Who is College For?

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  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Man oh man, there is something about Megan McArdle that turns too many liberals into David Barton.

    As I suggested (but did not outright say) in the threads of GC’s post, I think if you’re going to take on and refute McArdle’s argument your first responsibility is to understand what that argument is. This…

    She is not the first and she will not be the last people to accuse liberals and the Democratic Party of being snobs for wanting to make college more affordable and universal.

    … is not what McArdle is saying. At all.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      It’s also, FTR, not what Santorum or Palin are arguing.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        IIRC Santorum made the accusation about Obama being snobby in 2012 when Obama broached a similar idea about making community college, trade, or vocational school the universal norm.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I would suggest that the snobbery debate is pretty much entirely beside the point. Are many Liberals snobbish about those that lack a bachelor’s degree? Maybe! Does that effect the merits of attempts to make access to higher education less dependent upon socioeconomic status? Not as far as I can tell.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Saul, You are not understanding the accusation.

        Santorum (and Palin, and McArdle) are not calling you a snob because you advocate people being able to go to college. The call are you a snob because you look down you nose at people who have not gone.

        These are two very different things. And while I think one can still rebut their actual beef, one can’t do so by pretending they are arguing something that they aren’t. Worse, it’s the kind of thing that reenforces not conservative *and* independent’s concerns that liberals just don’t get “real” Americans.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Me personally or liberals in general?

        This seems to be how the debate goes or how I hear it going:

        Obama or other Liberals: We need to get more people to graduate from community college because today’s manufacturing jobs require more advanced skills than the manufacturing jobs of the past. Democratic politicians or pundits pull out a bunch of statistics and information.

        Santorum and Palin: Liberals are snobs for wanting people to go to college.

        There are probably stereotypical liberals who do look down and patronize people for not being college educated but I think you are falling into a fallacy of vastly overestimating how big this group is and I absolutely think that Santorum and Palin are blowing it out of proportion for red meat purposes.

        This seems to be a can’t win issue for liberals. When I critiqued Slate for blasting Mario Cuomo about not making upstate New Yorkers prepared for Wall Street jobs, my comment was about the static number of Wall Street jobs and questioning how many upstate New Yorkers would benefit or be able to compete. People blasted me for wanting to go back to the old days when the U.S. did do a lot of unskilled manufacturing and saying that it was a pipe dream. But when liberals say “Those old manufacturing jobs are not coming back but we have plenty of manufacturing jobs that require just a little more education”, we become sneering snobs and are looking down at people without college degrees.

        You can’t have it both ways and Obama’s plan seems to skew closer to the reality of situation than anything McArdle, Santorum, or Palin have to offer. The snob argument is a liberal strawman.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @saul-degraw “There are probably stereotypical liberals who do look down and patronize people for not being college educated but I think you are falling into a fallacy of vastly overestimating how big this group is and I absolutely think that Santorum and Palin are blowing it out of proportion for red meat purposes.”

        I agree that Palin and Santorum are using it for their own purposes, and that they use it as a divisive wedge for their own gain. But they didn’t create people’s perceptions out of thin air, and those perceptions in turn didn’t occur in a vacuum.

        Take two random dudes:

        Random Dude #1 (RD1) is a guy who graduated from Harvard, is 45 years old, works as an attorney (or banker, or stock guy — I’m not choosey here), lives in a big house, has lots of fancy cars and other status toys, and clears about $600K year.

        Random Dude #2 (RD2) is a guy who dropped out of college after one year, worked in the construction industry, and now owns a large construction business that specializes in roofing. (Or GC work, or excavation — I’m not choosey here), lives in a big house, has lots of fancy cars and other status toys, and clears about $600K year.

        Both RD1 and RD1 live on the same block in your town.

        I submit to you that a key cultural difference in Cons and Libs in the US is that one of those two groups signals that they see RD1 as more legitimately and deservedly successful than RD2. Even if they don’t really mean to signal this, they do. In fact, I would submit that even if you don’t mean to do so, Saul, you unintentionally signal this quite loudly.

        *That’s* the kind of snobbery that people who didn’t go to college — especially whites — tend to dislike about liberals, and that’s one of the reasons why people like Palin and Santorum make such easy hay out of the idea that liberals are elitist snobs.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        While neither RD1 nor RD2 can compare to the accomplishments of R2-D2Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        *That’s* the kind of snobbery that people who didn’t go to college — especially whites — tend to dislike about liberals,

        Also that we used to spit on Vietnam veterans.

        Seriously, where does this stuff come from? If you’ve ever heard liberals talk about the financial meltdown of 2008, you might have noticed that financial types and their mouthpieces are not our favorite guys.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        Perhaps a simpler way of making this argument is thus:

        If your general argument in favor of education can be boiled down to, “You don’t want to be flipping burgers your whole life, do you?” than you probably have some snobbery baked in there somewhere.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Mike Schilling,

        That may be true for the liberals you know. The liberals I know? Lots of snobbery. Like, insufferable levels of snobbery. From cars to retirement packages to vacation destinations to house size and location to education (for adults AND kids!!) to types of food eaten to … well, the list is endless, actually.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        I don’t disagree, but I do think the “I’m better than thou” or “Thou does it wrong” mentality is not unique to liberals. If I had to boil it down to bumper sticker speak, I’d say that liberals skew towards a “You’re not doing it well enough” mentality while conservatives skew towards a “You’re not doing it real enough” mentality.

        What is funny is when these two mentalities circle around and crash into one another. For instance, the whole farm-to-table food movement — ever popular among liberal elites — is still rooted in a rural aesthetic — long the domain of conservative man-of-the-people types. Hey libs, just because you’ve got some kale on your plate, don’t think you aren’t eating peasant food. And cons, just because they’ve got some kale on their plates, don’t assume everything about the meal is hoity.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        There’s nothing wrong with flipping burgers for a living if you don’t mind your wife and daughter having men’s voices.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        I hear ya, but personally, I’m not that interested in a BSDI argument since the worst kind of snobbery is the “I’m a successful liberal so I’m better than you!” type, and playing the both sides game just reinforces the trivial nonsense upon which the whole dynamic is based.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        Wow. I don’t know anyone like that. Which is great, because I couldn’t stand to be around anyone like that.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @kazzy I think it is simpler than that… Liberals and Conservatives just differ on the Thou and the It.

        As a purveyor of genuine grassfed down-home-hippie-chic food, my conservative buyers complain about the price, while my liberal ones complain about the hassle. I’ve actually gone so far as to make a spreadsheet to see if I could pay my poor conservative customers in food to deliver to my rich liberal ones… I think if I could get a PEW Grant to cover the spread I just might be on to something.

        On the original topic, my first read of McArdle also had a simple interpretation… the poor already get free community college through existing subsidies and the middle class who wouldn’t qualify for existing subsidies won’t go to community colleges anyway… so, for whom is this being done and what distortions in an already affordable system will we create?

