College For Not Everybody


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

194 Responses

  1. Avatar Will Truman says:

    Oops. I must have accidentally hit “post” on the follow-up. I’ll go up either tomorrow or Saturday. Sorry for those of you who get the email notification and can’t find the post.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    I think its easy to go overboard to see college as positional or signalling or getting to know the right people. Certainly there is part of that but actual learning occurs and is important. Not just for tech fields or nursing etc either. For many of us who grew up middle class or with educated parents and/or with good schools we likely had many of the skills we honed in college already. Reading, writing, presenting ourselves and all that. But for people who didn’t have good schools or educated parents college ends up teaching tons’o’stuff about skills, writing, intellectual skills that are needed in the white collar world. The most pertinent criticism of this happening is it should happen in HS not college. But that is the world we live in.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to greginak says:

      If college didn’t at least vaguely certify certain skills learned or possessed, it wouldn’t work as a signifier. You can get out of most high schools with a whole lot of the intellectual and writing skills you get in college. Of course, a lot of kids don’t. Some get out of college without it, too. Which kids? The kids that are going because that’s what you do.

      A lot of the kids that don’t get out of high school with a lot of these skillsets are typically not going to perform well in college anyway, if they go. College doesn’t really fix what they didn’t learn in high school. To the extent that it does, it’s a very high price tag involved.

      Which is the big thing for me. It’s not that nothing useful is gained. It’s whether what is useful is worth tens of thousands of dollars to students, parents, and taxpayers. Sometimes it is, but often it isn’t. I’d prefer that we make alternate arrangements for the latter group rather than pretend they are members of the former.Report

      • Avatar Snarky McSnarkSnark in reply to Will Truman says:

        I understand what both of you are saying, but for most people, college’s value is soley as a signifier: at least for those of us that got a liberal arts degree.

        Don’t get me wrong: I loved college. I loved drinking from the well of knowledge for four years. But honestly, my Political Science degree has contributed precisely zero to my career as a technology consultant.

        The things that were valuable to me are mostly incidental or accidental. That I was surrounded by other kides from the upper middle class, and formed many “useful” connections that turned out helping me in the future. As I learned to adapt my study habits and practices to getting good grades, I learned some valuable lessons about adaptability and powerlessness that have stood me in good stead in the business world.

        But, college contributed to my career prospects only to the degree that people took me more seriously because of it. I wouldn’t trade my college experience for anything: but if the price of education in 1985 was anything like what it is in 2013, I would consider it a bad investment (I attended the University of California for about $2,100 a year. My nephew is attending UC Berkeley, and is required to cough up about $18.000!).Report

  3. Avatar Shazbot3 says:

    Would all of the same arguments apply for 12th grade? (Or 13th grade, like -IIRC- they have in Ontario?)

    I mean, not everyone needs the education that you get in 12th grade: pre-Calculus, trigonometry, MacBeth, etc.

    Same is true for 11th grade.

    Indeed, why not end high school (as mandatory legally or as a criterion for jobs) at the end of grade 9 and make the rest optional?

    All of the reasons for changing how we think about college seem to apply, mutatis mutandis (learned me that phrase in college) to changing how we think about high school.

    And of course, this isn’t a crazy question. In my parents time, and even in my time amongst a lot of my friends, the question wasn’t whether to go to college, the question was whether to stay in high school.

    Of course, the reason to stay in high school is to get an advantage over those that don’t stay through high school. But that is just the “rush stamp” argument all over again.

    So maybe we aren’t solving any problems by pressuring kids to get ahead by staying in high school.

    BTW, I also think that large portions of the population (maybe slightly less large) are as unsuited for high school (pre-calculus, Shakespeare, essay writing) as others are unsuited for college.

    Maybe “suited for” is not well defined here and maybe we should provide different tracks of education, through high school and college and even grad school, for different kinds of folks.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      Honestly, Shaz, I think we are sometimes too myopically focused on getting everybody a high school diploma. However, I consider that to be “guard rails” for keeping kids busy, and at least trying our best to leave them minimally prepared. So with the exception of reforming the compulsory nature of it, I’m not sure what else I would change I think that by the time they are 18, though, we ought to have a better idea of where they are going and whether or not that should include college, trade school, or other. It’s harder to tell in the 8th grade.

      (I would add that if we get it wrong, and it turns out that the system really left someone’s potential untapped when they’re 18, I would have an avenue for that, too.)

      I would actually be open to alternate paths to people who really don’t particularly need Shakespeare or Pre-cal. Life training, intro to vocational, something along those lines. Just get them ready to go out there and support themselves, as best we can. I don’t think I’d be comfortable making this determination until about 16, though, and I’d want another year or two to tie up loose ends (budget-keeping, consumer math, etc.).Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Will Truman says:

        I don’t think most people know what they want, nor can they be tracked effectively at 18. If kids need anything they need an education that will allow them to be able to have two or three careers/job paths over their lives. That is common now and i imagine will become even more so. Unless you go to grad school and commit to one career most people are going to do a variety of kinds of work.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman in reply to greginak says:

          I don’t completely disagree, which informs my comment to ND below. I think the four-years-for-a-specific-career-track model is a mistake. We do better despite it. What I’d kind of like to see (assuming I can’t get “training on the job”) is “ramp-up vocational studies” wherein it’s a lot easier to go back and very quickly learn something else for a changed trajectory.Report

        • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to greginak says:

          IMO, the fact that some people don’t know what they would like until they are pressured into education of a certain sort is true if 15 year olds, but it’s also true of a lot of adults too. So, if that is a reason to require (or pressure) 15 year olds to get more education, it is also a reason to do so for a lot of adults, too.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Will Truman says:

        I guess I don’t see the world where the people we’re discussing don’t go to grade 12 or grad 11 or college is better than a world where they do.

        The libertarian in me (get out of there Nozick) says that such a world would be better because people don’t want to got to grade 12 and 11 so the world is better when their wants are satisfied, by definition.

        The old-school conservative in me says the world is better when everyone learns the western canon and math and science as well as they can, and that our culture is held together by this shared base of knowledge of math, science, art, literature, and philosophy, and that without pressure to maximize education people will play WOW all day.

        The liberal in me is worried that somehow allowing people to have more unequal education will somehow result in greater degrees of inequality, maybe not just economic inequality but inter-generational “Stratos-Dwellers vs. Troglytes” or “Morlocks vs Eloi” inequality.Report

        • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Shazbot3 says:

          The pragmatist in me (get out of there William James) says even if the liberal or conservative is wrong, there is no reason to risk greatly worsening inequality or the spread of western canonical ideas. We got a good thing going in contemporary society, really, so why change it substantially? Just tweak education with some other education-career paths, like slightly expanded vocational education and see if that makes things a little better or a little worse and go from there.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Shazbot3 says:

            I would argue that the emphasis on college has done little or nothing to ameliorate inequality.

            Rather, it sets up standards of judgment that are almost perfectly suited towards perpetuating class.Report

            • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Will Truman says:

              Maybe not in the U.S., where there is a wider gap between elite and lower class colleges.

              But what about in the Nordic countries or Canada?Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                I am very much in favor of making colleges less class-based, as they are in other places.

                IMO, this will be a problem if we dismantle egalitarian public K-12 schools too: more strongly stratified class and castes, which egalitarian public schools wash out.Report

              • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                My impression of Canada’s system (I’m Canadian, but haven’t spent huge amounts of attention to the higher education system):

                First of all, to define terms – “College” in Canada sounds like it’s more or less equivalent to “Trade School” in the US, and “University” in Canada to “College” in the US – an electrician graduated from a college, a lawyer from a university.

                At the undergraduate level, a university degree is more or less a university degree. Graduate degrees are where it starts to matter more which school you went to. This may be changing now, as more colleges are being redesignated as “universities” – I might be dubious of a science degree from a newly minted university more known for the quality of its vocational programs.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to dragonfrog says:

                Yeah, I am Canadian too (shhhh….) and did my schooling there.

                People use the word “college” differently there and here for sure.

                And yes, even the law and grad schools (in the few subjects I knew about, anyway) in Canada were pretty comparable, with a few places having specializations, but not outright dominance in prestige. U of T is always a bit more prestigious, but even there, what you usually hear is people saying that if you want a fancy job in the U.S. (say in finance or business), then you need to go to U of T, because Americans care about that sort of thing a lot, but otherwise, who cares where you went.

                That is probably an oversimplification, but it isn’t too far off of the mark, IMO.Report

              • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                Oops, left out the second part of my comment.

                Graduate degrees see much more distinction between schools, though not nearly as much as in the US, I think.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Will Truman says:

              Rather, it sets up standards of judgment that are almost perfectly suited towards perpetuating class.

              It doesn’t have to be that way, but unfortunately it is.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Will Truman says:

        I don’t have enough direct exposure to it to endorse it particularly, but you can look at the example of Germany’s streamed secondary education system as an alternative.

        (Subject to regional variation) primary school goes to the fifth grade. From sixth grade on, there are three-ish streams.
        – Hauptschule, whose final year is ninth grade
        – Realschule, whose final year is tenth grade
        – Gymnasium, whose final year is thirteenth grade

        Graduation from a Gymnasium is required for university admission.

        For those going into postsecondary education, the typical path is from a Hauptschule or Realschule into a vocational school (Berufsschule), which is attended two days a week, while working part-time as a paid apprentice the rest of the week.

        Students finishing a Berufsschule would be about the age of North American highschool graduates – but many of them are receiving a journeyman ticket, rather than a “now what” highschool diploma.

        Criticisms of the streamed system seem to be mostly what you’d expect – too many guidance counsellors direct even academically-oriented students of Turkish and African ancestry toward the vocational stream; while transferring between streams is possible, and early on is fairly easy, it’s still enough of a barrier that inappropriate streaming decisions can get locked in.Report

  4. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I agree that our system is not the healthiest. College is not for everyone but I have concerns about systems that involve tracking or have more of an emphasis on vocational training and trade schools. Those are:

    1. Castes. In Kazzy’s post from yesterday, there were discussions from people who were the first in their family to attend college and their general sense of being lost in the system. You also mentioned that in your post about how you were taught that the Ivies were not for you. A system that admits college is not for everyone will probably revert back to being self-perpetuating. Colleges and University will be for those whose parents and grandparents proceeded them. Some schools might as well go back to being largely legacy admits like they were not too many decades ago. How do you think we can create a system that tracks kids without parental interference?

    2. Racism. We already see this in debates over affirmative action, there are subtle and not-so subtle pronouncements that blacks and latinos do not belong in university. The reasoning is racist and wrong.

    3. What subjects should be taught in university? I have often said that many practical fields like business, accounting, marketing, hospitality studies, supply-chain management, IT, etc should be taught on the job. People tell me this view is snobby,Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

      1 & 2: The devil is in the details here, I will grant. I would prefer to look primarily at academic achievement and then also have categories for potential. Say you have a kid who is a high-performer at a lackluster school or someone who is a high-performer for his or her SES but probably isn’t ready for college or isn’t college material yet. well, Maybe they don’t go straight to a four-year institution, but you give them an opportunity to catch up and prove themselves at low cost to a community college.

      I don’t think the current system is particularly serving these people well, as it is. They’re the most at-risk to drop out owing money that they will never be able to afford to pay back. I think it would be better to try to figure out which of them have the most potential and cultivate those while setting the others on a more appropriate course. The current system doesn’t really come close to compensating for the problems that exist by the time they leave high school.

      As for #3, if I had more time I would be writing a post on it. But I actually agree, to some extent. I would prefer undergraduate degrees be much more general and much less vocational. I say this as someone who got a vocational degree. The vocational part of that should have been a side thing and taught on-the-job. Although, if we were to do this, the pool of kids I think should go to college would shrink by some because I would push more to the side thing. In this sense, I would probably be somewhere on the border myself.Report

    • Concerning #3, I think the only way it might be (plausibly) considered snobby in that it seems to assume that those fields a) have very little critical thinking components to them and b) are incapable of belonging to a self-reflective field of study.

      I’m pretty sure you don’t agree with a), but I suspect you agree with b).

      There was a time, not too long ago, when I thought business and IT majors (not the people, but the courses of study) involved only learning how to line numbers up in a row (accounting), making nice-looking presentation posters (marketing), or doing math problems in the form of computer coding (IT). I was a snob (and a bit of a pr*ck) about it, too. After all, I had gone for the life of the mind to study HISTORY! and not something that anyone could do.

      I then began to study business history, I made friends with some people who were into IT stuff, and at various jobs I’ve had in grad school–both at my university library and as a part-time loan processor at a bank–I encountered some accounting principles and I witnessed how IT people work in practice, the types of things they have to do, etc. All of this quickly disabused me of a): their jobs were challenging, and there was even a certain art to it, and I hadn’t appreciated it at all.

      Now for b), I wonder if there is room for business or IT as a discipline that is something more than only “practical” in the narrowest sense of the word “practical.” I strongly suspect there is.

