Home inFocus America: Making it and Keeping it (Summer 2017) College: Is It Really for Everyone?

College: Is It Really for Everyone?

Abraham H. Miller Summer 2017
Columbia University (pictured) has the highest tuition costs in the United States, $55,056 per year, according to a 2016 study published in U.S. News and World Report. (Photo: George Hodan)

At parents’ night at our upscale suburban high school, the principal droned on, barely able to contain his euphoria over the number of our upcoming graduates that would go on to college. Conspicuously omitted from the paean to our bright students, wonderful teachers and concerned parents, not to mention our lucrative tax base, was any statement about which colleges they would go to and more importantly, how many would actually finish.

The devil is not always in the details. Sometimes it is in a calculated and self-serving omission.

While we proudly sent a disproportionate number of students into the hallowed halls of academia, only about half would come back after six years with a sheepskin. This figure is no different from the national average.

The other half would generally drop out within two years, having acquired little in the way of an education but a heavy burden of college debt. Their prospects for paying it off would not be good.

Most parents will know more about buying a used car than helping their children choose a college.

Choosing College – or Not

If you’re buying a used car, there’s Consumer Reports and CARFAX. For colleges and universities, the national ratings are suspect not only because they rely on data provided by the institutions themselves – data that are aspirational rather than real – but their criteria can also be dysfunctional for any individual student. A school can achieve high marks for having a prestigious faculty. But many of these people are uncomfortable away from their research and view undergraduate students with disdain if not outright contempt.

In research-oriented universities, students have to be highly motivated, assertive, and not in need of handholding. For the shy student with a good deal of adolescent angst, this is not simply a bad choice; it is a catastrophic choice.

Few parents, especially middle-class parents, however, are willing to engage the more fundamental question of whether any college education is appropriate for their children.

Much of human decision-making is based on normative expectations and social myths. The decision about sending children to college is entrenched in both.

After all, what will you tell your friends at the golf club if you child decides not to go to college? In certain circles, college is not really a choice, it is a social expectation. For the affluent, it can result in parents paying out-of-state tuition for their children who would not otherwise meet the acceptance criteria at a public university.

In over 30 years of teaching, I encountered hundreds of lost souls who had no idea why they were in college other than they were expected to be there.

A Million Dollars More?

The great myth about college is that on average, a person with a college education makes a million dollars more over a lifetime than a person without a college education. Here the devil really is in the details.

If you remove from this population the people who went on to get professional degrees (the computer, science, business, and engineering majors) and make comparisons between high school graduates and liberal arts majors, that million-dollar difference rapidly attenuates. Then subtract student debt with its compound interest from the liberal arts majors and that difference shrinks further. To my knowledge, no one has done those calculations, but liberal arts majors in 2012 peaked at $58,000 per year, while a skilled, experienced carpenter made $71,000 with no college debt payment.

High school graduates should go to college if they have an aptitude for a field that leads to a career, and possess the motivation to spend hours on end studying. But for students of average intelligence – as most are – and who get more excitement from video games than from good books, college really is not for them. The sooner parents realize that, the better their future relations with their children will be.

Although there are notable exceptions, most students do not go through some intellectual and motivational metamorphosis in the summer between high school and college. Most mediocre high school students who manage to get into a second- or third-tier university’s liberal arts program will not acquire useful skills that translate into economic payoff. Many of them will, however, acquire debt.

With social promotion and bureaucratic pressure on faculty to keep up the retention percentages in tuition-driven majors where research money is sparse, almost any student who puts in the time can get a degree someplace. Whether that degree represents an education is a vastly different story.

A full 38 percent of all college graduates will end up in jobs that do not require a college degree, and only 27 percent of undergraduates will end up in a field related to their course of study.

Of the 62 percent whose employers required a college degree, the degree requirement is an arbitrary imposition for many of these positions. Do you really need a college degree to manage a retail department or sell real estate? Employers think requiring a degree constitutes a basic part of the selection process. But the reality is more complicated, for there are bright people who have no interest in college.

High school graduates can be exceptionally bright and not interested in college course offerings and how they are marketed. Liberal arts courses were not designed to be pragmatically career-oriented, nor were they designed to be entertaining. Much of higher education is based on a model constructed in 19th century Germany and developed for scions of Europe’s upper classes.

Social sciences (including history), for example, are overall the third largest major. With the exception of a small percentage of students with extraordinary verbal aptitudes and strong intellectual interests, these programs are basically “default majors.” Students enroll in them having no interest in the field or even in being in college. They are there by default. They are fulfilling parental or social expectations.

As most public colleges and universities have seen a decline in public funding, they have become increasingly dependent on tuition. The same can be true of private universities in years when their endowments underperform the financial markets or fundraising is disappointing. Consequently, expanding the student base has become vital to the financial health of many institutions.

Obviously, it is easier to expand the student base in the liberal arts than in the sciences and mathematics.

Expanding the Base by Lowering the Standards

Expanding the student base is accomplished by lowering the standards for admission, especially for out-of-state tuition payers, and then reminding the faculty at final exam time of the school’s “commitment to social justice through retention and diversity.” You don’t need a graduate degree to understand the meaning of the admonition.

Social promotion does not end with a high school diploma. And these days, the term “social justice” is invoked frequently to rationalize social promotions, which in some departments extend to the doctoral level and even to the granting of professional degrees. That is a theme that would warrant another essay.