        If there’s a sub-argument to be made, I think one could suggest that trying to make Community Colleges respectable might help a lot of people… and I wonder if that isn’t part of the thinking behind “Free” – but I’m not sure that that is going to do it. Hiring community college grads to intern at the White House might, but I’m not seeing how lowering the barrier to a low barrier institution with very low prestige will help raise its prestige.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        I’d probably agree with you. The funny thing is, I remember being high school-aged and recognizing this dynamic at play with my older siblings. They were certainly more liberal than I at the time — at least in terms of outward signaling — but had a very strong bend of, “If you’re not just like us, you’re worthless,” to their ideology. Which struck me as decidedly illiberal. I always thought a key tenet of liberalism (small-l liberalism) was a rejection of such elitism and it always bothered/s me when so much is invested by “my side” in a ‘holier-than-thou’ mindset.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        You are the master of creating strawmen liberals and I think it is psychological.


        I’m calling BS. Plenty of liberals (including upper-middle class professional liberals of the much-loathed Park Slope variety) make calls against excessive CEO pay and do not think that Wall Street and Finance guys earn their huge incomes. And we are told that we going against the “job creators” by various people on the right including the Palinistas.

        I would argue that conservatives are just as likely to sneer at liberals who have dreams of operating a sustainable business instead of wanting to go Koch Brothers big and that owning a small or medium sized law firm or graphic design company is treated as being not real ambition by conservatives.

        What I would argue is that liberals and conservatives split on narrative and probability. The conservative narrative of deregulation seems to be based on the idea that we can all be independent yeoman who own their own businesses and labor if everything was deregulated. Liberals call BS on this because you can’t have Apple or Google without employees and liberals would argue that the probable chance of being middle class or above comes with education or increases with it. Whether it should or not is another story of course and how to change that is hard.


        I think the burger flipping line was said more on the right than the left or was an across the board thing rather than liberal-exclusivity.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        You are the master of creating strawmen liberals and I think it is psychological.

        Sickoligical? Well, QED, then. Nothing I could say which wouldn’t circularly confirm your theory, yeah?

        I do find it interesting that you’re accusing me of creating “strawman liberals” when I self-identify as one. Right down the straw part!Report

      • @kazzy

        I don’t disagree, but I do think the “I’m better than thou” or “Thou does it wrong” mentality is not unique to liberals.

        Ahoa, sirrah, old chap, I think it were better said, “thou dost it wrong.” Now–to fisticuffs!


      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        I don’t care who said it. If that is one’s underlying mentality, then snobbery is probably afoot.

        And “flipping burgers” isn’t the only thing that fits. “Work as a mechanic…” “Fix toilets…” “Haul garbage…”

        You never really hear it said about things like, “Cure the sick,” or “File lawsuits.”

        That, combined with the people whom I’ve most often heard say it*, tells me it is probably more a liberal thing than a conservative thing.

        * Though, the people I’ve been around throughout my life has skewed liberal, which makes this a bit harder to rely on.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        And “flipping burgers” isn’t the only thing that fits. “Work as a mechanic…” “Fix toilets…” “Haul garbage…”

        You never really hear it said about things like, “Cure the sick,” or “File lawsuits.”

        The first set pays badly and the second well. I’ve also never heard
        “Own a construction business” or “Have a right-wing talk show” (the latter being done successfully by people I wouldn’t trust to fix toilets.)Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        The first set (save maybe for “flipping burgers”, depending on exactly how we define that) doesn’t necessarily pay poorly. It pays worse than the other gigs in the vast majority of cases, but one can make a decent life as a plumber or garbage man or mechanic.

        But when we act as if those positions are so undesirable that we threaten to punish kids should they veer towards a path that ends up there, we are really skewing things badly.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @saul-degraw @mike-schilling You are each making the mistake of believing that what you hear when liberals say something is what non-liberals hear. It is a continuation of what I was saying earlier to you, Saul, about empathy.

        For a text-book example, take WTMWK?

        When you hear someone on the left side of the spectrum ask WTMWK?, you might well hear an honest and sincere questioning of the old saw that everyone votes with their wallets — or perhaps a theory for why people in Kansas *do* think they they are voting with their wallets. I get that.

        What I’m not sure that you get is that when liberals ask WTMWK?, that’s not what people from Kansas — or the midwest, or rural areas, or any non-blue patch of the country — hear liberals asking.

        The question *they* hear when someone asks WTMWK? is some form of this: What wrong with those ignorant hayseeds that they can’t see what’s good fore them they way we can, with out superior insight/education/pedigree/whatever? *That’s* why when a Palin or a Santorum says that whatever you’re saying about college is an example of liberals being elitist snobs resonates so strongly with so many people.

        And because of this, it makes the liberal case for making college affordable to anyone that wants to attend — something I am unabashedly for, btw — potentially dicey from a signaling standpoint. Because McArdle’s right: a whole lot of people are going to see it as a snobby looking-down-the-nose to Joe Sixpack.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Libs in the US is that one of those two groups signals that they see RD1 as more legitimately and deservedly successful than RD2.

        Is it that Libs signal that attitude about the success itself, or is it just that they state that they value education per se (not that they view it as the most legitimate path to professional success), and that they therefore respect people who endeavor to get themselves educated, and succeed at it? Does that still send the other signal anyway? And even if it does, is that value one they should endeavor not to express for fear of that signaling?

        Because my argument there would be “Fuck that. Whatever. Let them enjoy their $600K a year ressentiment, because no one should stop saying they value education just because some people get sore about it. Simply valuing education is an option that is available to everyone, however much money one decides one wants to or can put into it.”Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I’m in the somewhat awkward position of being slightly more sympathetic to the Saul/Drew/Schilling argument than the Tod one, though both sides will probably take issue with what follows…

        I mean, I think liberals sometimes do turn up their noses at the less educated. I mean, there are certain cultural affiliations and education is one of those areas where a number of them feel that their side is “on top”, so to speak. Multiple tiemes last year I saw claims about “The more one is educated, the more likely they are to vote Democratic”… which (whether intended or not) carries with it some baggage, so to speak. It’s also actually not meaningfully true. But a non-trivial number of people want it to be true… in a sense I don’t get much of from the other side.

        But while a “non-trivial number” say it… I don’t think we’re remotely in the ballpark to where we can call it a “liberal” trait, or a Democratic one. While liberals are often quite overly optimistic, in my opinion, on what college can do en masse for those who presently do not go, it is nonetheless part of a multi-pronged strategy to make lives better for those who don’t go. For those who don’t go to college, they still have a dinner plate of policy proposals that suggest a wider concern that college is a proposed answer to, rather than a disregard.

        Some liberals can definitely be snobs. Some of the college arguments are overly dismissive of the non-college bound some of the time, that’s more some arguments from some people than anything else. More broadly, I think this is something that gets up (bilaterally!) in the culture wars. People view politics in archetypes, and very much through a “We’re talking about whites, here” lens (which is where the confusion over education and party affiliation comes from), and the archetypal (white) Democrat has more formal education than the archetypal (white) Republican.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I’m glad I’m not a politician or a pundit, because when I finally figure out what the truth is, which is a big enough job in itself, I don’t also have to worry about whether hearing it will hurt people’s feelings.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I admit that I think you’re all being dumbasses when you get excited about yet another superhero movie. (I won’t even get into the level of gullibility required to get all giddy about new Star Wars films.) But I don’t think it’s because I’m a liberal,Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Schilling, on superhero movies you’re definitely being a liberal snob. On Star Wars, though, you’re just being sensible.Report

      • That’s a really good point, Will.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      The reason McArdle drives liberals batty is that she is really horrible at making considerations when liberals win and never forgives them when they do. See North’s observation about the ACA.