      Even if I’m right, that still doesn’t necessarily mean that those types of skills aren’t better learned on the job than at university. And even if I’m wrong I should say I’ve been appropriately humbled by my experiences.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        I suppose I am a bit snobby about it but it seems to me that people who major in business/accounting and such at university are largely not interested in academics. They are interested in getting a decent or well-paying job. They attend college/university because they are smart enough to get that a university degree is almost necessary for a middle class or above life in the United States.

        Perhaps I am wrong to imagine a bro-dude who just wants a job at a big corp and who struggles through Dante, largely out of boredom and disinterest. Perhaps I am not.

        So it appears to me that many people only get a college degree because they know it is necessary for a job. Many of these people possibly choose to major in something like business, marketing, fashion merchandising, etc. So if we can find a way to turn these fields into apprenticeships or on the job training rather than hoisting them unto the universities, everyone will be happier.Report

        • Avatar trumwill in reply to NewDealer says:

          I majored in Computer Information Systems in the College of Industrial Technology… very vocational. I was also in the Honors College which had a strong liberal arts component. I enjoyed the humanities classes far more than the tech courses (and not because they were less challenging). I think that would be true for very, very few of my CIS classmates. Which isn’t really a knock on them. It’s just a different flavor of person. More than a few of them probably would have been better off in vocational schools to begin with. But they needed a degree for a promotion.Report

        • I do think a not insignificant number of people major in, for example, history because it’s relatively easy. It’s easier for a mediocre person to get a C in an upper-class history course than it is for a mediocre person to get the same grade in an upper-class science or tech course. Maybe it’s not the bro-dudes, but sometimes it seems like a major of last resort.

          My point is, I’ve met some of the business majors who meet the stereotype (and a some who were just hardworking people trying to do well for themselves). But I wouldn’t want to judge the discipline solely by the people who stereotypically pursue it.

          None of this is to necessarily say you’re wrong about something like apprenticeships being the way to go. (I do wonder whether some things, like accounting, can really be learned without formal schooling, but I’m too ignorant of its principles to say one way or the other.)Report

          • Oh, I don’t think it’s a matter of business being easy. I didn’t take what ND said that way, either, though maybe he did mean it that way. Just that the people taking business are doing so as a means to an end. They don’t get the same energetic thump reading Dante as does someone who is there for more classical reasons.Report

            • I guess I wrote as if that was my takeaway from what ND was saying, but that wasn’t really my intention.

              What I really wanted to say was that a lot (not sure how many) of history majors are people who went to college for something–either a very hard program they weren’t cut out for or a means to greater wealth–and settled for history, and history happens to be easier than other subjects to do this in. In other words, liberal arts can have their own version of “bro-dudes” who are just treating college as a means.

              Another notion, which I should have made clearer, is that I do believe that at least some variants of business–say, accounting–have the potential to be recognizable as something we might consider as comparable to a liberal arts discipline. This is only a suspicion on my part, because I don’t know much about accounting, but from what I know, there’s seems to be an “art” to is, a way of looking at the world that can imply some important methodological and philosophical questions (e.g., what is a “cost” and how do we track it?).

              Maybe I’m only describing the discipline of economics, but I suspect there’s something there, and maybe the difference between the history major and the accounting major is, or can be, more like the difference between the history major and the lit major.Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to NewDealer says:

      “2. Racism. We already see this in debates over affirmative action, there are subtle and not-so subtle pronouncements that blacks and latinos do not belong in university. The reasoning is racist and wrong.”

      ND, who is that straw man, and what did he do to you that you’re treating him so brutally?Report

  5. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Good post, Will.

    I want to explore this statement a bit…

    “Our egalitarianism doesn’t like to admit that large portions of the population aren’t really suited for college.”

    How much of this is because we view “college” as something monolithic? It’s not. Studying pre-med at Harvard is different than studying refrigeration technology at the Devry Institute. Both experiences technically count as “college” but most people don’t see them that way. So we push everyone to go to college because of, among other things, certain egalitarian streaks, when what we really should be saying is, “You should go study pre-med at Harvard,” and “You should go study refrigeration technology at Devry,” and, provided the individuals are being “sorted” properly and are interested in those avenues, I don’t think we’ve violated our egalitarian nature.

    I don’t know if that makes any sense…Report

    • Avatar Maribou in reply to Kazzy says:

      ” provided the individuals are being “sorted” properly and are interested in those avenues, I don’t think we’ve violated our egalitarian nature.”

      Therein lies the rub.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Maribou says:

        Oh, indeed. My ideal plan for education is very much predicated on intimate partnerships between students, their families (when appropriate), and educators working together to make the right decisions.

        Ultimately, I’d still opt to allow individuals the autonomy to make the final decision. If a DeVry kid wants to go pre-med and finds a college that will accept him and his money, I wouldn’t want there to be any form of mechanism to prevent him from doing it. But I would want there to be people helping him to make an informed decision.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

          Oh, indeed. My ideal plan for education is very much predicated on intimate partnerships between students, their families (when appropriate), and educators working together to make the right decisions.

          Which sorta brings up a problem with the status quo, wherein we place so much value on college that it’s going to be hard for a lot of people to look at the other things. I think that, in time, there’d be a “Wait, you mean I can go votech for six months or a year and then start making money?! I want that!”

          Right now people who would otherwise say that are sent the signal that they’re being short-sighted. And because of the status quo and all of the value we place on college, they are. It becomes self-fulfilling.

          A key component in all of this is more respect for those who take a different path. I don’t think we realize the ways in which we are disrespectful when we talk about what people should do.

          (This whole thing is one of the ways in which “End of Equality”, by the much-maligned Mickey Kaus, changed my worldview.)Report

          • Avatar greginak in reply to Will Truman says:

            I think there are more people then you are crediting who take varying paths to college. Lots of people in the military take that root for a variety of reason knowing they will go to college afterwards. Some also do work or travel or noodle around with intention of eventually going to college. We would be better off i think if more people did that, but people still have the option. The people who take that alternate root are the ones with the money or family support to do so. Poor kids have to go to post HS right away if they can since that is likely to be their only option.Report

          • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Will Truman says:

            “Right now people who would otherwise say that are sent the signal that they’re being short-sighted. And because of the status quo and all of the value we place on college, they are. It becomes self-fulfilling.

            A key component in all of this is more respect for those who take a different path. I don’t think we realize the ways in which we are disrespectful when we talk about what people should do.”

            I get that.

            But I’m more Hobbesian about human nature. I worry that without some strong social pressure to achieve educationally, there will be a lot of people who start to aim at working part time and playing computer games all day. The pressure to go to college is part of -maybe an essential part- of a social structure that makes people aim at bettering themselves in the eyes of others, without which the world might change a lot.Report

            • Avatar trumwill mobile in reply to Shazbot3 says:

              I… don’t see that at all. Goofy off opportunity is much moreplentiful in college rthan when trying to support yourself. And I don’t know that most people in college actually see it as you do. I think those that go to college specifically because they were nudged are particularly unlikely to approach it in a way that their lives are actually enriched.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to trumwill mobile says:

                Did you grow up in a small, poor rural community like the one you live in now?

                Because the one I grew up in had a whole lot of 18-45 year old people who drank more, on average, and were far more lazy and less ambitious than the average college kid. Far, far worse.

                I was amazed when I went to college to see all the kids studying so hard and avoiding partying in certain situations, and having long-term career paths, hobbies and goals to develop their interests and learn language.

                Truth be told, I could raise small kids in my rural home town, but I’d get them the heck out of there before they became teenagers, before it became time to start planning life and learning how to aim at bettering yourself with studying and hobbies and self-control, because most of their friends in school would be very bad influences indeed.Report

              • Avatar trumwill in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                Okay, actually, for rural kids I can see it. Going to college is a good way to expose them to greater opportunities than they’re going to see in a place like where I am now.

                Back when I was in rural Deseret, I met quite a few people who really should have gone to college but didn’t. More of those than the other way. Back home in the big city, it was the other way around. Where I substitute teach, I hope very strongly that the best and brightest of kids get out of that blighted town (a town which I love, but which is blighted). But for a lot of the kids, I don’t think it matters all that much. They’ll end up the sorts of kids that went off to college because they were told to, not get a degree, and owe a lot of money in student loans. (I met a lot of those in Deseret, too.)

                Honestly, I don’t have a firm idea of what the appropriate number of college students is. It may be more than we have now, it may be less than we have now. I suspect the latter, but I am not married to the notion. I just feel pretty strongly that the ideal number is far less than “The number of kids we can browbeat into attending college with fears that they will ruin their lives if they don’t” which seems to be the number we are headed towards.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to trumwill says:

                Yeah, I do see that college’s focus on the abstract, the poetic, the artistic could be wrong for some people, though.

                I think we agree a lot, but it is hard to see the exact nature of problem and the best solution.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                That is to say, it is very possible for people (like those in my small town) to support themselves but if they aren’t pressure by the world around them to succeed at more than mere sustenance, life gets real crummy.

                I sort of agree with the recent Charles Murray book “The State of White America” on this problem of lower class white communities, though not his diagnosis about IQ or his pessimism about solutions.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                I think marrying the idea of success to college is precisely the predicament we are presently in. I think it’s important to encourage people (pressure them) into doing something. I think it’s too often we make the college track that something.

                It’s a bunch of people with college degrees fixated on the value of a college degree and thrusting this fixation on others.

                I do feel it’s something… tragic… when people live their entire lives in a particular town, never having gone off to college or for anything else. A part of me doesn’t feel that it’s right to feel that way, though. It’s condescending and it defines The Good Life to a very convenient standard.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

                Yeah, I don’t feel smart enough to argue about all is.

                In my experience, the problems you see in white rural America are pretty much all caused by the absence of pressure to aim at higher education. The real problem isn’t the lack of people (and it isn’t all people, of course) meeting goals in these places; it’s the lack of people having goals other than mere sustenance and “empty ” fun (usually alcohol-based).

                You say maybe there could be a pressure to aim at something else, or just something in general, but it’s not clear what that would be or how it would work or how we would institute that. Pragmatically, we already have the pressure to become educated in the western canon, in math and science, and we can imagine extending that pressure to more people. Not sure how we’d invent a new kind of pressure and institute it. Conservatives have a point about traditional ways of doing things and motivations to succeed.

                Interesting stuff, though.Report

              • Avatar trumwill in reply to Will Truman says:

                I’ve really enjoyed the back and forth, Shaz. It’s given me some stuff to think about. Thanks for it.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

                Thanks Will, me too. I have bombed the thread though. Time to let others take over the convo for awhile.


              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

                “I do feel it’s something… tragic… when people live their entire lives in a particular town, never having gone off to college or for anything else.”

                And someone else feels it’s something tragic when people attend a state school instead of living in another area of the country.

                And someone else feels it’s something tragic when people don’t go abroad for a semester.

                And someone else feels it’s something tragic when people don’t spend a few years after college traveling and trying their hand at a variety of things.

                Etc, etc, etc.

                It is beyond convenient. It is the textbook psychological definition of egocentrism: That wouldn’t make me happy so I can’t imagine it making someone else happy.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Will Truman says:

                The problem with the college track is that once you’re on it, so the story goes, everything will unfold before you. But real life doesn’t work that way. Things don’t unfold for you unless you’re open to those possibilities, trained (in some sense) to generate those possibilities, and responsive enough to recognize them. And being open to those possibilities doesn’t require any forma education.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:


                Do you mean to say that there aren’t objective facts about happiness? That if someone thinks they are doing okay, they are happy?

                Or do you mean that as long as someone has chosen what they are doing, they are happy?

                A pretty high percentage of the rural, poor people I’m talking about are deeply unhappy, even if they have chosen the life they are in. Some believe they are happy. Others don’t. Many are really, objectively tragic.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:


                I don’t think choice is the only path to happiness. But some people ARE happy being born, living, and dying in the same town, having never seen the hills of Tuscany or the jungles of Africa or, hell, even the Grand Canyon. And if they are genuinely happy with such a life, we shouldn’t insist that they aren’t.

                Now, if they are resigned to their fate or have chosen it because they didn’t know of or believe there were other options and are consequently unhappy, we should support them in choosing another path to happiness.

                I have a colleague who hasn’t been on an airplane in 20+ years. She eats the same basic food everyday, never exploring the various cuisines the world offers. She was born and raised in the same small section of NY. She considers a trip to NJ as “traveling”. And she’s very happy. She is well connected with her church, has four reasonably well adjusted and successful kids whom she remains in close contact with, and is happily married. She enjoys her work as much as most people do. She overcame growing up in an alcoholic household and being married to an alcoholic man to carve a better path for herself and her family.

                Me? I look at some aspects of her life and think I could *never* be happy that way. We live in the same town and I bemoan the lack of Indian and Thai and Pho and Spanish restaurants. I’ve flown a half dozen times in the three years we’ve worked together.

                But we’re wired differently. And that’s okay.Report

              • @Shazbot5: I’ve not had time to contribute anything to this thread, but I just wanted to say that your comments here have made me rethink a lot of my views on this topic.