To understand how institutions accommodate the political pressures to capture enrollment and produce degrees, I’d like to tell you about my friend “Yuri” (not his real name). An émigré from the Soviet Union, Yuri was a highly regarded mathematician who could not comprehend the mores and folkways of the American education system. In the Soviet Union, Yuri was endlessly in trouble with state organs and was once carted off by the KGB for a stay in the notorious Lubyanka prison, complete with lengthy interrogations.

In America, at a major research university, Yuri was constantly in trouble with the school’s administrators. Yuri had difficulty acclimating to the “social justice” system of grading. When it came to standards, Yuri acted as if he were still teaching mathematics in Moscow.

As punishment, Yuri was assigned to what we call “baby math” – a course in introductory mathematics (read arithmetic) for non-majors who are required to complete a math course. This is usually a burden placed on some first-year teaching assistant. Its content would embarrass a seventh-grade student in Russia.

The object is to keep the tests easy and make sure these non-majors pass. That satisfies their department heads and keeps up the mathematics department’s enrollment. Everyone is happy with the arrangement, including the students who are guaranteed a passing grade.

Yuri flunked half the class and was called into the college office for a lecture on being a team player. “Unacceptable,” is the word the dean used in warning Yuri that he needed to change the grades.

Yuri responded that if he valued being a team player he would have stayed in the Soviet Union, where the KGB was the team.

The dean made threats. Yuri laughed. “I spent months in Lubyanka. What, you think you’re the KGB?”

Yuri went on to say that mathematics is not sociology. There is a right and a wrong answer. Besides, the test was machine graded. The whole thing was an embarrassment. This wasn’t even mathematics. It was seventh-grade arithmetic back in Russia. Yuri stood firm.

So, the dean created a fictitious math course in the summer program and enrolled all the students who had flunked. There were no class sessions and no examinations. At the end of the term, the dean simply assigned each student a grade of “B,” restoring the status quo of happy department heads and pleased consumers. Of course, none of these students could do the basic arithmetic a future employer might require.

Yuri continued to be a pariah. The dean went on to become an even higher-ranking college administrator at another school. There are rewards for being a compliant team player.

In a reflective moment, Yuri once asked me, “How did you win the Cold War?”

“We brain-drained other countries,” I responded.

Ideological Indoctrination

It is not, however, academic corruption that is the biggest problem on today’s campus. Paying tuition for ideological indoctrination is.

Worse than giving students meaningless degrees is the insufferable audacity of leftist faculty who believe captive audiences of financially exploited young people are there to hear political ideology presented not as opinion but as hard fact.

Such ideologies as “black lives matter,” “white privilege,” “capitalism is evil,” and “Zionism is racism” are taught as incontrovertible truths, not as ideas to be challenged and investigated.

Examples abound of the exploitation of the classroom, which are reminiscent of the “workmen’s circle” during the after-work hours in Hungarian factories in the Soviet period. My reference is to Hungary because a fellow graduate student who escaped in 1956 provided exquisite detail of what those sessions were like. In a scene that could have been ripped from an Arthur Koestler novel, he was forced to confess his “mechanistic” thinking and “bourgeois” attitudes as today’s students are coerced to confess and examine their “white privilege.” Although he endured such sessions after a torturous day’s work on an assembly line in the people’s paradise, he neither paid tuition nor incurred debt for the humiliation imposed on him.

That raises the question of who was better off: Hungarian factory workers, under an authoritarian regime, who were humiliated for free – or today’s college students who pay for their humiliation?

Why would anyone pay to be humiliated for their skin color and to be told that they are responsible for all the ills in the world allegedly caused by people who share their skin pigmentation? Because not only are such courses required; that ideology is infused in much of the liberal arts curriculum.

Of course, this is the same mentality of the lynch mob that thought one black person was as indistinguishable and as guilty as any other.

Other Paths to Success

If you are the parent of a child with high scientific and quantitative aptitudes, of course your child should go to college. If you are the parent of a child with high verbal skills and strong intellectual interests, your child too should go to college.

But if you are a parent whose child is of average intelligence – as most of them are – and who never reads a book or picks up a magazine, there is little value in sending him or her to college. Sure, some will get degrees. Faculty are constantly reminded how to accomplish that goal. But these students will have acquired little in the way of marketable skills, and their substantive information will have remained with them only long enough to be regurgitated on the last examination.

And unless you are well off, rest assured that the burden of student debt will remain with these students, who acquired few if any skills to pay it off, long after they have forgotten what little they learned.

So, what should the parents of these students do? They should investigate the numerous career paths that are available without a four-year college degree. Students will need post-high school education and training, but much of that is readily available for modest tuition at community colleges that provide two-year degrees and certificates in a number of growing fields, many of which are in medical technology. Beyond that, there is a demand for skilled labor. Mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, and electricians can and do earn six-figure incomes.

Lists of careers that do not require a college education are readily found on the Internet and in school counselors’ offices. A resourceful school counselor will generally be able to assess a student’s prospects for various career paths as well as the likelihood of achieving a meaningful career from going to college. But the most difficult problem in this assessment too often will be overcoming the parents’ desires for the assumed prestige college attendance and a bachelor’s degree brings.

Abraham H. Miller, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and an emeritus professor, University of Cincinnati. He served on the faculties of the University of Illinois, Urbana, and the University of California, Davis.