      She also has a general argument tactic like this with liberals:

      McArdle: It is rainy and cold today.

      Liberal (stepping outside): It is 80 degrees and sunny.

      McArdle: A liberal would say something like that….Report

      • I don’t really see McArdle as making that type of argument. Even with the ACA, her arguments tend to focus on its likely ill effects and why those are a bad tradeoff for the likely benefits.

        Now, as Mike Schilling said in the other thread, she was supposedly kind of snide in the comments section of her article back when the ACA passed. I didn’t read that thread, so I can’t comment. But in the actual articles of hers I’ve read (and I admit, I just read her column once in a while, not every day) she seems to make pretty astute arguments.

        Her opposition doesn’t strike me as partisan. Maybe it’s there, but I don’t see it. Her apparently one-note opposition to most Democratic initiatives seem, to me, to reflect her bias. That bias, as I grok it, tends to be toward examining the perverse effects of regulation and the way regulation will influence behavior on the margin. And perhaps she focuses overmuch on the perverse effects and perhaps overestimates the heft of the margin. In those cases, she calls strikes when she should call balls. But that doesn’t mean the pitch wasn’t near the strike zone. And it doesn’t mean that there aren’t perverse effects to a regulation or that there isn’t some tradeoff that’s not entirely beneficial to the people that given regulation is supposed to help.Report

      • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Actually, it’s more like she calls strikes when the ball is in the fifth row and the peanut vendor is holding his head.Report

      • @jesse-ewiak

        Care to elaborate? When has she done that?Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        The reason McArdle drives liberals batty is that she is really horrible at making considerations when liberals win and never forgives them when they do.

        You are talking about someone who endorsed Obama in 2008, so not sure this theory holds water. I’ll offer some of her actual words to counter your made up ones:

        As libertarians go, I’m not a tax nut; I think deadweight loss is relatively low, and taxation is among the least intrusive actions the state can take. I’m far more concerned about regulation. The economic cost tends to be higher; it lacks the natural limits imposed by citizen resistance; and it doesn’t so extensively accustom the citizenry to taking orders from the state.

        I have the terrible feeling that for both Hillary and McCain, that last is a feature of regulation, not a bug.

        Faced with that, I’m betting on the advisors. Obama’s economic advisors are some of the smartest economists working in the field today, and they’re people I deeply respect. I rest on the hope that they say something about the man who would choose them.

        Not exactly the words of a clueless partisan.

        No, the McMegan hatred has much more banal roots.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        The reason McArdle drives liberals batty

        … is that she says things they disagree with and doesn’t back down?

        I dunno, but I see a lot of “look how Republicans go nuts just over the name {Warren, Clinton, Obama, Holder, etc.}. That is, it’s Republicans who are at fault for going nuts over those folks.

        But then when its liberals going nuts, it’s not liberals’ fault, it’s something McArdle does.

        Maybe Republicans go nuts over Warren, etc., because of something Warren, etc. do?

        I mean, how likely is it really that it’s group X that is at fault both when they go nuts over group Y and when group Y goes nuts over group X? Is group Y really holy and virginal? Innocent both when X goes nuts over them and when they go nuts over X?Report

      • Avatar RTod in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        One of the ways I see liberals following in the dubious footsteps of conservatives is that like their conterparts circa 1995, I have a sense that they are becoming less tolerant of the other side’s moderates than they are the other side’s more extreme guys.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        If it means anything, I almost said that Warren is becoming a McCardle to the center-right. That they are both women is almost certainly not irrelevant to the craziness they inspire, as well.Report

      • Avatar aaron david in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        “The reason McArdle drives liberals batty is that she is really horrible at making considerations when liberals win and never forgives them when they do.”

        Why would she? She’s a Libertarian. Do you do this when conservatives win?Report

      • @chris

        That they [Warren and McArdle] are both women is almost certainly not irrelevant to the craziness they inspire, as well.

        That’s one of my suspicions, too.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:


      Please take this in the spirited in which it is intended.

      Your #1 would have been much stronger if you could have linked to (or quoted w/ links) what these people actually said. It is hard to respond to what so-and-so said without actually knowing what they said and most people (myself included!) aren’t going to go searching around on their own for what so-and-so might or might not have said. And, if they didn’t actually say it — if you can’t find quotes or links — than perhaps that should inform you how to approach understanding and ultimately critiquing their position.Report

  2. Avatar Don Zeko says:

    Re: point #2, I would like to see more evidence before I accept the proposition that poor and working class whites are less pro-college than poor and working class minorities, rather than speculation about why that distinction might exist. Certainly the breakdown between those on this site or elsewhere on the internet arguing about it is not remotely a clean class or race divide.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Don Zeko says:


      True. I am just basing this on evidence of who I see make arguments about college being snobby.

      The right-wing seems to have a very interesting relationship with institutions at the Ivy or close level. They love to promote the Ivy-League bonafides of people like Tom Cotton but denounce the Ivy League bonafides of Democratic politicians and voters. The GOP even rebelled against Harriet Miers because she only went to SMU’s Law School.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Sure, but what does that really indicate about anything? I might be critical of, for example, the way in which the Supreme Court Bar is less and less open to lawyers that aren’t part of a small group, all of whom went to Harvard or Yale, But that doesn’t mean that I pretend that the value of a Harvard or Yale credential doesn’t exist should I find myself making hiring decisions. Particularly for something public and political, a Harvard or Yale degree is an easy way to signal that someone excels at the meritocratic rat race, even if I think that plenty of similarly talented people out there have degrees from other places, or even no degrees at all.Report

      • That wasn’t just conservatives who dinged Meyers for SMU. I am not even sure it was mostly liberals.

        And to be fair, in both cases, it wasn’t about SMU. Still tragic that it was argued.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Don Zeko says:

      I think there is sometimes an implication that minorities don’t go to college because they can’t, while whites who don’t go to college don’t value learning (a culture war thing).

      I think this implication is often unintentional, though not always, but it’s there sometimes in the way it’s discussed a sometimes.

      The vast majority of people do want their kids to go to college. And why shouldn’t they, as we so often rhetorically divide society between those who go to college vs victims and losers.Report

  3. Avatar Sam Levine says:

    McArdle does mention the snob factor in her most recent post on this, but her point is best summed up in this:

    “Higher education is becoming the ginseng of the policy world: a sort of all-purpose snake oil for solving any problem you’d care to name, as long as we consume enough of it. Education is a very good thing, but it is not the only good thing. An indiscriminate focus on pushing more people into the system is no cure for society’s ills–and indeed, often functions as a substitute for helping the people who are struggling in the current system.