                One direction your comments have taken me is one I never thought much about. In effect, I think your suggestion that pressures towards college for everyone provide people with life goals other than sustenance and “empty” fun is very persuasive, but to the point that I wonder if part of the problem is that higher education as currently constituted doesn’t do a terribly good job at this.

                I’m just starting to work through this, but specifically, I wonder if part of the problem is that the existing system puts too much emphasis on college being a place to acquire the tools to succeed in life, and not enough emphasis on college being a place to help students figure out what “success in life” even means to them.

                The anecdata underlying my thoughts here is thus:

                The person I am thinking of grew up in a working class suburb of a major northeastern city. This person is 40 years old, has a STEM degree from a well-regarded (but heavily commuter-based) college in the aforementioned major northeastern city, and a reasonably well-paying, steady job.

                He’s also the most miserable person you’d ever meet. Oh, he doesn’t suffer from depression and he wouldn’t ever say that he’s miserable, but spend ten minutes talking to him, and you will be shocked that anyone could be so persistently negative and judgmental about, well, everything and everybody. Even though he’s spent the entirety of his life in the suburbs of a major city, his attitude and worldview are pretty much exactly the stereotype of white rural America- much like that stereotype, he’s unbelievably parochial, lacking any meaningful goals other than justifying his negativity about the outside world, deeply religious, and still lives in the house he grew up in. Unlike rural whites, he’s a Democrat, but that’s splitting hairs, since his views are roughly identical to Zell Miller’s. He was no less negative when I first met him in his mid-to-late 20’s than he is now.

                To my knowledge, he’s only exceeded a 200 mile radius of home twice in his life – once for the wedding of a sibling, the other time to help a friend drive to Florida and back for the sole purpose of transporting his friend’s boat.

                The second most miserable person I’ve ever met is this person’s older brother, of whom all of the above could also be said, except the brother did not go to college and has been unemployed for several years. This person, too, was no less miserable when I first met him.

                These two have several siblings of varying ages. The siblings are much happier, and far less negative about, well, everything. None of them live at home, and all have children and are either married or in long-term relationships. They also all have college degrees from schools of varying prestige; at least one of these has a degree from another local school with slightly less prestige but with a significantly higher percentage of students who lived on-campus than the first brother’s college. Regardless, all of these siblings (I believe) spent a significant portion of their college careers living on campus; even to the extent they spent some portion of their college careers as commuter students, they remained active in campus life outside of the classroom, and as a result got to know well people from different walks of life. One of them now lives extremely close to his parent’s house, and two others live within an hour and a half, so it can’t be said that they’ve “forgotten where they came from,” but they’re all reasonably happy with their lives, and have definite and achievable goals for becoming even more so.

                So much of the distinction between the first group and the latter group of siblings’ happiness comes down to the fact that living on campus and/or getting heavily involved in campus life gave the latter group of siblings the ability to see what else was possible in life, and actively choose life goals. Also worth noting, though: the first brother’s college does not appear to have had a core curriculum requirement forcing students to be exposed to courses outside of their major, whereas most of the others’ colleges did have such a requirement. One of these siblings has said to me that the exposure to the liberal arts provided by those core requirements was particularly eye-opening.

                Increasingly, it seems to me that we conceive of college as a place that exists to prepare students for careers, and to give them the tools to achieve the goals that we expect them to already have in mind. And maybe they’re pretty good at that, though I have strong doubts about even that. The problem is that it’s pretty unreasonable to expect an 18 year old kid who has never known anyone, or seen much of anything, outside his town or family to have a clue about what he wants out of life.

                Regardless, if we think college is primarily supposed to be about preparing students for a particular career path that they must choose shortly after enrolling, then there’s no reason we should frown on online-only programs and degrees. But if college is supposed to be about showing students what’s out there so that they can see what else is out there and choose their own life (not just “career”) goals, then we need to seriously rethink a model that increasingly seems to encourage commuterism and emphasizes a sort of careerism above all else.

                Last but not least, to your point about not screwing too much with the traditional model, I think you’re on to something there as well. The traditional model, of course, was more focused on the liberal arts and on the residential aspects of college. Its great flaw was that it was terribly exclusive, as a result exposing students to people from different places, but not doing a very good job of exposing students to people from different classes, races, and genders.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:


                I think people in small towns can be happy. My parents tell me the people in my small town used to be incredibly happy. (The resentment in a lot of small towns that you see at Tea Party rallies is that the glorious past has been taken away from them and that life there now is awful compared to what it was. There is truth in that story.)

                Small towns in the rural US west and Canada used to have a higher percentage of people who had big goals in life; they were settlers in a way, building small places into something bigger, starting businesses, working on glorious mainstreets, having homes nicer than their parents shacks, aiming at sending their kids off to a better life yet.

                Not so much anymore. Murray’s book points out that poorer white America (“The State of White America”) notices the problem that the drive and goal setting has gone out of the white lower class in general. (I don’t agree with Murray’s IQ thesis.)Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:


                First off, I am really flattered. You’ve made my week, just when I was feeling down.

                I agree with everything you said andyou’ve improved greatly on what I said.

                The one problem I see with college curricula is more and more of a focus on teaching students remedial skills and less and less of a focus on making them prove (with presentations, papers, projects) that they have learned (anything, something, doesn’t matter) on their own.

                Also, goal setting should be the focus of college, yes.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:


                I think we need to rethink what it means to have “big goals” in life. Why is raising a happy family in a small town while owning your own business seen as a small goal?
                Why is going to some diploma mill university where you spend 4 years getting drunk and ringing up debt seen as a big goal?Report

              • Kazzy – I don’t think Shaz is saying that the former isn’t a legitimate big goal, and the latter is. Instead, it’s more a matter of whether a given goal is chosen freely and knowingly. A goal that is undertaken soley because it’s the only goal you can imagine isn’t really a goal at all – it’s more just going through the motions.Report

              • Avatar trumwill mobile in reply to Will Truman says:

                I think that’s true of a lot of people who go to college, though. But that is more generally seen as okay because they’re doing the middle class mainstream thing.Report

              • Will – sure, but I think the point is that college is not, or at least ought not be, a big goal unto itself so much as a tool for figuring out what one’s big goals should be, or at least for getting an understanding of what is possible outside of your local surroundings.Report

              • Avatar trumwill mobile in reply to Will Truman says:

                I’m not sure for how many people it actually serves that function for. Our would even if we made college less vocational!. The people around here, sure. The people who make the decisions about the way things should be, crucially yes. Most people? To the extent of the price paid? I’m more skeptical. And in the current environment, I think the emphasis on college dilutes that mission.Report

              • Will – I think we certainly agree that this mission is severely diluted in the present environment. I also agree with you that, to the extent it is so severely diluted, there are an awful lot of folks for whom the pressures towards college do more harm than good, especially given the ease with which the more “vocational” classes could be taught either online or in non-collegiate environments.

                However, I think Shaz has identified a very real need for some form of societal pressure towards college, and I think (I don’t know the extent to which Shaz would agree) that need can only really be satisfied if the societal pressure takes the form of pressure specifically towards an active campus life and experiences, as well as towards colleges that mandate students take a solid core of liberal arts-heavy “general education” classes along with their majors. I actually think the active campus life is significantly more important than the need for expanded emphasis on “general education” curricula (which plenty of schools already have), though the utility of a liberal arts curriculum shouldn’t be underestimated either.Report

              • Avatar trumwill mobile in reply to Will Truman says:

                If I had time for a third (forth, technically) contribution, it would touch on the campus life aspect. I agree for some but there again I thing expanding enrollment would dilute – albeit this time in the direction of drinking and WoW. You see a lot of this at nonselective, non-commuter schools (directional former teaching colleges for example.Report

              • Having graduated from a school that – at the time – frequently made Princeton Review’s biggest drinking schools lists, but which has since gotten massively tamer, I’m not at all certain that dilution in the direction of drinking is all that horrible a thing. Or at least it isn’t if the people you’re drinking with in college didn’t grow up around the corner from you.Report

              • Assuming you went to the school I think you did, that’s not really the school I am talking about. I’m not talking about state flagships or land-grants. Less about the LSU’s, more about the Southwest Texases.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

                “However, I think Shaz has identified a very real need for some form of societal pressure towards college…”

                What if we took our “college” and replaced it with “success”… or “finding one’s path”… or “thriving”… or something else that isn’t so narrow?

                The problem seems to be that we’ve conflated “college” with all those other things.

                The mantra used to be to do better than your parents… the idea was to improve with each generation. Now the mantra is to go to college… which does not guarantee improvement.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:


                I think it serves that goal for lots and lots of people.

                The goal of education, learning about the arts and literature and science, becoming a better writer and presenter, getting a mid-level management job in time (maybe assistant manager at the local bank), maybe starting a small business selling Etsy stuff, is a good goal.

                A lot of people who don’t get an education aren’t doing that kind of modest goal setting at all. A lot of people who aim at getting an education do. This is a big reason why suburban life and college is just objectively better for large segments of people than rural life. IMO.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:


                The pressure has to be to do something specific, or some number of things from a set of specific things.

                Social conservatives are right that there need to be social and economic pressures to live and aim your life at certain goals. We can’t avoid pressuring people to live a certain way. We have chosen to pressure them to learn math, science, languages, and the western canon, to get good at writing, research, and debate. What would you prefer us to pressure them to do?

                IMO, we can improve colleges in a lot of way: make them cheaper like in the past, make them more about goal setting in life, add more vocational training, etc.

                But we can’t replace (though we can improve) their general social functions of providing incentives and sorting mechanisms for economic success and the higher levels of social respect.Report

              • What if we took our “college” and replaced it with “success”… or “finding one’s path”… or “thriving”… or something else that isn’t so narrow?

                The problem seems to be that we’ve conflated “college” with all those other things.

                The mantra used to be to do better than your parents… the idea was to improve with each generation. Now the mantra is to go to college… which does not guarantee improvement.

                Yes and no. I mean – I agree that college should not be viewed as an end unto itself. However, I don’t see how one can “find one’s path” without something akin to a residential college experience – you need to know what paths are out there in order to find the one that works for you.

                One needs to in some sense get out of one’s confines before one can conclude that those confines are the confines that best suit oneself. I really struggle to think how most people can realistically and meaningfully get out of their confines enough to do that without either an extremely privileged upbringing or something that closely resembles a traditional concept of a residential college experience.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:


                Well, sure, but now you’re talking about “college”, some abstract system of sorting and goal setting that doesn’t currently exist… not “College”, the system of post-high school education that does. The problem is, a lot of folks don’t consider the elements of “college” that make it different from “College” to be “C/collegey” enough.

                “Oh, you go to votech? Why didn’t you go to College?”Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:


                Couldn’t someone move to the big city, get a job and an apartment, take out a credit card, live with some friends, and find their path that way? Sure, they may go into the hole a bit, but it is unlikely that they do so to the tune of $150K over 4 years.

                I’m all for expanding horizons and showing kids what their options are before they close off their idea. I think there are ways we can improve the high school system, college system, and other societal areas to do that.

                But, as I just said to Shaz, I think the problem here is definition. I’m all for encouraging people to go the “college” route that people are describing they’d like to see; but I don’t believe we should be putting pressure on people to go the “College” route that currently exists.Report

              • Kazzy, it’s typically going to be hard for someone from a small town to be able to afford to move to what you would consider to be a big city. Not without a job in hand, and getting a job remotely is very tough if you don’t have very specific skills.

                Having said that, it’s very common out here for young people to move out of Bear Lake and to Pocatello, which qualifies as “big city” by eastern Idaho standards. Or from Whitehall to Bozeman.

                One usually will move away from home for vocational training, though. So if you go to a votech, chances are good you’ve already left home.

                Out here there’s also the army, which a lot of young people that aren’t bound for college do. This route gets mixed reviews from the smarter set. (We need out troops, and good-thinking people thank them for their service to our country, but it’s often considered a product of tragedy or exploitation that the army is an actual solution for people.)Report

              • The young lad who lives next door to where we just moved from joined the army. Which I think is just fantastic. He was the sort of kid that very much ran the risk of what Shaz is concerned about. Kid needed to get out. Ironically, since there is a college nearby, a good portion of kids who go to college actually just go down Pacific Street.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:


                I’d be okay with any definition of “big city”. And the only thing that makes the residential college experience affordable for most is the college loan system. So, perhaps there are ways to aid other young people in carving out different paths.

                But here is a question:

                If someone never leaves Podunk, North Dakota and carves out a very happy little life their because he didn’t really know anything else was possible… what is the harm done? The risk that the army kid ran… what is it exactly?Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

                Not sure I follow Kazzy.

                Going to college does prove that you have some minimal skills needed for lots of management and bureaucratic jobs, and if you did well in college maybe it proves that you have strong skills: explanatory writing, research, working on team projects, the ability to read complex arguments and plans and evaluate them as being reasonable or unreasonable.

