a 70% “C” to an 85% “B” just because you were enthusiastic or creative in getting the answers wrong. And of course that leads to a lot of math/science majors leaving the program for softer majors with higher grades.)
Meanwhile, the K-12 education in math and especially science turned to shit. Ever since Sputnik, it’s been priority number one sorta kinda well not really. That’s okay, if we need scientists or mathematicians we can always import them from India.
K-12 also lost all but the most fundamental “teach-to-the-test” stuff under “No Child Left Behind,” but that’s just a symptom of a greater Federal involvement in local schooling, dictating the fad of the day under the threat of withholding massive federal funding. Schools focus, not on teaching, as much as on compliance with an astonishing array of regulations and diktats from well-meaning bureaucrats and policy makers.
The market value of a college education went down, because with all the failings of K-12 schools, college became what high school used to be.
The market value of a college education also went down, because all of a sudden everyone was getting one.
The cost of that education rose insanely fast, meanwhile, because the government subsidized student loans and thus the price the market would bear. That’s fine when the economy is inflating like a balloon, but as with any other Ponzi scheme it all falls apart when the bubble bursts. The return on investment goes from shaky to nil.
And now you get a lot of millennials upset that they held up their end of the deal and got those college degrees, but society is stiffing them on its end of the deal to provide them with the good jobs.
A well-educated citizenry is an absolute must in any modern society. Citizens who can manage their own families, run their own localities, elect the right people to manage governmental affairs, understand what their government is doing and hold it properly accountable, run their businesses and build prosperity. These things do not come to those who were not taught the basics, who were coddled and rewarded for mediocrity, and who are left unprepared to succeed once they’ve acquired their diploma.
We may be the most interconnected people ever, thanks to the internet, with the greatest access to knowledge ever. But we are not turning out enough adults with the wherewithal to take proper advantage of it.
We have tons of college graduates, but too few educated people.