    What if people in the policy elite stopped assuming that the ideal was to make everyone more like them, and started thinking about making society more hospitable to those who aren’t? …”


    Her policy prescriptions after this are broadly German in character, with just the barest hint of her libertarian ideology. The left should be falling over itself for this stuff.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam Levine says:

      You know who else was broadly German in character that the left fell over itself for?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam Levine says:

      I mean, good point. Her insight that education isn’t the only good thing is interpreted far too often as derision of education when, really, there are better options for a lot of folks out there.

      I’ve said before and I’ll say again: I have friends who are managers and they tell me that they’d rather hire a kid who spent the first four years after high school being an assistant shift manager at Domino’s than a kid who spent the last 5 1/2 years getting a degree in the humanities.

      Degrees aren’t signalling what they used to.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird says:

        That’s an anecdote. Not data. The data shows that college might not be a completely safe bet but it does improve chances of employment (and college grads are less likely to suffer from long-term unemployment) and most college grads will earn enough in their lifetime to justify the cost of education.

        Was there ever a time when your friends felt differently and they would have picked the college grad over the kid with the HS diploma?Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Jaybird says:

        Of course, these days the problem is finding a Domino’s that’s hiring people right into the shift manager role.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Jaybird says:

        What the data says about “most college students” doesn’t actually tell us much about marginal cases, which is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about expanding the pool of college-goers.

        What I really want to know is not how well a graduate from the University of Michigan or Michigan State does compared to someone who never went to college. I want to know how well a graduate from Eastern Michigan or Wayne State does compared to someone who never went to college. Those are the kids we’re talking about.

        That’s Step One, which tells us whether it is in an individuals best interest to go to college. Step Two is trying to decipher how much of that opportunity is positive-sum, gained through skills and knowledge acquired at college, and how much of it is zero-sum, at the expense of equally capable people who didn’t go to college.

        Step Three is trying to factor in how many people went to college, never graduated, and do not enjoy much benefit at all.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

        To the degree that the importance of college is signalling, I’m wondering if the data isn’t getting cause and effect mixed up.

        Was there ever a time when your friends felt differently and they would have picked the college grad over the kid with the HS diploma?

        As managers? No. One owns his own trucking company and another is a manager at a call center and he’s managing jobs that a college student would consider entry-level and a high school grad would consider a career.

        Now, my co-workers who are managers? They’d prefer fully credentialed people. They want kids fresh out of EE school who have 10 years of experience with cloud computing, 12 years of experience with Ruby, and 15 years experience with Debian (Powerpoint skills a plus). The problem is that the kids who have that tend to not want to work in Colorado, of all places, and can command a lot more money in real cities.Report

      • Avatar Zac in reply to Jaybird says:

        As an aside, Jaybird, are you from Colorado originally or do you just live there?Report

      • Avatar Zac in reply to Jaybird says:

        I only ask because you remind me a lot of a couple of friends I have from there.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

        I moved here in ’90, so I merely live here.

        If you’ve been to poker night at Andy’s, you’ve met me.Report

    • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Sam Levine says:

      Part of the issue is that more education is still frequently the rational way to get ahead for an individual, but not nearly as promising for working people writ large. If a graduate degree will allow you to get that good job that you could have performed with just a bachelor’s but wouldn’t have been hired for, that graduate degree likely makes sense. The same goes for a Bachelor’s compared to a High School diploma. But if we live in a country with persistently slack labor markets and the constant threat of outsourcing and automation, what might solve an individual problem can’t solve everyone’s problem.

      So yes, I wholeheartedly agree with McMegan that we need to make our economic and social system provide a decent living and some personal dignity to people that didn’t go to college. The trouble is that I don’t think i trust McMegan or her libertarian fellows to actually do such a thing, rather than to use it as an excuse to say that Liberals don’t really care about the poor, in the same way conservatives have been desperate to prove that liberals are the real racists for the last four or five decades. I suppose that in a world where Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan insist that they really want to solve the problem of poverty, lip service is better than nothing, but color me unconvinced that any of these folks will accept solutions that require any additional tax revenue from anyone.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Don Zeko says:

        Given that colleges are competing with each other on the whole “amenities” front, I can’t help but wonder if more money is really going to resolve the “why does college cost so much?” problem.

        If the demand is skyrocketing compared to the growth in supply, I don’t know that putting more money (e.g., incentivizing even *MORE* demand) will result in the problem being resolved.

        My deepest suspicion is that more money will result in more administrators and more amenities rather than more classrooms, more desks, more libraries, and more professors.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Don Zeko says:

        I pretty much agree with this statement.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Don Zeko says:

        @jaybird Why can’t it be both? There’s plenty of US News & World Report-type bloat, but there’s also a big increase in tuition at public universities as states steadily decrease funding. I would suggest that how and when we put money in, and what we do to fiddle with the incentives facing parents, students, and college administrators, probably has as much of an effect as the overall demand curve for higher education services.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Don Zeko says:

        @jaybird Also, Is this comment meant as a reply to my post above? Because I don’t think that I advocated spending more on money on access to higher education there.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Don Zeko says:

        It was where you said “but color me unconvinced that any of these folks will accept solutions that require any additional tax revenue from anyone.”

        I assumed that that meant that you saw the solution as additional tax revenue going into the bottomless maw of the established cartel of the higher education system.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Don Zeko says:

        @jaybird I figured that was the cause of the confusion; I should have been more clear. My implication was supposed to be that making life better for non-college graduates will likely require spending tax money at some point if we’re really serious about it, either in the form of wage subsidies like the EITC, or government programs like SSDI, the ACA, or Social Security that provide benefits similar to what other workers get from the private sector. I would make a similar point about government interventions that don’t cost tax dollars, but are detrimental to the interests of the rich, like more inflation-tolerant Fed policy, a more union-friendly set of labor laws, limits on free trade, etc..

        I don’t necessarily think that these are all good ideas when it comes to solving the problem. But it seems to me that the McArdles, Romney’s and Ryan’s of the world are saying that they really care about poor people, so long as helping poor people doesn’t involve anything that I listed above.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Don Zeko says:

        I went to college in the not too distant past of 1998-2002 and the amenities at Vassar were fairly Spartan. The one nice amenity was being guaranteed a single room from Sophomore year on. I actually got a single during the second semester of my freshman year because so many juniors on JYA that there was excess space in the dorms.

        We had two dining halls (one of which was smaller and did not accept college dining points for Mon-Thursday until after 5) and the gym was nice but not amazing. There was also no cable TV in the dorm rooms (each dorm had a TV room).

        As I understand it, college are doing the amenities thing for a variety of reasons:

        1. The ranking guides have turned colleges and universities into a completely national market. There were always elite institutions that drew students from all over the country and world but before US News and World Report, it was much easier to be a reasonably priced but local university that offered a decent education. This is also true on the law school market. My law school was known as supplying the bar and bench for the Bay Area from about 1914 until the early aughts. They were a decent workaday law school. Suffolk was the same in Boston. But US News and World Report just made everything national. There are still old-timers who can remember when my law school was held with much more esteem in the Bay Area.

        2. The Amenities race is really about finding students (national or international) that can pay full tuition and not need any financial aid. This is because of decreased state funding.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Don Zeko says:

        This is because of decreased state funding.