                So employers prefer, other things being equal, the people who have gone to college for a certain class of jobs where teamwork, communication, planning, writing reports, giving presentations, analysis. might be involved even some of the time. If you have only vocational skills, and those other skills are needed, why shouldn’t an employer hire on their basis?

                Also, college is at least somewhat difficult. And it is difficult to do well at college. So by setting the goal and completing the goal of finishing college, you have proven (to yourself, which is most important, but also to others) that you can be succesful at setting and achieving goals.

                College needs to improved, as does everything, but I really don’t get the problem that a lot of you are gesturing at that would drive us to fundamentally remake society (college is a big part of the social structure in all modernized western countries) in a way that hasn’t been specified by saying “we need something else that will make people feel pressure to be succesful.” That’s an awfully amorphous alternative to the current system that we and other countries have that has been serving lots of important functions for decades.

                I’m okay with more technical training. I’m okay with making colleges more about goal setting. But I see no good reason to aim policy at having a large number of students not go to college anymore.

                Here’s another weird reductio. If we don’t want so many academically-below-average kids to go to college, why should we care about their standardized test scores in, say. grades 8-12?

                Well, test scores are some evidence of ha work and goal setting and learning. Moreover, the scientific material and academic material and history and literature learned in grades 8-12 is good for people. They are better learning it than not, even if they struggle with it and will never be professors or scientists or medical doctors. And society is better off putting pressure on everyone to have as much critical thinking, science, mathematical, philosophical, historical, knowledge as we can, also balancing that with pressuring people to work hard, take pure leisure time, etc.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:


                I think it is great when folks go to college, thrive, and use it to springboard themselves to greater heights.

                But we’ve really fucked up the system. We are fast approaching, if not having already passed, the point where going to college will be the norm. And as we’ve seen, this creates a huge demand. Coupled with easily gained loans, we have put colleges and universities in position to overcharge. Hey, everyone is going to college and is flush with cash to do it so why not raise tuition at twice the rate of inflation?

                And many colleges don’t leave kids any better prepared for professional success than they were beforehand. Many go into jobs that a decade ago didn’t require a degree but now do because of sorting mechanisms. Others wash out with no degree but lots of debt. And many toil away their time because they’re young people living with minimal supervision, easy access to dating partners, drugs, and alcohol, and inadequate guidance and goalsetting.

                What we have isn’t working. Encouraging more people into that system is wrong.Report

              • I’d be okay with any definition of “big city”. And the only thing that makes the residential college experience affordable for most is the college loan system.

                That’s a really good point. One that was vaguely in the back of my mind, but didn’t fully form. Thanks.

                I’m actually a fan of relocation assistance more generally. When we have jobs available over here, and people without jobs over there, it’s kind of in everybody’s best interest to help with that, I think.

                The risk that the army kid ran… what is it exactly?

                Negative externalities. Alcoholism (bad for him, worse for people around him) and criminality at worst. Creating problems for the community more likely. Or maybe he would just straighten himself out. I like the odds better with the military (or trade school or even college, though I don’t think he’d last there, being a dropout might still be an improvement). On the other hand, our track record with vets isn’t great, either.

                Some people are better with pressured change. I at least agree with Shaz on that, even if we view other things differently.

                One thing I’ve been itching to mention since this conversation began and plan on bringing up separately… North Dakota is one of the happiest and healthiest states in the country by most measures. That’s not unimportant.Report

              • We are fast approaching, if not having already passed, the point where going to college will be the norm

                Along these lines, does anyone have some good statistics on the number of kids starting college, and the number of kids graduating, over the last fifty years? That might inform this discussion, one way or the other.Report

              • One thing I’ve been itching to mention since this conversation began and plan on bringing up separately… North Dakota is one of the happiest and healthiest states in the country by most measures. That’s not unimportant.

                You are correct, although one thing that kind of stuck in my craw on this from the beginning – though I’ll defer to your better knowledge if you disagree – is that we probably need to make a distinction between the rural South/Appalachia and the rural West here. The West tends to have some of the more educated populations in the country; the reverse is true of the South and Appalachia.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:


                “We are fast approaching, if not having already passed, the point where going to college will be the norm.”

                I’m not sure what you mean by “the norm,” but the percentage of people graduating from college has flatlined in the U.S. and we are no longer the world leader, not by far:

                “What about college? The U.S. once led the world in college graduates. As an example of this, Americans age 55-to-64 still lead their peers in other nations in the portion with college degrees (41 percent). But this number has flat-lined for Americans. In 2008, the same percentage of Americans age 25-to-34 and age 55-to-64 were college graduates.
                Meanwhile, other nations have caught up, and some have pulled ahead. Among this younger age group, 25- to 34-year-olds, all of the following nations now have a larger percent of college graduates than the U.S.: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.”


                There isn’t a problem of the number of people who have college degrees growing too rapidly.

                Moreover, as I suggested elsewhere, the high costs of tuition and loans is an easily defeasible problem. The cause is that state governments stopped funding state schools and at the same time administrators who wanted to run schools like competitive businesses took over and began spending wildly on fancy infrastructure and research to draw the best students in order to climb the US News and World Report Rankings. (This same cost inflation hasn’t happened elsewhere.)

                A college education is really, really cheap. A lecturer or prof on a 3/4 teaching schedule gets about 3000-8000 bucks to teach, on average, 30 students. So each kid is paying about 250 bucks a class, far less if adjuncts do more of the teaching, as they often do. In some classes, the textbook costs more than the instructor.

                What costs so much tuition is all the research, the overly fancy grounds, and the unnecesary admin.

                Think about it this way. The US has the vast majority of the top research universities in the world. Moreover, on average US campuses are some of the most impressively expensive grounds and expensively staffed organizations in the world, especially compared to small colleges around the world. Yet federal and state government aren’t paying for all that research and fancy grounds and admin. All we need to do is make our schools more like world schools and the cost of college plummets.

                This is how the U.S. college system was run for our parents, and their college attendance rates (per my link) weren’t much different than ours.

                Once we solve the easy cost problem, I see no reason to say that the college system is broken. The are tweaks to be made about curriculum, but “broken” is way, way to strong a word.Report

              • Shaz, thanks for the link. That the number of graduates hasn’t changed isn’t all that surprising. In fact, until recently I had kind of assumed that to be the case. The biggest difference being in the number of people we send to college who don’t actually graduate. Any numbers on that would be appreciated.

                Having said that, the measurement they used may not be the best. Some of the 55-64 year olds got their degrees after they were 25-34 and some of the 25-34 will get their degrees by the time that they are 55-64.

                Honestly, sending more people to college without having more graduates furthers my argument, in one way. It means that even having made college such a priority, and even trying to send more people through college, we’re not succeeding.

                That hinges on the fact that more people are starting college than before, which may not be true. I’d be pretty surprised, though.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

                I’m not so sure the college and alcohol problem is what people say.

                1. Substance and alcohol abuse at university has not really gotten worse over generations:

                “Properly collected study data — which has gone unmentioned in recent media trend stories — suggest that today’s college students aren’t misusing alcohol or drugs at any higher rates than their parents did. ”


                2. The real question is whether 18-25 year olds drink heavily because they are in college or whether they would drink heavily even if they weren’t in college. This is a hard question because it involves knowledge of counterfactuals (what would happen if they weren’t in college) and causation (is being in college a cause of drinking more).

                Well, the best research suggests there is not much of a reason to believe college causes youth drinking or later drinking to increase and there is some good reason (even accounting for differences in the classes of people who go to college before they enter) that going to college causes you to be LESS likely to abuse alcohol and suffer from alcoholism later in life. If anything, this suggests that my thesis that college is about goal setting and learning to achieve and strengthen will power and gratification-delay is correct:

                “An analysis of the national population showed that if adults were not to attend college they would be over six times more likely to engage in a pattern of substance use that involves heavy drinking at age 33, compared to if they did attend. A follow-up analysis of only the individuals who did attend college showed that their rates of problem drinking in adulthood are no higher than they would have been had they not attended college. Even accounting for the differences between those who do and do not attend college, this study provides strong evidence that college enrollment does not place individuals at risk for future problem drinking.”


                Again, it is always tough to prove causation. But young kids not in college are drinking heavily too. College may very well weaken alcoholism and substance abuse.Report

              • I don’t think college causes or encourages drinking. I think it’s primarily a function of self-segregation. Drinking rates among college students should really be much, much less than that of non-students. And I would actually expect that the more otherwise non-students we send, the more drinking at college will occur.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:


                You think, then, that putting fewer students in college wouldn’t effect alcoholism then, right.

                The evidence suggests sending more kids to college is a good step (as part of a larger strategy) to reduce alcoholism over time.

                I strongly suspect that kids will find ways to get together to drink regardless of college and the evidence suggests they may do that more if they aren’t in college.Report

              • To the extent that it would have an effect, it strikes me as a rather inefficient way of going about it. And I think it’s at least partially a product of how people who don’t go to college are socially (and financially) marginalized. I really don’t think that we’re doing people who didn’t go to college any favors, in this regard, with all the talk about how everybody should go to college.Report

              • Also, to reiterate something: I am not attached to the notion that we should be sending less people to college. Or, at least, that our graduation rate should be lower than it is. Rather, I think the error is in the assumption that we should send more people to college. Or that our efforts to send more people to college has actually been a good strategy. I think it’s created more losers and winners, and I don’t think rising tuition is solely responsible for that.

                I don’t know what the appropriate number of college students is. If we’ve been hanging for a while at 40% of adults graduating from college, maybe that number actually is right. But then I would prefer we find something else to do with the other 60%.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Shazbot3 says:


                I think going to college used to be (going a few decades back) just as much of a priority as it is now.

                What has changed is that attending an elite college (where you get to be, not just middle class but upper, upper middle class) has become more and more of a priority.

                This is a consequence of the American dream, our lack of economic equality compared to Europe and Canada, the desire to buy our children advantages over other children, extreme desire to move up socially out of fear of how awful it is to be at the bottom of the social ladder here in the U.S.

                A somewhat more egaltiarian and socialist approach to higher education, as they have in lots of places, and as we had more of in the GI bill days and even into the 80’s, solves all these problems rather easily.

                Do what works and what worked here for a long time. Go pragmatist and for small tweeks to college not completely substituting it with something else.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                I… think we approach this from very different places.

                I agree with you that our current college system is bloated (come back tomorrow for my post on the subject). I don’t think the government footing the bill does much to address my larger concerns.

                I agree that in the last decade or two, eliteness has taken on a higher priority. But I am not so sure that the universal college goes back so far. At least, not with the sense of urgency that has come to exist since.

                I think we have different ideas of what’s not working about the status quo.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                Okay last post (having fun):

                1. I would say we should be sending more to college, but not so many more, and we should create a blended university/technical-training track for some. Slow increase and see how it goes. Baby steps. But maybe we aren’t so far apart.

                2. The alcohol thing is illustrative of our disagreement in general, I think. I knew a bunch of hard drinking guys who didn’t go to college. Do you mean to say that you think some of those guys were caused to drink by the fact that they were discriminated against (economically, socially, etc.) in some sense after they made the choice not to go to college?

                Because, and this is sort of anecdote or just basic belief about human nature, I am pretty sure those guys were hard drinkers long before and for a zillion causal reasons not having anything to do with anything post-college years or during college years. (Some of them even had really good paying jobs on rigs, making more than I ever have still, so it wasn’t low-income that depressed them into drinking.)

                Earlier in life they just weren’t ready to aim at self-improvement, the challenge of learning, etc. That lack of drive was what got them into alcohol. IMO, by pressuring them, succesfully, to going into college (maybe a slightly easier track or program that would be challenging for them) they might have turned things around, even if they’d gone into the same jons later in life.

                College won’t fix everyone and with certainty, but the goal-setting training that occurs there is a big deal in making healthier adults with more impulse-control, who are also better at a variety of tasks like writing and research, and are better educated as voters, politically, historically, and philosophically. Those are the main advantages of a college system implemented for as many people as possible, even one tweaked for more vocational training (with GE university courses, too) and to be less expensive (as in other places).Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                Honestly, I don’t expect that alcohol is affected that much one way or the other, outside of relatively narrow circumstances (the teetotaler who has suddenly gone off to college where the alcohol is free-flowing, someone in college or out of college falling into an alcohol-drenched crowd.

                On the rest… tune in tomorrow and we’ll see where we stand.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

            “A key component in all of this is more respect for those who take a different path. I don’t think we realize the ways in which we are disrespectful when we talk about what people should do.”

            Beyond college, we need to look at life paths!

            “Ewww, why do you want to go to vo-tech?”
            “I can be a mechanic in a year.”
            “Ewww, why do you want to be a mechanic?”

            The world needs mechanics. And it is not an easy job. There is nothing unworthy of respect about being a mechanic. But, somehow, we’ve reached a point where that is becoming a dominant viewpoint.