        Yes! So the question is whether increasing state funding will a) actually bring down the final cost to students without blowing up price; b) can be justified on a larger, society-wide purely economic cost/benefit analysis; c) will solve the “problem” of the Child Left Behind! by dragging the net more widely through culture/class divisions; d) can be justified to folks who don’t want to fund another person’s luxury good/caretaking service/maturation process/stepping stone to spending a few years in the wilderness finding themselves and their career/etc/and so on.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Don Zeko says:

        What has me really worried is

        3. Consumer price indifference. Universities have found that they can charge $x in tuition without getting fewer students. From there, they find things to spend the money on. This seems odd to say in an age where everyone is complaining about the rising cost of college. If consumers were price-conscious, you’d think that one of the for-profits would take the angle there. But none do. Their excess goes to shareholders, of course, but for non-profits there are any number of places they can go. Indeed, there are countless arms races where it arguably needs to go. To keep up.

        And, of course, some schools have found that increasing the sticker price increases applications.

        The decreasing state support is responsible for some of it, but there’s really only so much blame you can put on it. Even states that have held firm on state support having rising tuition costs. They’re in the arms race, too.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Don Zeko says:


        What concerns me most about the for-profits is that they seem to be the biggest scams in terms of figuring out the whole way to exploit federally backed loans and they seem to have no scruples in terms of admittance. Do you remember the story about the Librarian who quit because she discovered that a student was told by admin he could be in law enforcement but there was plenty of evidence that said student could barely read at third grade level?


        But you are right that consumer price indifference does seem to be an issue and it is hard to find the root cause of this. The people talking about how the general path should be 2 years of community college and then 2 years of state school seem to be a minority and largely an powerless block of internet commenters.

        I suppose this could be that there are plenty of people who can afford the sticker price that they get (I think 40 percent or more of students get some form of financial aid and reduced tuition). Students feel resentful that they should not get the complete “college experience” while their richers peers do. Less economically advantaged students feel like the real connections are gained from the first two years at whatever university they attend especially elite universities. There could be something to the last argument. Suppose someone goes to CC college and then transfers into Yale. Do they still graduate with a Yale degree? Yes. But they also come in after cliques and social circles have been formed and bonded over two years and might be at a disadvantage when it comes to networking and the like.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Don Zeko says:

        We need more inclusive cliques.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Don Zeko says:

        Saul, I largely agree. And further, I am myself more skeptical of 2+2 than a lot of people here. I hope my children don’t need to go that route, making me a part of the problem.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Don Zeko says:

        My daughter’s dorm room at Davis was smaller than the one I had at Berkeley decades ago. And I had one roommate, where she had two. The only additional perk I noticed was that her room had Wi-fi.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Don Zeko says:

        It used to be cramped towers and the Quad, where I lived where we had slightly larger rooms and suite bathrooms.

        The plan at the time was to build more towers. Instead, they went in the other direction, with everything they built since being single-occupant in apartment-style accommodations.

        The difference is remarkable. And logical, since the school wants to attract the kind of students who want to live in university apartments.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Don Zeko says:


        There are some Universities that can get away with relatively Spartan amenities because the demand to go to said colleges and universities is pretty high.

        The amenities arm race is real and it is interesting to see where it happens and where it does not. NYU, GWU, Wash U in St. Louis are known for being part of the amenities and tuition raising race. NYU is probably better as a grad school than as an undergrad school. The undergrad schools have a hard time shaking their reputation as being the also-ran for students who wanted to go to college in New York.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Don Zeko says:

        Berkeley was pretty Spartan, too. They used to tell us to come back from tests with our calculators or on them.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Don Zeko says:

        Though those conditions no doubt helped you sneak into the dorms at USC.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Don Zeko says:


        You were allowed to use calculators?!Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Sam Levine says:

      @sam-levine , a German-style multitrack education system would be a socio-economic disaster when not combined with a German style welfare state. The German welfare state, including things like true universal healthcare, decent public housing, mandated vacation days, and powerful unions that participate in corporate management even out the results between those that end up on the vocational track and those that end up on the academic track. If you have a German-style multitrack system without a German-style welfare state than you might end up exasperating whatever class based differences exist under the current system.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to LeeEsq says:


        LOL @ the Freudian slipReport

      • Avatar aaron david in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Can you elaborate on why you think that you would need the welfare state? I get the problems with snobbery, but as we already have that with our current system…Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to LeeEsq says:


        Singapore has a multi-track system. In fact, In Singapore, students are streamed from a very early age. Singapore has a much smaller welfare state than the US. Singapore’s education system is not a disaster. (Civil rights record is a separate matter)Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @aaron-david, an educational system that tracks people into vocational or academic tracks, that is future blue collar or white collar employment, could exasperate the problems we are already having with income equality and benefits because many people will be bound for a relatively low-paying, low-benefit job early on in life. Germany and other European countries might track people early but even the people who occupy the lowest paying jobs know that they aren’t going to struggle with the necessities of life like they do in the United States because of the welfare states, unions, and mandated vacation times. From what I understand, its a lot easier for a fast food worker to take a sick day in Denmark than in the United States and they also get their mandated vacations.Report

      • Avatar aaron david in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I don’t know, I am not seeing how this would help income inequality, rather than solidify the class issues we have today (granted, IIE is not something I give a whiff about.) Like Murali says, Singapore has such a system without the welfare aspects, so we know it is possible. I guess what I would need to hear is a much stronger line of causality before I overcame my skepticism, especially coming from one who has always advocated for such a system, regardless of a tracking component.

        Would you also argue the other way, that in order to have a welfare state, we would need the tracking component and that a welfare state would not work without it? As that would lead directly to a class based lock down, with complete economic ossification. In other words, if you get placed on the “C” track, you will need gov’t largess. And with many of the ethnic divide problems in this country (I am thinking of the Oakland/San Fransisco divide) I think we can see how this would play out in even very liberal areas.

        In other words, I think the German welfare state works because they are all Germans, with Turks coming in to do the crappy work. I will believe otherwise when Turks start to rise to positions of prominence.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Aaron David, the German welfare state predates large scale Turkish immigration by decades. It has its origins in the Kaisereich and Bismarck’s Bread and Butter laws before being refined by the Weimar Republic and the FDR.

        My issue of tracking without some sort of levening of the economic playing field is that doing so will create a very hierarchical socio-economic system, more so than we have today. Tracking works in European countries because Europeans who end up on the vocational track at least know they are going to get standarized benefit package even if they end up at low-paying, low-skilled jobs. Everything that I’ve read sugggests that being a long-term employee at a fast food chain in Europe is more economically viable and less stressful than being such in the United States. European fast-food workers do not seem to need to worry about things like child care or balancing two or three jobs to make ends meet.

        I am also going to doubt whether or not Singapore has less of a welfare state than the United States. It might be a question of semantics but housing is generally provided through the state in Singapore from what I understand. Housing is of frequent concern to lowest earning American workers even in the cheapest part of the state. Singapore’s transit system frees them from needing a car to. That represents considerable savings.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to LeeEsq says:

        In other words, I think the German welfare state works because they are all Germans, with Turks coming in to do the crappy work. I will believe otherwise when Turks start to rise to positions of prominence.