            “You don’t want to flip burgers all your life, do you?!?!”
            Well, flipping burgers is better than doing nothing, right? And intelligent, motivated burger flippers can soon become burger flipper managers and burger joint owners and onward and upward. Not all of them, but some.Report

            • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Kazzy says:

              I’d also say that while flipping burgers isn’t the hardest job in the world, there is a skill to it, especially when you’re in the middle of a rush, with 20 people in line, and the grill’s “cooling up.” Again, not the hardest job, but it’s harder than some people think.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

                Yea… unskilled labor is really extinct at this point. “Undercover Boss” often demonstrates this. You’ll have the CEO or COO of a company going out and doing lower-level work for the company. Sometimes, they’re even the founder or otherwise started out at the bottom and worked their way up. But because they haven’t been engaged in those skills for so long and/or the industry has evolved since they were, they’re all thumbs. They might be able to ultimately get the job done, but not with the speed, efficiency, and low error rate of the more seasoned employees. It’s really interesting to watch. The wrong takeaway would be that those jobs are harder than the CEOs; but we should realize that pretty much all jobs at this time require skill, especially in a down economy. And we should recognize and respect folks who master a craft and perform it well. There are “lower level” jobs out there than what I do that I *couldn’t* do, even with extensive training. Skills aren’t necessarily hierarchical. Being a good teacher doesn’t mean I’d be a great burger flipper, because they require entirely different skill sets. We forget all that.Report

              • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Kazzy says:

                One of my “postulates about life” is that most jobs are harder than they appear to people who have never done them, or at least have challenges that are not obvious to people who have never done them.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

      How much of this is because we view “college” as something monolithic?

      I think you’re on to something here. Shuffling more kids to technical institutes strikes me as a general good idea. Preferably something less expensive than DeVry. States have too few vocational schools, though some community colleges are picking up the slack.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

        All I know about DeVry is that I hear commercials on the radio and drive by one of their campuses. If there are better options, sub those in.

        Rather than “college”, perhaps we need to think more broadly about post-high school education. Though I think ND is on to something by examining things even before that.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

          Errr… Shazbot… not ND.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

          As an indicator of what I consider to be the problem, the DeVry Institute is now DeVry University. ITT Tech has increasingly moved towards actual degrees.

          There was a time when I was looking at trade school instead of college. A state institution I went through was asked “What if we end up wanting to get a degree?”

          The guy answered, “We have something worked out with that college over there. But honestly, if you want a four year degree, this isn’t the place for you. That college over there is. We’re the place for people who want to become masters at repairing plane engines in under a year and learn two or three such skills by the time you graduate from here after two years.”

          To some that seems short-sighted (I didn’t go there), but looking back I think that’s great.Report

          • Avatar Maribou in reply to Will Truman says:

            Yeah, you’re spot on about the problem of vo-tech moving toward actual degrees. A related problem is the vast undervaluing of concrete experience in the field vs. degrees.

            A decidely non-zero number of my friends went from high school to the army, or high school straight to work, in the IT field. Now, with the job losses in that field, they have trouble finding work despite their brilliant skill sets and winning personalities. Meanwhile, my (beloved) employer, in their wisdom, uses the bachelor’s-degree-required filter on most of their IT positions… and has trouble finding sufficiently deep & diverse hiring pools.


            • Avatar Pinky in reply to Maribou says:

              I don’t know if anyone’s brought this up yet, but corporate hiring processes – and the laws surrounding them – are the flip side of this discussion. HR has to be able to quantify the reason for hiring one person over another. Your company (and most companies) do this by setting a high academic bar. It reduces risk for the HR department, and the burden is felt outside HR, so they’re oblivious to it. Skill sets can’t easily be quantified, and personalities definitely can’t, so hiring according to them is too risky.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Pinky says:

                It was part of the post. It’s one of the big drivers here. We spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars so that we can save HR departments some time cutting down on the number of resumes they have to read.Report

              • Avatar Pinky in reply to Will Truman says:

                It’s not just a matter of time for them. It’s a matter of law. Heck, HR departments exist in the first place because companies can’t risk letting the supervisor make a decision on who’s best for the job.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Pinky says:

                Which brings up another thing… if the people who make decisions weren’t so flown with the idea of the economic value of a college education, would degree requirements pass EEOC disparate impact scrutiny?Report

              • Avatar Pinky in reply to Will Truman says:

                Well, I hate to be all word-gamey, but an employer has to discriminate somehow, or he’d be hiring everyone who applies. Our society is definitely academically-oriented, and we use academic accomplihsment as a proxy for ability. If we didn’t, we’d have to find some other proxy or – God forbid – trust businesses to make hiring decisions without lawyers looking over their shoulders.

                This leads me to something I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been reading this symposium: the myth that we can judge the quality of an education. Most professions have a half-dozen elite colleges whose departments have international reputations. For the most part, though, no one knows whether Duke or Purdue turns out better, say, accountants. People judge the non-elite schools on the basis of whether they’ve heard of them, and in most cases, that means they’re judging them on their NCAA basketball or football program. And that’s sick.

                I mean, were Boise State or George Mason the same quality schools ten years ago as they are now? Would it have mattered? I’d be that the average interviewer would have just nodded at the line on the resume that said “graduated”. Now, the interviewer would say, “Boise State, huh? Good school. Really good football team.”

                Of course, a well-known or highly-reputed school can have good or bad programs, and every program has good and bad professors (and plenty of bad TA’s). And the student could have been high for four years and had frat brothers who keep good notes. So even knowing which schools are good isn’t enough. But it’s really troubling that we don’t even know that, but probably think we do.Report

              • Pinky,

                I agree that there will be sorting mechanisms. I have an issue with the fact that one of the ones being used costs the applicant, their parents, or the taxpayer so much money.

                Less expensive mechanisms are tossed out in part due to disparate impact (testing), or a failure to maintain standards (IT certifications), but college degrees get a pass even though they arguably carry both problems. I don’t think it’s coincidental that they get a pass because the people who choose what gets a pass and what does not went to college.

                So weird that you mention those two schools. I almost mentioned them in my response to ND elsewhere, but deleted that comment. Seriously, those two schools. Weird.Report

              • Avatar Pinky in reply to Will Truman says:

                I know that testing has a bad reputation these days, but I’d like to see a standard-type GED given to all high school graduates. I’m generally a stark raving federalist, but this problem is so big that only the federal government can tackle it. Or maybe not: it could be that if one state guaranteed that its high school graduates were competent in basic math and English, it could be such a boon that other states would have to follow. The first state to implement it would have quite a fight on its hands, though.Report

          • “To some that seems short-sighted (I didn’t go there), but looking back I think that’s great.”

            It’s especially great because the rep you spoke with was honest. From what I’ve heard (I don’t have a cite), the admissions recruiters for places like DeVry, being for-profit, have strong incentives to shade the truth about the value of what they offer. I have a friend who worked briefly as a recruiter for a for-profit (not DeVry, and not a technical institute), and after a few months he resigned in disgust because of their unethical recruitment practices.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

        I’d be okay with that, but at the same time, technical schools need to teach abstract ideas, math, a bit of the western canon, a bit of ethics and politics to be better voters, critical thinking skills, writing skills (needed in vocations now often too), presentation skills, especially since they might want to move to management or a professional school later in life, and will need more than just the basics of their vocation.

        Students leaving vocational skills should not just have a job, they should have the practice of having thought things through on their own, research on their own, set theri own goals, etc.

        Ultimately, vocational schools should (and sometimes already do) look a lot like regular college, but with slightly different in focus.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Kazzy says:

      Kazzy, what I think Will meant was that American egalitarianism makes our educational do vocational at older ages and at a higher level than other educational systems. As I pointed out bellow, a lot of other countries have multi-tracked systems that try to separate the college bound and non-college bound sometime after Elementary school. Germany, the Netherlands, France, Austria, and host of European countries do this. Vocational training and apprenticeships are more common in those countries.

      Lets use being a chef as an example. In America, our culinary institutes are essentially colleges. You need to graduate high school in order to attend one of them. In other countries, culinary institutes would be vocational schools filled with teenagers of high school ages rather than people eighteen and over. After awhile, they would have an apprenticeship at a restaurant or in a bakery.

      What I think Will is proposing is a system where vocational training starts earlier like around high school age rather than latter. Something more like Europe.Report

      • Avatar trumwill in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Lee, we do vocational at older ages, but even there I don’t think we do enough. Instead advising college as a more universal path.

        That said, we are on a similar page as far as K-12 (or 9-12 anyway) as well. For those that are not college-bound, I think it would be great to give them a head start towards their career path.

        They are, in a way, two sides of the same coin (we don’t have as multi-track a system in K-12 in part because we want everybody to go to college).Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to trumwill says:

          I think that our education system is also way too decentralized to deal with a multi-track system. The countries with multi-track systems have centralized education systems where the types of schools and the curricula of each school is basically controlled by the national government with non input from the localities. We have enough divergence of educational curriculum and quality within school districts let alone nationally. A multi-track system requires imposing a degree of uniformity on the entire education system that Americans will simply find unacceptable.Report

          • Avatar trumwill in reply to LeeEsq says:

            Possibly so. On the other hand, our decentralization does give individual districts and schools leeway to experiment.

            Ultimately, though, I think the biggest roadblock is the culture. It runs against our grain.Report

            • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to trumwill says:

              Only if you could afford to experiment. With a centralized system, the money is distributed more or less equitably between the schools. Having a complex school system requires a lot of money because vocational education needs equipment. You’ll read kitchens for the future chefs, tools for the electricians, carpenters, and other craftsman, etc. Decentralization might give school systems the ability to experiment but most aren’t going to experiment this way.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Kazzy says:

      Kazzy, what I think Will meant was that in a lot of other countries this sort of vocational education starts around high school age. Many other countries, as BlaiseP pointed out, separate the university-bound and non-university bound sometime after elementary school. The people who aren’t university-bound are sent to various vocational programs and apprenticeships. Our vocational training takes place latter and is treated as a variety rather than alternative to college.

      In America, you need to be a high school grad to go to the various culinary institutes to become a chef or a baker. In Europe, you’d start your culinary education at high school age and probably have an apprenticeship at some restaurant early on. American egalitarianism forces the vocational training to happen much latter than it does elsewhere.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Not from what I’ve seen. High school has VoTech, at least where I grew up. And that was arts, and engineering, and horticulture.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Kimmi says:

          Some high schools in the United States offer vocational training but its not as geared to employment as their European equivalents and isn’t as in depth. The assumption is still that kids would go to college.Report

        • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Kimmi says:

          My high school largely got rid of votech because the overwhelming majority of kids were going to university and there was just not interest in the programs.Report

  6. Avatar Shazbot3 says:

    I think the way to think about requiring college and pressuring people to go to college is this.

    There was a time when the average productivity of human labor was very low. So, we had to structure our economy and culture to allow people to have very little time in their lives when they weren’t working fulltime, for example, in the fields or in a factory in order to maximize the production of needed goods and services. People worked nonstop from a very young age to a very old age and then died.

    However, we are now much more productive, (given our ability to make Terminators and whatnot) obviously, and there is a question about how we should structure society and the economy to encourage people to use their free time. I suppose we could be hardcore and demand that everyone keep working long hours from age 14-75, but that seems draconian to people in the present, even if it might result in more wealth that could be passed on to future generations. So, to balance the interests of present people with future people, we have decided to give ourselves more free time to not work full time at a young age and at an old age.

    In other words, we have decided to structure our laws, economy, and culture to encourage people to take more time in their childhood, teens, and 20’s not working (except maybe part time). And we have decided that a lot of that free time should be spent on pressuring or requiring people to be educated in history, science, literature, art. (And we have also structured society to allow for earlier retirement, both through SS and social pressure to pay a mortgage off before 65 and/or save for retirement.)

    One of the means we have of pressuring young people to be educated is to require college as a means of getting certain jobs and attaining a certain level of respect for achieving goals.

    Now, is this pressure to use our newly found free time on education a good thing?

    Well, there are some practical advantages to structuring society towards pressuring students to get more education, obviously, but we might be reaching the limit of those practical benefits soon, if we haven’t passed it years ago. If everyone gets 7 years of undergrad, say, and 3 years of graduate school, and people only work full time in their 30’s, it is not clear if this has practical economic advantages over a system with more pure leisure time and less education.

    However, the old-school conservative in me (get out of there Hobbes!) also thinks that a world that requires students (even those that struggle with it and don’t like it) to learn more about the classics and math and the canonical works of literature (along with whatever) is just intrinsically better than a world where everyone has more free time to watch TV and play WOW, which is what -we must be honest- people would do with 4 years of extra free time in their lives if they could get the same jobs that they do now without spending those 4 years on a college education.

    So more college is good, and good for most everyone. Says Shazbot, anyway.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      I actually agree that the change in the way we view late childhood is responsible for some of our gains. I am open to reforming K-12 to let more kids opt out, but there are certain things I don’t want to go back to.

      I think we reach a point of diminishing returns, though. It’s different for different people, but it starts before 22 for most. The four (or more) years we are in college can be spent not just working, but acquiring skills and knowledge on the job. If they were just going to spend the time watching TV and playing WOW, I’d be more inclined to agree with you.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Will Truman says:

        I think we disagree about human nature. I grew up with a lot of people (most of my friends back home, now that I think about it) who didn’t want to finish high school or go to college.

        Some didn’t do either. And of those friends who dropped out, some had a horrible lack of motivation in life. It’s not just that life treated them badly later because they had no degree or diploma. It’s that they had no will for self-improvement that would drive them to success (going back to school, working up a job ladder without school). I’m worried that my dropout friends needed more pressure from the small rural community (which sadly didn’t push them to succeed, IMO) that we grew up in.

        Maybe we could create a strong drive for self-improvement in young people without social and economic pressure to become educated or to achieve by graduating, but we would need to remake the culture, which conservatives rightly point out is difficult.

        IMO, there is a conservative argument for placing a high moral and social value on education, through high school and college (of some sort).Report

  7. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Perhaps we should answer this question…

    What is the point of going to college?

    If the point of going to college is A but my life path is aimed towards B… I shouldn’t go to college.


    If the point of going to State U is A and the point of going to State Tech is B and my life path is aimed towards B, I should only go to college if I’m going to State Tech.

    I guess this ties into my comment earlier so perhaps I’m sounding like a broken record. But so often I see conversations aimed at “fixing” our education system without ever actually identifying what the goal or purpose of the system is. If we don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish, how we can set about designing a system to accomplish it?Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

      And to me, if someone is going to college solely to have higher-paying career opportunities (at least in the general sense), chances are not bad they shouldn’t be going to college and instead should be going to a place more specifically devoted to imparting on them skills that will give them higher-paying career opportunities.

      This comes really close to including 18 year old me. Which is one of the things that gives me pause.Report

  8. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Excellent post, Trumwill. We seem to consistently agree on this and some closely related issues.

    I think what you describe here is a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma wrt education. Who dismantles first? There is strategic value in waiting even while your advocating.

    But even given that, I don’t think you should reflexively encourage your child into College, especially right out of highschool. As you say, lots of people aren’t cut out for it, and it’s a matter of temerment as much as intellectual abilities. There are plenty of fine ways to make a living that don’t require a Certificate. And lots of people – especially people who grow up being presented with lots of options and activities – aren’t cut out for the Corporate Drone world. They get antsy.

    But back to the post… I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jason’s post about signalling and getting trapped – individually, I mean! – by thinking the signal of X actually signals X. This is where cultural beliefs lag behind cultural reality, I think. Eg., the most successful kid on the family doesn’t have a college degree. And he’s lovin life. The other ones – with the STEM degrees? – not lovin life so much.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Stillwater says:

      Right on, Still. I happen to place a fair amount of value on my particular lifestyle and that of my peers. Which is good! Because it’s the lifestyle we chose. But what I consider great about it, a lot of other people would consider tedious. And vice-versa. I like the IT world well enough. I got a lot out of college. Others would consider one hell on earth and the other tedious.Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to Stillwater says:

      I agree that this was a really solid article. I’m eager to read the comments to it, but I just had to say that right off the bat. As to the dismantling of the current system, I’ve come to believe that the only way to do that is to restore the value of a high school diploma. The employer needs to have the confidence that a high school graduate can handle the job. That won’t solve the problem, but it’s a necessary first step.Report

  9. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    The French routinely sort out the academics from the worker bees starting around age 13, though the shunting yard won’t appear until about age 18. They quickly divide the students onto either the university track or several different technical school routes. The Germans do much the same.

    Our problem, as I’ve alluded to on a separate rant, is that the goals of “college” have widely so widely diverged from the needs of society, it’s almost impossible to point out what “college” means any more. Does it mean “prepared for the workplace”? That’s not really the goal of college and I don’t think it should be.

    The only possible way to prepare anyone for the workplace might be apprenticeships — but really, as there’s no manual for parenting, there’s no manual for the workplace. It’s not the sort of thing you can study up on, get prepared so hit the ground running. College ought to be where you grow up and become someone. It should be the happiest part of your life, where you are young and impressionable, where you’re in an environment where you’re being challenged to think and learn, among other such people.

    Now what I’d do, if I was in charge of the planet, would look like this: employers could deduct the cost of employee education from their taxes. The community colleges are already picking up the slack: employers are doing it anyway. Some of these two-year schools are turning out good coders and techs of many sorts. They’re teaching kids to write papers, get organised, do accounting — all the quotidian stuff of every sort of commerce — and if they’re not turning out scholars of the Merovingian Franks, they’re the runway for kids to get some air under their wings and in the air. Maybe they go on to four year schools. Maybe they go on for master’s degrees and doctorates. But a good two year school is the best shakedown cruise imaginable. Everyone should get at least two years of something like community college.

    You see, there’s a part of education which should never succumb to this Make a Buck sort of thinking. I want society to protect the scholars of the Merovingians. I want crews of qualified archaeologists to turn up when the bulldozers start digging. Scholars and artists ought to be the pride of a nation. Our descendants will curse us if we don’t protect them, make them viable as a species. We need long term thinking for life is more than work.

    Creating and funding a society of dreamers might seem to be a waste of time. Assorted frumpy Gradgrinds have been telling us so since time immemorial. Yet consider: video games are now a larger industry than Hollywood. It was a dreamer like Steve Jobs, a kid who just hung around campus, not even auditing classes, just sorta crashing them, who encountered a calligrapher. If his vision of beauty infected the world with the possibility of elegant computers and delightful devices, Steve wasn’t an engineer. A world without dreamers is broken. We are the stuff that dreams are made of, our greatest inventions the product of wildly impractical notions. If those notions are given life in technology, for every Steve Jobs there’s a Steve Wozniak, someone to make those dreams real. But even Woz didn’t finish up his degrees until 1986.

    I don’t encourage anyone to drop out of college, though many of the seminal figures in my industry did exactly that, including Bill Gates from Harvard. But let’s get a few things straight here: college isn’t going to get you a job. That’s not its purpose. College can only expose you to the faintest inklings of the centuries of hard-won wisdom which formed the academic world, a completely different animal than the workaday world. If you have any sense, you’ll make friends and have a great time and become someone. You’ll have the rest of your life to earn a pay check.

    College isn’t for everyone. I suppose it’s a bit late for folks who read this blog to be told, but academia doesn’t understand the workaday world. The shepherds have become the sheep. College costs far too much these days. It truly is a racket. Something’s going have to give and it won’t be the workaday world. First reform will be to make student loans dis-chargeable in bankruptcy. That will fix so much, right there: universities will immediately be brought into the real world and quit lying to themselves and everyone else about the suitability of their product. And what’s wrong with saying “Hey, if all you want out of life is a pay check, get a two year degree and decide after that. But if you want to become someone significant, you just might want to learn about Francis Bacon and maybe even Charles Martel.”Report

    • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Mother trucker, you write well.Report

    • Avatar Just Me in reply to BlaiseP says:


    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Nominate for comment rescue as a separate symposium entry, maybe a concluding “Ode to Dreams and Dreamers.”Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Great thoughts here, Blaise. But rather than join the chorus, I’m going to quibble with a few points…

      “College ought to be where you grow up and become someone. It should be the happiest part of your life, where you are young and impressionable, where you’re in an environment where you’re being challenged to think and learn, among other such people.”
      I would say that ideally the whole of one’s educational experience should be such. You’re probably going to have some lean years in there, probably towards the middle, but if you give kids the opportunity to meaningfully explore their passions as they begin to identify them (probably around the time they enter high school), we need not limit this ideal to college.

      “And what’s wrong with saying “Hey, if all you want out of life is a pay check, get a two year degree and decide after that. But if you want to become someone significant, you just might want to learn about Francis Bacon and maybe even Charles Martel.””

      I think the mindset behind this comment is something Will and some others have been exploring in the comments section, namely the idea that there is just one path to significance. Attaining a classical degree of significance might requiring knowing who Bacon or Martel are. But there are other ways of becoming significant in the world that need not require knowledge of those two fellows. It might not be as significant, but it certainly won’t be meaningless.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I don’t like the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs examples of successful people who dropped out of college.

      Both did but they were also men who had the luck to be born at the right place or the right time. Bill Gates also had connections. His dad was one of the top corporate lawyer’s in Seattle. His mom was on the Board for IBM. Steve Jobs also cultivated a mentor in one of Intel’s founders.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to NewDealer says:

        I went to very considerable trouble to make sure these Dropouts didn’t become Big Successes just because they dropped out. Yet it does seem fair to notice college isn’t preparing you for a job. Bill Gates had connections — and used them. Steve Jobs had connections — and used them. If you want connections in life, make friends in college.Report

    • Avatar Nathanael in reply to BlaiseP says:

      FWIW, you no longer need college to learn about… well, nearly any subject, with the exception of some lab subjects. Hooray for the Internet!

      We still need a system for funding researchers so that there are people around to teach the subjects and write about them. I’m not sure what’s currently known as “college” makes sense for that. Socrates had a different funding stream. So did Plato.Report

  10. Avatar Shazbot3 says:

    ” College costs far too much these days. It truly is a racket.”

    BTW, could someone point out in an OP that college doesn’t need to cost so damn much, never used to cost so damn much, and doesn’t cost so damn much in lots of places.

    The reason for the big costs and loans has the following roots:

    1. Administrative bloat. Too many deans and VP’s and even mid-level admin secretaries and outside consultants, most making serious 6 (or now 7) figure incomes, almost all completely unnecessary. Forty years ago, none of these positions existed.

    2. Bloated spending on campus facilities, campus services (fancy buildings that cost too much, career counseling, IT, local police forces, psych services). This is a huge item.

    3. Substantially reduced subsidies from the state for research (through subsidized in-state tuition) that the world benefits from while research budgets went way up in the battle for prestige. State governments used to subsidize colleges more and in exchange the schools did great research that benefited the country and the state. (Think Stanford and Berkeley and Silicon Valley.) That is, the state money went (okay, all money is fungible, but you get the point) to paying for research facilities and hours of labor that professors spent on research (of high and low value). But the state subsidies are way lower now, and much lower adjusted for inflation, and the research budgets have gone up a lot (a brief dip post 2007). This is a huge reason why college (even at a local state school or eve CC) has gone from being something people could afford out of pocket in the 80’s to something that requires large loans.

    We can make college education pretty cheap again by stopping the overspending on admin, fancy buildings and services, and restoring state funding or cutting research (the former is better in the long run) or both.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      BTW, could someone point out in an OP that college doesn’t need to cost so damn much,

      Shaz, my next post is about just that.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      All that, and very much more. Kissinger once said the reason why academic quarrels are so vicious is precisely because the stakes are so small. The Ivory Tower is chock full of nasty pedants and mean spirited little people, dominated by a class of the most useless and overpaid effetes since the court of the Sun King. Something about that struggle dehumanises otherwise decent folks. My old man was a college professor for a while, before he went off to become a book editor. Even he got a gut full of it. But while he was teaching, one of his best friends was a poet named Jack Leax, a man who would shape much of what I since became.

      The Ivory Tower can earn its own way in life, as it has for centuries. No sound, forward-thinking nation lets its Ivory Towers crumble. For all its failings, the USA still has the best educational system in the world, no thanks to the Administrative Bloat types. There’s a quick and effective way to clean out those Augean Stables, as there was when Hercules was set to that task: make the free market force them to justify their existence. The need for pure research has not gone away. Look at what’s arisen in places like Research Triangle Park: every effective university has just such surrounding institutions.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I sort of think the market for prestige in education is what has caused the problem in the first place. The solution is to be less market-like, not more market-like, as it is the solution in healthcare.

        But I will not dispute you, cause I just have a vague suspicion, not a real argument.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Shazbot5 says:

          The solution is to be less market-like, not more market-like, as it is the solution in healthcare.

          I sort of agree with this? The problem with college is information asymmetry. All over the place. More market-style solutions ain’t gonna help, there.

          There’s information asymmetry between the professor cadre and the administration (who is a good teacher, and who isn’t), information asymmetry between the recruiters and the potential students (about thirty blog posts in there, alone), information asymmetry between the students and the professors, blah, blah, blah.

          Almost all of this – all of it – is driven by the working marketplace’s insistence on a bachelor degree, which everyone agrees is a pretty horrible marker for potential workplace competency.

          Most people don’t want to go to college to learn, they want to go to college to get a job, or because it’s the next thing to do. Most colleges are torn between a desire to “get the best incoming students” and “produce the best educated graduates”, and those two goals are orthogonal more often than not, because all the markers for “best incoming students” suck.Report

          • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            I’d say the demand here in the U.S. is to buy the most prestigious s degree.

            You don’t see the same problems in college education elsewhere round the world where there is less of a distinction to get into the best school, which is a way for the rich to buy more advantages for their kids.

            This sets up a contest to make the mosy fancy prestigious university, or at least a university that looks that way. You want studenst with the best test scores and resumes, so you buy espensive shiny buildings and campus services to draw them in. Then fancy administrators bilk the system with the vague promise of making the university more able to compete for those students.