        Singapore has a similar system of importing cheap labor for the “crappy work,” without a welfare system. Not sure this is relevant, but I don’t think it’s all that relevant in Germany either.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Only because you didn’t take the hint the first time, you are using the word exasperat-(e)(ing) incorrectly.

        The word (and gerund) you mean are exacerbat-(e)(ing).Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to LeeEsq says:


        While technically, 80% of people live in public housing, the housing development board is still run on a profitable footing. Now, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t subsidise the flats, but one has to wonder how much it does if it is still able to make a decent profit at the end of the day. Add to that the fact that, especially with regards to smaller flats, it has a complete monopoly of the market, I wouldn’t be surprised if the profit margin was hefty. When all is said and done, the size of our welfare state is still smaller than yours even if it is unclear whether the extent of government interference in the economy is less.Report

  4. McArdle (BA, MBA) made the claim that there is a snob factor in the idea that “everyone should attend college” and in every Democratic Party idea to make college more affordable and more universal.

    That needs to be unpacked.

    1. She’s talking about a specific proposal, not “every” one of them.

    2. She’s saying there’s a snob factor involved in the idea. While I think she does overstate her case, I don’t believe she is saying that the idea is completely reducible to the snob factor. And even if she is saying that, I’m not saying that. For example:

    People who promote expanded access to college do not necessarily do so out of elitism. At least some of those who say college is for everybody look forward to the expanded opportunities that college supposedly provides, both in narrow financial terms and in terms of expanding one’s intellectual horizons.

    Back to your OP:

    The only way to prevent overcredentialism is to have good paying jobs that can be done without a college degree….Perhaps we can turn these jobs into apprenticeships with some math classes on the side to put workers up to speed.

    It seems in that point, you actually agree with McArdle and with me.

    One of the big reasons I am opposed to tracking and apprenticeship training is that I feel like it will just become a proxy for class and race. Middle class and above people will always be the ones who go to college but not people from working class and/or minority backgrounds.

    I had thought you supported at least some apprenticeship programs. As for tracking, I suppose it has its plusses and minuses, depending on how it works. I, too, am opposed to the notion that instructors can look at a kid in 6th grade and track them into “accelerated,” “college bound,” “regular,” and “remedial” tracks that are difficult or almost impossible to get out of. But some classes are more rigorous than others, and perhaps differentiating among them could be a good thing. Or it could be lowering standards. If I were ever to endorse tracking, I’d want it to be easier for students to switch between the tracks when they show the drive or the aptitude to do so. Or perhaps even when they demonstrate the desire to do so and give a higher track a test drive. Whether that’s likely to happen in cases where there would be tracking might be unlikely.

    My go to example for this is Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality.

    You do reference that book a lot. So much that I feel like I’ve read it (but I admit I have not). Should the working-class classics major have been shunted into a vocational program. No. And fortunately (for me) McArdle seems to agree that the student shouldn’t be so shunted (“There are some people who would enjoy and benefit from school, who have trouble getting and staying there because of their family backgrounds. I’m all for a program that helps identify those people, and gives them the supports they need to make it all the way.”) Now, should she go to grad school to study classics? I don’t know for sure and it depends on her situation, but I’d be wary of advising anyone to go to grad school for liberal arts, especially if they are going into a PHD program. An MA program can do less damage.

    I actually don’t see what the problem is with having people needing to spend a few years meandering before they find their calling.

    I don’t see what the big problem is, either. Fortunately (for me), when I make such jokes–which I think is pretty rarely, and I’m not even positive that I do–they’re mostly directed at myselfReport

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      Very few people are going to argue that working class kids should be shuttered into vocation tracks. Its just that what ends up happening many times. Kids from what you would call working class backgrounds end up in the vocational tracks of the education system and kids from middle or upper class backgrounds go to the academic tracks even if they really shouldn’t be there. Combining this with America’s ongoing problematic relationship over race is going to exasperate things. Kids of color would probably end up on the vocational track at a higher percentage than white kids.Report

      • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:


        I’ve got errands to run so will be gone for a while. Suffice it to say that your point, which is similar to one Jesse Ewiak made in my OP’s thread, is a good one and people with my reservations about college sometimes give it short-shrift. That’s why, as I intimated in the comment you were responding to, I believe that any tracking system will have that type of challenge. So if we have to have tracking at all, we should work to assure maximum mobility between tracks. But that still isn’t an argument for tracking.Report

  5. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    There is a difference between going to college to learn how to be someone that makes a million dollars, and going to college to become an intellectually well-developed human being.

    I think the problem is that people get the idea that those are the same thing.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jim Heffman says:

      One of the things I had hoped to hint at with my danged poetry posts was that there are a lot of ways to keep your toes in the “intellectually well-developed human being” pond.

      There are a lot fewer ways to make a million dollars. Well, in a short time, anyway.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird says:


        This is true and there are going to be people who graduate with degrees in the arts and humanities who never pick up a book again after undergrad and people who continue studying formally and informally.

        I think this is where cultural differences might come up. Judaism and seemingly many Asian cultures have long histories of formal education with their own equivalents of credentialism as a necessity. The Chinese had their Imperial Exams for the Civil Service jobs and Judaism had the Talmud-Torahs, Bin Deits, and a general cultural idea that marrying into a poor scholarly family was more prestigious than marrying into a rich merchant family. There is truth in the lines about “If I were a Rich Man” when Tevye says that the best reward will be having the time to spend all day studying Torah and Talmud. Stefan Zweig wrote about how non-Jewish Europeans misunderstood why Jews were obsessed with getting wealthy. The ultimate end goal for Jews was that wealth was a way of being allowed to pursue artistic and scholarly pursuits all the time and to have children who could be artists and scholars instead of business people. In Judaism and Jewish culture, there is prestige in being formally educated and credentialed and a long history of it. Rabbi translates roughly as “my master” but it is more of an academic master/professor than anything else. Rabbis also acted to solve disputes and interpret the law. You can see this if you read old Yiddish literature when Jews would go to the rabbis and ask hair-splitting questions on whether some event rendered a chicken unkosher.

        As I understand the Protestant Reformation, it was a rebellion against the idea of Priest intermediaries and credentialism. Ordinary people can and could read the Bible on their own and interpret it on their own and did not need the Priest class to help them.

        I wonder if these created a general rebellion against credentialism and formal education in general which remains lurking around but never explicitly spoken.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:


        I wonder if these created a general rebellion against credentialism and formal education in general which remains lurking around but never explicitly spoken.

        Egads! “Rebellion against formal education”? It sounds so … Dostoevskian.Report

  6. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    1) I agree with Tod above about how the snobbery is NOT about going to school, but rather about not going to school, and in many cases about going to the right school for the right degree. I’ve often gotten that look down the nose attitude from educated liberals because I have an Engineering degree, rather than a Liberal Arts degree, as if I am little more than a highly educated machinist who still doesn’t know Geoffrey Chaucer from Chandler Bing.