            The way forward is for the feds to say student loans won’tbe subsidized if you go to a school that has more than X (defined however) spent on things other than instruction. That is, the governmet should force the big state schools to stop wasting money in the competition for prestige and the fancy things to draw the best students and administrtion. And state gov.s should restore funding in exchange for schools showing their spending isn’t increasin too quickly.

            NB: lots of countries keep college’s spending lowe and tuition more subsidized.

            We used to too and we can do so again.

            There is no need for a radical solution that fundamentally alters college education.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Shazbot5 says:

              The way forward is for the feds to say student loans won’t be subsidized if you go to a school that has more than X (defined however) spent on things other than instruction.

              Yes, but… well, this is a red tape mess. Research counts as instruction, and buying a capital piece of equipment can be as expensive as a new athletic facility.

              But I agree, the biggest source of cost inflation at the university level is the feds injection of money into the system without putting any limits on what qualifies as acceptable overhead.

              Donors give fat checks to build fancy instructional buildings, not upgrade the campus chilled water plant. Nobody donates money to upgrade the campus chilled water plant. It’s gotta be upgraded. Capital expenditure. Take the money out of the endowment? Have to pay it back. Now you’ve got a depreciating asset and an operational cost, hey, that’s overhead. We can lump that together and charge it to an NSF grant.

              College funding is creative bucket filling using other buckets with limiting pouring rules into other buckets. You want to reduce administrative costs, you need to cut down on the rules about which buckets can be poured where.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                We sort of disagree.

                IMO, parents are willing to spend nearly infinite sums to buy a leg up for their children. That means near-infinite demand for the best education. (The problem is analgous to the near infinite demand for healthcare.) Colleges see this and compete for the cash they are willing to drop. Each administrator isn’t evil; they just want to make their college the best. (This competition amongst non-profits is common and sometimes problematic, but not always.) That competition means you want the best evaluation of US News and Crappy Publication. But to get that, you have to get the best students coming in with the highest GPAs and have the fanciest services, the most beautiful campus, and the most prestigious professors.

                Thus, the spending battle begins between administrators. U of Middle Class bought a fancy new library, so U of Yuppies has to buy an even bigger one to be more elite. U of Farm-Kids needs to buy something to catch up, which causes U of Middle Class to try to outcompete U of Farm-Kids even more.

                This would happen, IMO, even without federal subsidies for education. (Though maybe not as bad.)

                In order to stop it, the government has to step in and actively stop a large number of the universities from entering the prestige competition by saying “These state universities will be solid educationally, but pretty bland in terms of the campus and the services and the admin-spending, and they will research only X amount, but they will be easily affordable for pretty much everyone who has a job. You can go to a fancier private school, but these state schools will not participate in the battle for prestige.”

                That calms the parents who then realize their kid will be fine without the most prestigious university, even if there are some prestigious places you could go if the kid had some special talent.

                This is how it works in lots of other first-world nations. Most of the colleges are pretty equal in prestige and all offer a good education. The students don’t have nightmares about getting into the best. And there may be a school or two that is a little more elite, but nobody really cares that much.

                The only question is how should governments stomp on admins at state schools to get them to cut costs and quit battling for prestige. It has to be done to all the state schools at once because each school sees the other schools as a threat. I’d say offering more money (back to 80’s levels, adjusted for inflation) in exchange for budgets that meet certain spending requirments.

                IIRC, Obama had a similar plan at some point.Report

              • Avatar trumwill mobile in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                The way I see it, the role the government plays in tuition inflation is not the primary subsidy but the guaranteed loans that make consumers more price insensitive. Basically enabling the schools to do what they do (and our ideas on what they’re doing and why is identical. Doing away with these loans would create an undue burden on a lot of kids that should go to college and that we want to go to college, though. So I think we have to fine another way. Hence my next post on the subject.Report

              • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to trumwill mobile says:

                Is not the price insensitivity more to do with how our society treats those without college degrees?

                Massively less money over a lifetime, less respect, and massively higher unemployment. Given trends in automation education is going to keep being a safer bet.


                Look at the stats for last Oct.

                I don’t think trying to send so many people to college is the problem. I think the problem is the level of economic pain that gets put on those that don’t.Report

              • Is not the price insensitivity more to do with how our society treats those without college degrees?

                They feed into one another.

                Given trends in automation education is going to keep being a safer bet.

                Sure, which is why I will encourage my children to go to college, whether I actually think they are good college material or not. But there is an element of zero-sum that sending more kids to college doesn’t really help and may actually make worse.

                I don’t think trying to send so many people to college is the problem. I think the problem is the level of economic pain that gets put on those that don’t.

                I don’t think the latter is entirely unrelated to the former. The more people who go to college, the greater the economic segregation between those who do go to college and those who don’t.

                The more people who go to college, the harder it will be for those who don’t go to college.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

                I sort of think pirate-guy is right.

                It is possible to have inexpensive college, lest prestige difference between the different colleges, and a better standard of living (through subisidies or minimum wage) for the lower classes who don’t go to college (or do go and still struggle).

                That is sort of what Canada and lots of countries aim at doing. We used to do better at that too.Report

              • Shaz, I’m not saying otherwise. Just saying that the guaranteed loans are a critical part of what got us here. It has acted as an enabler. We don’t have to do away with loans, because there may be other ways to tackle the problem, but they are significant.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

                I would say the guaranteed loans don’t make much of a difference at all, except at the margins. The problem is that:

                1. There is a battle for prestige amongst administrators of even public schools that have forgotten that there primary responsiblity is to provide a cheap education.


                2. States have stopped funding schools at previous levels because a desire to lower taxes and problems funding prisons, etc.

                You can have widespread education without the prestige battle.Report

              • #1 couldn’t have happened if not for the fact that they knew students could get loans as needed. Raise the price too much, people wouldn’t be able to afford to go. The loans short-circuited that.Report

              • Avatar NewDealer in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

                Of course automation and computer programing and off-shoring are also starting to go after jobs that used to require college and advanced degrees.

                You used to require paralegals and lawyers to review evidence. Now you can have a computer program do it faster and cheaper by typing in key terms. A human eye needs to review the computer’s results but a lot of first-tier review is now done by computers. I know automation is going after other fields as well. How many people use Turbotax instead of hiring someone to do their taxes? How much computer programming is off-shored to Asia and Eastern Europe?

                I think we are in for a very interesting and bumpy ride over the next few decades.Report

              • Avatar Nathanael in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

                Actually, we do have to do away with the loans. We absolutely have to get rid of them.

                A system of grants would be fine. The loans are an unmitigated social disaster.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to trumwill mobile says:

                This wouldn’t explain why countries with far bigger gov’t subsidies often keep costs lower, as was the case in the not-too-distant-past in the U.S.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                Other countries’ schools don’t have the incentives that ours do. I’m not saying subsidy is the incentive. Merely that it enables our universities to indulge the incentives. If students couldn’t get such large loans guaranteed, then schools would have to look for ways to save the students’ money. But right now, they don’t.

                There’s more than one way to tackle this problem (we may favor different solutions, but we’re probably not as far apart on this as you might thing – tune in tomorrow), but the loans are a critical component.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            While I do agree there’s information asymmetry, the classic solution to that problem is marketing.

            “So, boys ‘n girls, here’s a map of the world. You’ve seen it since you were a little kid. Many of you can even find your own home town on it. A few more can find Iraq and Afghanistan on it. That’s how most people learn geography, from the war reporting. But I digress. But to make that map, thousands of human beings had to go exploring, slowly building up those maps until finally we could get into space and take pictures of the whole thing. Quite a story behind that map.

            Now here’s why you ought to think about college instead of running out and getting a damned job right away. If you have a college degree, you will earn twice as much and usually more than someone who didn’t finish college.

            In this stupid world of ours, people will look for you to have a degree in something. This proves to them you have the brains and stamina to stick to something for four years. But more importantly, think of education as this enormous map. Like the map of the world, it’s taken thousands of years to build up this map and what’s more, it’s being added to all the time.

            You’re not going to learn everything but parts of it are clearly more interesting than others. Everyone finds some wonderful place on that map they’d like to learn about. But you won’t know until you start looking for yourself.

            Most people who’ve lived have never seen a map of the world. And most people never got much of an education. Most people lived and died within fifty miles of where they were born. Those people might not see any practical advantage to a map of the world. And for those of you who aren’t planning on going to New Guinea, it might seem quite useless to tell you it’s there somewhat north of Australia. And there would be no arguing with you.

            When you first go to college, you think you know a great deal about life. When you leave college, if it’s done any good, you will realise how much you don’t know. Education is hard work and it will make you feel dumb all over — but you will know what you don’t know, which is a damned sight more useful a position than going through life thinking you know everything you have to know.

            College is great. The best four years of your life, coming to terms with everything there is to know, wading around in this ocean of knowledge. But we can teach you to swim in it, learn to build a ship so you can sail around for the rest of your life, learning more things.

            You’ll only live, what, ninety years maybe? What’s four years in the larger scheme of things, if the statistics say you’ll earn twice as much money as those who don’t go to college? This isn’t about getting a damned job. This is about becoming someone. It’s a very big map and you are on it, somewhere.Report

            • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to BlaiseP says:

              It seems to me that we don’t put much pre-college effort into creating philosophically aware people.

              Then we judge the people we didn’t expose to philosophy for being un-enlightened…Report

            • Avatar Nathanael in reply to BlaiseP says:

              This was supposed to happen in HIGH SCHOOL.

              Back in the days (19th century) when not everyone attended high school, and when it was an accomplishment.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      I agree with the bloat

      The second stuff is harder. A lot of colleges are a bit more fancy with gyms and cool dorms. They used to be more spartan but IT is necessary (unless you want everyone to go back to card catalogues and typewriters), psych services and career counseling are also nice. The local police services are a probably damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.

      Someone in another thread mentioned that there are many more high schoolers now going to college than when I went in the late 1990s. This means colleges need to compete for the best students somehow. Fancy stuff seems to be the way.

      Some prestigious universities always had fancy stuff though.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      Though I will say one thing that also seems to have happened is the disappearance of the local, commuting university.

      My law school is connected to a Jesuit university. For most of the universities history, the school provided a decent to good education for local Bay Area people of modest means. Usually Roman Catholic, usually the first person in their college to attend university. The student might have lived on campus but probably lived at home. The room and board was Spartan.

      The law school used to also just be a decent, regional law school that did not try to compete but still ended up providing most small and medium sized firms in the Bay Area with lawyers. Also most government lawyers in the Bay Area.

      Now because the Bay Area is super-desirable, the law school needs to compete with Stanford, Berkeley, and the big schools in the East and Midwest.

      The undergrad morphed from being for local kids to having a reputation for serving rich underachievers.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        I think that’s partially true.

        There are a ton of local, commuting universities. The Big East and Conference USA are full of them, and that’s the higher-profile examples. For every one of them, there’s a University of New Orleans or University of Texas at Arlington.

        What there is a lack of, though, are the spartan accommodations you refer to because there is a lack of commuter schools that want to stay commuter schools. They all want to be the next UCLA. So they’re ramping up accommodations, starting football programs (Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Texas-San Antonio, Charlotte…), beefing up dorms, and so on. Moving themselves outside an ideal price range for the people they have historically served.Report

  11. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I agree with you Will. A lot of other countries have relatively complex multi-track education systems that try to sort the college bound from the non-college bound. Vocational training and apprenticeships still play an important part in those systems. America never really had a system like this. Certain school districts and schools were more successful at getting kids into college than others but the goal was always theoretically sending kids to college. I think part of this is our egalitarianism. The other part is that America is that American educational system is too decentralized to handle a more multi-tracked system. To really run a multi-track system, there needs to be conformity among school types and the curriculum in the schools.Report

  12. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    You want to know how to change college culture radically within a decade?

    Get the presidents of four Ivy League colleges together in a room. It will only take four.

    Get them to agree to change their admissions process such that they will accept no applicant who graduated from high school the previous academic year as an incoming freshman.

    I’m not a big fan of German pre-sorting. It becomes too much the self-fulfilling prophecy.

    However, I’m an enormous fan of gap or transition years, and all of the counterarguments aren’t really compelling.Report

    • Interesting idea. Too bad there’s not a symposium about higher education going on, or else you’d have a good forum to flesh it out… 🙂Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      If they added a one year gap between high-school and college then too many students would go directly to the NBA and not get any higher education at all.

      But seriously, unless many other institutions followed suit, those other institutions would serve as “pre-Harvard” or “pre-Yale” and all the high-school competition would be aimed at getting into the universities with the best track record of placing students in the top Ivy League schools.

      If this is going to happen, perhaps the Ivy league should look upon transfer students just as favorably as high-school freshmen, treating other colleges as their farm league where students prove their academic worth. This would create tiered class sizes at the elites, with juniors and seniors outnumbering freshman and sophomores, much like state schools with two-year colleges in their system. It should save money, do a better job of sorting, and allow the elites to focus more on the upper level classes instead of things like Spanish I.Report

      • There’s an economics thing, there. The prestige of the university is sort of coupled with the four years bit. Some people take a year somewhere else now, but it isn’t common.