    2) The libertarian argument is not that education is a good thing, but rather that encouraging University above all other paths is the right thing. Not everyone is cut out for University, and, I say this as someone who struggled, not everyone is cut out for any given University. Some University programs foster highly competitive programs that can be extremely high stress & cut-throat. Some people excel in such environments, others want a much more cooperative educational experience, where people work together to bolster the whole group. Not only can this vary from institution to institution, but also within programs in any given institution. Ideally the admissions process should select students with a high chance of success within a given program, but as we’ve discussed in the past such processes can be gamed. Expanding educational opportunities needs to be more than just sending kids to college & trying to get into a top school. It should also be about trying to match the right person to the right school(s) where they have the greatest chance of success. I’m glad I went to UW-Madison instead of MIT. I had a full government funded) ride to either, but the chance that I would have succeeded at MIT was much lower.

    3) Finally, lately the benefit of a University degree is, in many cases, eclipsed by the cost. Adding more government support for more students without some kind of effort to get schools to reduce costs while maintaining quality sounds like a great way for schools to work harder to get more easy money from Uncle Sugar. I know a lot of Liberals like to point the finger at the decline of support from tax rolls, but the fact is that costs are rising across the board at private & public schools alike. I’m hesitant to give schools administrators another source of easy funding when they can not seem to keep their budgets under control, and especially when they seem inclined to go for the more palatable fixes (using adjuncts over tenure track, etc.).Report

    • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      As to point 3, isn’t this discounting the possibility that some sort of technocratic fixes might make a significant difference? I mean, if we look at the problem purely in terms of the highly abstracted national supply and demand curve, then we’d expect the ACA to have accelerated medical price inflation, but the evidence thus far suggests that there has either been no effect or a significant downward nudge on cost. Particularly since it is so difficult to determine the actual value that a student is likely to get for her (or her parents’, or the government’s) money at a university, I’m open to the possibility that there are ways to tweak the system to reduce the incentive to pour cash into facilities, sports, and administration that have little effect on the core purpose of the institution.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Don Zeko says:

        I’m not discounting that, but rather saying that if we do not get serious about finding the root causes of the inflation (and not just wailing on about state schools losing taxpayer support), opening up another spigot of money is not a good move.

        Hell, I’m OK with Obama’s idea, if he rolls it up with a program to investigate & if possible mitigate the rising costs.*

        *I say “if possible” because there is always the possibility that the cost of an American University education was always artificially suppressed, and something changed to allow the price to naturally find it’s place. I think this is a weak possibility, but I feel obligated to mention it.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      “I’ve often gotten that look down the nose attitude from educated liberals because I have an Engineering degree, rather than a Liberal Arts degree, as if I am little more than a highly educated machinist who still doesn’t know Geoffrey Chaucer from Chandler Bing.”

      I do have to say that the college I went to seemed far more concerned with getting Engineering students into English department classes than vice versa.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


      I’ve met plenty of engineering students who have very willingly told me that I didn’t study a real subject (and subsequently am probably dumb) because I was an arts major with lots of history courses on the side instead of a STEM major at a school like MIT, CaltTech, GeorgiaTech, R.I.T., etc.

      This is probably one of those things where each side perceives itself as being disrespected by the other. C.P. Snow famously called it The Two Cultures.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I myself don’t see how engineers can consider themselves educated when they never had to do any proofs.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        Being married to a History Major while getting my Engineering degree disabused me of that prejudice, but yes, it does exist. However, Heffman above makes a salient point. Mathematics & Science are a huge part of our modern world. Being proficient & competent in the basics of both is just as important understanding history & being able to communicate well, etc., but the Academy still, by and large, spends more effort getting STEM majors to get depth & breadth in the Liberal Arts classes than it does getting LA majors to achieve a similar level of depth & breadth in math & science. There may be good reason to make sure the STEM fields get at least a bit of art/history/english/etc., but it’s an equally valid reason for LA majors to get more than a smattering of remedial math & science.

        I had to do proofs. Maybe not to the level you did, but I still had to do them (my math classes were all taught by the math department, there was no Math for Engineers).Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        “I myself don’t see how engineers can consider themselves educated when they never had to do any proofs.”

        I did 80 – 100 proofs most Friday nights.Report

      • Avatar Mo in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @saul-degraw I think part of the disconnect is that STEM majors take a lot more humanities classes than humanities major take STEM classes. For example, MIT had a requirement of a bare minimum of 8 humanities classes for everyone and lots of people (a majority of people I knew) had a minor or concentration in a humanity that was well above that limit.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Come on, guys… you can ALL continue to look down your nose at me and my TWO early childhood education degrees.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @mo @saul-degraw
        Also, as someone who actually made the switch from the sciences to the humanities, I can attest that the science modules that those in the arts faculty had to take for breadth requirements were simplified in ways that arts modules that those in the sciences had to take weren’t.

        It is also the case that majoring in the sciences requires background in the science you are majoring in but majoring in the humanities does not. i.e. the faculty of science, engineering and computing were more selective than the faculty of arts and social sciences. Given the selectiveness (and given other features of secondary education where the arts streams are not just filled with people who like the humanities but also those who cannot hack it in the sciences) the A level grades of freshman in the faculty of Science is on average higher than that of those in the faculty of Arts.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        I remember my wife talking about her “Science” requirement; Weather & Climate. Essentially – Reading Weather Maps on the Nightly News or the Weather Channel.

        She told me it was packed with football & basketball players.Report

  7. The title of this OP asks a question: “Who is college for?”. The title of my OP was “something, something common-ground something something ‘college isn’t for everyone.'” In neither case did the ensuing conversation focus on “who college is for” or what the “common ground” actually is. (That’s not a complaint, mind. I love the threads at OT as much as I love reading the posts, and threads must have a life of their own.)

    So here’s my stab at an answer to @saul-degraw ‘s question that also signals where we probably have common ground on this issue.

    College is for…..

    a. People who have a lot of intellectual curiosity and who want to develop it in a formal setting.

    b. People who wish to develop skills for the labor force that can be acquired only through formal education.

    c. People who wish to develop skills for the labor force that could be developed elsewhere, but also can be developed in a formal setting like college.

    d. People who don’t really know what they want to do with their life but just want to give college a try because they have a sense that other people seem to be doing it and it seems to work for them, and who knows, they might enjoy it.

    e. People who might have enough skills and work ethic to do an entry-level job and don’t particularly want to go to college, but need the college credential to get considered for that job.

    Other people probably have an f, g, h, or more. And if so, I’d like to hear them. But let’s focus on my list for now.

    First thing I’ll note is that the items on the list are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Someone could have a lot of intellectual curiosity and might not know what they want to do with their life, or they opt for a practical degree and want to develop their intellect kind of on the side. Someone whom d. or e. more accurately describes might find that college really is for them and they enjoy, and maybe they won’t even realize it until their 3rd or 4th year, or perhaps even several years out of college.

    Second thing I’ll note is, I sense, most of us can agree that college is “for” at least those for whom a, b, or c, or some combination of a, b, and c, is the most accurate descriptor.