        If the Ivies did it and actually stuck to it, you’d see it start to trickle out, I’d think. Unlike Temple or USC where people will just go to their next choice school, maybe… somebody who really wants to go to Harvard will take a year off (especially if what you do with your year off is a big part of your admissions criteria). Places who compete for people who don’t get into an Ivy (and that’s everybody who isn’t Caltech or MIT, who are sort of a different breed of cat) will start accepting students who have taken a year, when they pick up the students that don’t get into their first choice.

        Even if it’s wrong (and it’s experimental and disruptive, so the outcomes are of course are not predicable with confidence), I’m hard pressed to imagine a scenario that is worse than what we have now.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          Wouldn’t this make the Ivies more elite by reservi g them for kids who could afford a year off and do something spectacular with it. If what you do in the gap year counts, it will hurt a lot of qualifying poor kids because they will probably choose to getting a paying job of some sort rather than the things that look good. I can see this system devolving the same problems as internships.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to LeeEsq says:

            I don’t know about you, but a kid from the sticks who got a job at McDonald’s and went from fry cook to shift supervisor would probably have at least as many interesting things to say to me, as an admissions officer, as a kid who took Daddy’s gold card and did a year tour of Indo-European ruins.

            In fact, I think it would be a lot easier to pick out the pretenders from the second crowd than the first.

            Maybe that’s just me.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

        Well, some snags in the proposal would have to be ironed out. If students are getting their acceptance letters from all the other colleges during their senior year but Harvard and Yale wait a year before even considering them, it’s as if the letter of acceptance or rejection got lost in the mail. Almost all students would just go somewhere else instead of placing their bets on the 5 or 10% chance they would make it into one of the few Ivy’s. If they did sit out a year and didn’t get into an Ivy they’d have to explain to some other admissions office that they weren’t just drinking with their friends for a year, they were actually waiting to get into Harvard. Since lots of people who skipped a year to go drinking with their friends will make that claim, it’ll probably not carry much weight. I’m not sure of a way around this problem, because accepting or rejecting students and then making them sit out a year really doesn’t change much from the current system.

        A different avenue that might work is to more finely distinguish between different difficulties of coursework, similar to some fields where an BS is somewhat more challenging than an BA. In our current system the degrees all have almost equal weight, so the way we distinguish the difficulty is by institution. If kids who want to bear an elite mark had another way to do so then perhaps they’d quit focusing so much on the particular university. One option would be to offer Ivy League level coursework and difficulty within a non-Ivy league school, somehow either tying the program and degree to one of the Ivy’s (almost like franchising) or coining a new name, perhaps after some particularly wealthy benefactor. However this wouldn’t do anything to compensate for the elite school’s upper-tier circle of friends.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to George Turner says:

          However this wouldn’t do anything to compensate for the elite school’s upper-tier circle of friends.

          I’m not sure exactly what you mean here, but if it’s what I think you mean, then … well, that’s probably the main reason people attend Ivy League schools, and why those schools will continue to be so desirable. It’s very rare that someone will talk about their experience at an Ivy in purely academic terms. It’s almost always accompanied by a statement about the “connections” that emerged from attending that school. That’s the distinguishing value of those institutions, it seems to me. And it’s a purely culturally established one – at that level, mind.Report

    • Pat,

      I think “the year in the real world” idea wouldn’t necessarily work for a lot of people. It would have been a lot harder for me, for a lot of reasons, if I couldn’t have gone straight to college after high school. I’m not saying your idea is necessarily a bad one, but for me, it was kind of a “go now or go never” situation.Report

  13. Avatar Barry says:

    Will Truman: “The economic melt-down of the latter part of last decade demonstrated that college isn’t even enough, ultimately. ”

    This was a generational catastrophe (exceeding the early 80’s Volcker strangling of the economy by a long ways), which was only prevented from being a second Great Depression because they knew what to do to mitigate an absolute crash. Then, of course, the M-F-ing Tea Party and Austerians have worked very hard at trashing the recovery.

    In such an environment, many people are going to suffer. I imagine that graduating with a college degree in the 1930’s was not a promise of a job, either, even given the scarcity of the college grads in the economy back then.Report

  14. Avatar Michelle Togut says:

    Will, I don’t have time to go through the comments right now, but I just wanted to say great piece. We need viable alternatives to college for those who aren’t really suited or have no desire to go. It probably needs to start on the high school level. High school, in many ways, has become a giant holding pen until students either drop out, graduate, or go to college.Report

    • Avatar Johanna in reply to Michelle Togut says:

      That is changing though. In Michigan we have an Intermediate School District which functions in providing services and educational opportunities outside and in conjunction with the school districts. They provide special education and non-traditional educational opportunities. They have pre-professional programs with articulation agreements with local 2 year colleges and technical/training schools. It serves a good role in particular for students not interested in the traditional 4 year college route. It also offers study into fields where training is necessary but a college degree isn’t necessary to start.Report

    • We need viable alternatives to college for those who aren’t really suited or have no desire to go.

      The important word here is “viable”, particularly in the sense of pay and benefits. To paraphrase one of my state’s legislators when she lost it during a committee hearing on legislation whose purpose was to attract more jobs to the state. Speaking to one of the business people that was testifying: “Stop telling me about minimum wage jobs! The state loses money on every full-time minimum wage job you bring in!”

      I remember chatting with the man putting new flooring in a portion of my house while we worked — his normal helper was ill so I was the extra pair of hands needed at various points — and he said that he would never tell his son to go into the business. He said that there were already more installers — and implied this was true of other craft trades — than there was business to support. And that once you took into account the cost of equipment, time off for training in new products, both sides of the payroll taxes, slack times, accounting services, buying health insurance in the open market, and so forth, it was difficult to save and get ahead of the expenses.Report

      • Sending more kids to college doesn’t really fix that, though. Arguably, minimum wage jobs do a better job. They may be a drag on the economy, but most people who work minimum wage jobs don’t stay at minimum wage. Those who do… well college isn’t going to fix that at all.Report

        • Not sending them doesn’t fix it either, except in the sense that a flooring installer that skips college doesn’t incur student debt, and starts earning sooner. Or even the minimum-wage burger flipper. Something seems to be fundamentally broken with the system (and not just education).

          Purchasing power for goods and services that the vast majority of workers are capable of producing seems to be leaking out of the system. Some of it seems to be leaking out through automation: the milling machine that cuts six times what a human precision machinist can doesn’t buy much, and the operator doesn’t get six times what a traditional machinist earns. Some of it seems to be leaking out through offshoring: much of the money that buys, say, oil from the Middle East comes back to buy financial instruments that most of us can’t produce. Some of it seems to be leaking out through increased income going to the top 0.1%: like the Middle East, the goods they are buying are financial instruments.

          Econ 101 ain’t going to fix it, either. Econ 101 says, “Well, everyone should just quit installing floors or practicing law or programming computers and make financial instruments instead.” Except it’s a closed club, and they’re not going to let you or me in.

          Sorry, I seem to be grumpy this afternoon.Report

          • Avatar Nathanael in reply to Michael Cain says:

            This is an excellent analysis of what’s wrong with the economy.
            The solutions are simple. Redistributive taxation and solar power. They are hard to implement because of the political problem of countering propaganda by the 0.1% and the oil companies.

            – The money “lost” through automation goes to one of three places: customers (good), the stockholders or executives (bad). In the latter case, it’s money taken by the 0.1%.
            – For the money going to the 0.1%, take the money away from the 0.1% and return it to the bottom of the system. This is done by high income taxes and estate taxes, and by programs which give money on a per capita basis to everyone, or which build useful things by employing lots of people.
            – The money leaking out to buy oil goes to the 0.1% — admittedly the *foreign* 0.1%. Solution, stop letting it leak out: take the economy off of oil and put it on solar power.

            Don’t apologize; you’ve correctly analyzed the entire US economy. The core problems are inequality and dependence on oil.Report

  15. Kazzy, down here!

    Couldn’t someone move to the big city, get a job and an apartment, take out a credit card, live with some friends, and find their path that way? Sure, they may go into the hole a bit, but it is unlikely that they do so to the tune of $150K over 4 years.

    In theory, yes. As Will points out, though, for most people this is just unrealistic. But beyond that, it’s probably not all that much better for our purposes than just staying put. In this scenario, you’re just moving to one new place – a place that you know nothing about, without any skills, contacts, or connections whatsoever, effectively no different from an early 20th century Italian immigrant without the language barrier, but with the ability to call it quits the second it gets hard. Moving with friends? How are you going to encounter new perspectives in a meaningful way that will give you a broader sense of the world? This is a recipe for setting yourself up for failure, and learning nothing about the outside world whilst simultaneously confirming your prejudices. For some people, it may work; for most, though, it won’t.

    But, as I just said to Shaz, I think the problem here is definition. I’m all for encouraging people to go the “college” route that people are describing they’d like to see; but I don’t believe we should be putting pressure on people to go the “College” route that currently exists.

    On this, I agree, actually, and I’ve been quite outspoken over the years that the insistence that “college” should be nothing but a hyper-expensive form of vocational training is nothing short of a travesty.

    But here is a question:

    If someone never leaves Podunk, North Dakota and carves out a very happy little life their because he didn’t really know anything else was possible… what is the harm done? The risk that the army kid ran… what is it exactly?

    If they’re genuinely happy, none whatsoever, and no doubt there are people who are in fact genuinely happy. But the reality is that there are also no shortage of folks like the two brothers in my little anecdote who will insist that they’re happy – and maybe even believe it! – despite really being miserable because they’ve got no clue what happiness even really means. No one’s saying – to my knowledge – that college should be made mandatory as a matter of policy. But Shaz has convinced me that there’s good reason that it – or at least a particular form of it – should be socially encouraged and preferred.Report

    • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Mark Thompson says:


      Socially encouraging and pressuring people into some form of college is a good thing and maybe close to necessary, in that it is not clear what we could, plausibly, replace that pressure with that would perform the same role.

      Perhaps the trickier question is what percentage of people should go to college in the 18-24 year old range (maybe some go back to school later, like Rodney Dangerfield in the greatest movie ever). I have no idea how to answer that question.

      The data suggests that currently the U.S. is sort of in the middle of the pack, but close enough to the lead, of other wealthy countries for percentage of people with college degrees that we don’t have anything to worry about.

      Generally, though, as countries get wealthier (and debt scare mongering aside, we are getting richer all the time, except for that blip in 2007-08) they send more of their kids to tertiary schools, for all sorts of obvious reasons, so the number should (I’d say slow growth here going forward is a good thing and has been good in lots of countries over the last number of decades) continue to go up gradually.

      I think the cost problem is solvable independent of other changes. The alcohol and college connection is a myth; the kids in and out of college drink problematically.Report

  16. Avatar Will Truman says:

    Mark, down here! … overly long answer down here.

    I am not sure if what you say is correct. I suspect that the “urban” west is more educated than the rural west. But, I would agree with what I think is your broader point, which is that there is a lot of daylight between the two. If what I suspect about the west is true (and it may not be, it’s certainly not true where I happen to live), the difference is much, much less substantial. Ruralia out here seems a lot less dysfunctional. I would expect that North Dakota is more like Arapaho in this regard than it is like Appalachia.

    I think at least part of the reason is that there is a lot less self-sorting going on here. Back home, there is almost always a nearish city to move to if you want to get out of Dodge. Here, the nearest “city” is more likely to be analogous to Twin Falls than Denver. So a lot of people stay in Dodge, and consequently bring up Dodge’s numbers. Some relatively small places in Idaho and Montana have impressive college graduate rates (Sandpoint, ID 23%, Ennis, MT 30%) that I think are harder to find in the south. I’d expect Appalachia to be more like the South and the Dakotas to be more like here, though I’m guessing on that.

    But a lot of this relates, as much as anything, to who leaves and who doesn’t. The “city” nearest to us (“Redstone”) has poor measurements across the board (low college degree rates, high rates of government support, I’d imagine not-good obesity rates) because everybody with ambition leaves. Whatever else I will say about it, the town where I live has a 30% graduate rate, and I bet better measurements in the overall.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to Will Truman says:

      “because everybody with ambition leaves. ” I wonder if a little bit of that has to do with the long history of people being nomadic in the West. Moving all over the place to chase a job or a better place has a long tradition there. In the south moving away means loss of a lot of social capital and being more of an outsider in your new place. In the west not so much. Some places in the west, like ak, it is far more common to be from somewhere else than not. There is little of the “you are new here, so get in back of the line” stuff and social networks are very fluid.Report

  17. Avatar Nathanael says:

    The problem is in the HR departments, which are using degrees as a signifier and then complaining that they can’t find pre-manufactured perfectly-qualified employees who will work for peanuts.

    The problem will be solved on the employer end. I’m not sure how, but since that is the source of the problem *and* the credentialism is objectively damaging to the businesses of the employers, that’s where it’s gonna be solved.Report