    Third thing I’ll note is that we might indeed haggle over whether tax money should subsidize a, b, and c’s endeavor, perhaps particularly if we’re doing so for the “merely” intellectually curious. Even so, I think we can find widespread agreement at this blog–not overwhelming, but perhaps at least 50% plus 1–that the state should provide at least some sort of subsidized undergraduate education, even if the subsidy is “only” the reduced tuition one might find at a state commuter school or community college.

    Fourth thing I’ll note is we probably agree that college is less “for” those for whom d. and e., or some combination thereof, is the most accurate descriptor. And I take @will-truman ‘s excellent comment above as an explanation of the types of concerns we need to keep in mind when we nudge or encourage such people to go to college.

    And even in those cases, we might want to give the d. or an e. a shot at college if they want to try it, and we–or at least I–might want to subsidize at reduced sticker price that cc’s charge. I’ve said on the other thread, and on still other threads before that, that I believe that if a student takes several classes at a community college, at reduced price, and then decides that cc isn’t for them, then the cc in my view is then a success.

    Now, my third and fourth observations represent the areas where there is less common ground. And I think that those areas are partly what we’re arguing over. (We’re also, in part, arguing over where to locate–and, I hope, minimize–snobbery in the discussion. As I tried to say in my OP, there is indeed enough accusations and counter-accusations of snobbery, elitism, etc. to go around. I personally think it’s important to acknowledge it and flesh it out so that we’re no longer beholden to it. But perhaps I focused overmuch on that.)Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      A couple other things

      1) And this is largely (I believe) on the Academy: Schools have a habit of marginalizing students who tried & failed at school the first go around. I always got the feeling that a students previous poor transcripts always weighed heavily against them, such that returning to school later was often a much higher bar to cross than coming in the first time. Even for students who are not degree seeking, but looking for a certificate or the like. My high school transcript was a solid C average, because I didn’t care. By the time I got out of the Navy, I cared a lot, but that High School transcript was an Albatross.

      2) High School Guidance Offices: The advice & guidance provided by such counselors is as often as not poor, or just flat out wrong. This is not even taking into account the fact that such offices are usually understaffed (my HS had 80-100 kids in the Senior class and one part time GC) so they ability of the GC to get to know each student well enough to really help is low, and in my experience the information they have is wrong or out of date. I’m sure large, well to do schools have great GC offices & staff, but honestly, as we’ve all discussed many times, those aren’t actually the schools that need them, since well off communities have parents who will take up that task. It’s the small, rural, poor schools that need good GC staff, and who never get it. Very few colleges had any interest in kids from little rural Wisconsin towns and without a good GC staff to make the connections…Report

      • Your first point is a very good one, although one I don’t have any personal experience about.

        Your second point speaks to my experience. My high school GC’s meant well, and worked hard, but there were just too few and while their advice was probably good in the sense of being “accurate, and not wrong,” it wasn’t always helpful. But again, that’s not mostly their fault. And they did try to do things, like have college fairs.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Re: my first point – examples like mine abound in the military – did not do well in HS, could not get a college to accept them because of it (assuming they could pay for tuition), joined the military as a path to success. Even with a stellar military career, my HS transcripts were a problem when I tried to get into University. Honestly, the VA student support office on campus was pivotal in getting vets (including me) into the University through their close relationship with the Admin & Registrar offices.

        Similarly my second point, I’ve listened to lots of enlisted guys talking about how they got no help from the HS GC office.Report

    • Avatar roger in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      I plus one Gabriel’s comment above. Well said!Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


      While I think you get at this through your conversation, I think a fundamental problem with the way these conversations tend to go is the assumption that “college” is a singular thing.

      Columbia is a college in the state of New York.
      NYU is a college in the state of New York.
      SUNY-Binghamtom is a college in the state of New York.
      Queens College (part of the CUNY network) is a college in the state of New York.
      Rockland Community College is a college in the state of New York.
      DeVry is a college with a location in the state of New York.

      All of these are “colleges”. And that’s just looking at New York! But asking “Who is Devry for?” is not a particularly useful question if you’re trying to figure out “Who is Harvard for?” Sure, answering the question for one of those colleges might be useful in addressing the ones immediately adjacent to it in my ordering there, but overall, “college” is so broad a term that asking “Who is college for?” isn’t likely to yield a particularly productive conversation.Report

      • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:


        I think that’s very true, and getting into those details is necessary for both the “who is college for” and “should all/most people aspire to go to college” questions.

        Here’s a true story that has made me rethink a little my feelings on these things, and touches a little bit on your point about how “college” can be a catchall for a lot of different types of experiences:

        We had a technician come in yesterday (it’s Tuesday morning as I write this) to fix my spouse’s laptop. We talked to him, and according to him, he was a first generation American (his parents were from Mexico). He has about 6 months ago graduated from a for-profit college (I won’t say the name, and it wasn’t DeVry, but chances are you probably heard of it). He mentioned having a lot of student loan debt. Yet he also mentioned getting this technician job right after graduating. He was, by the way, a courteous person who went out of his way to help us. For the last week or so we played phone tag trying to get hold of each other, and while I imagine it would have been easy for him just to make one call and claim he had followed through, he kept at it. As far as I can tell, he fixed my wife’s computer.

        There’s still a lot I don’t know about him and his situation. It was, after all, only a 15-minute conversation. But here are some thoughts.

        I assume (but don’t know) that in order to be a technician, a degree in the relevant skill is pretty good for sorting who’s qualified. In other words, I suppose it’s possible for someone to be a self-taught or on-the-job-taught technician, but a degree in the field probably signals competence in a way that a degree in, say, history does not signal competence for, say, the good communications and critical thinking skills a liberal arts education is supposed to impart.

        Further, I assume (but don’t know) that regardless of his “natural” aptitude or whatever for fixing computers and regardless of what earning the degree actually taught him or trained him for, he probably could not have gotten the job without the credential.

        I tend to see for-profit schools as exploitative. But in this person’s case, the experience seems to have been instrumental in getting a job. Or maybe: again, I don’t know his situation or if he could’ve done better at a state school or if a state school offers a similar type of technical program. I also don’t know for sure if he was a citizen. As I said, his parents are from Mexico, but I don’t know if he was born here (not to mention that it’s not really my business to know). The reason I bring that up is because I understand that for-profits make it easier for undocumented people to get an education, because they don’t have the same restrictions that some state schools do. (I understand that some state schools in Illinois–including some cc’s and even 4-years–accept and try to help undocumented students while others as a matter of policy do not allow them or do, but offer no financial aid.)

        Was “college”–in this case, a for-profit college–“for” the gentleman who fixed our computer? It’s hard for me to say no.

        Would it be better to spend public money to help someone like him get the credential/training? I have a hard time saying no. Even if we assume (again, without knowing) that he would have self-taught or trained himself in the relevant skills, I do assume (yet again, without knowing) having the degree gave him a foot in the door. How else could he have gotten the job? Perhaps by knowing someone who knows someone. But in that case, I imagine it’s harder for someone with his background to know someone who knows someone
        than it is for someone with, say, my background.

        Would it be better to have some apprenticeship or vocational training program, subsidized by public money, instead of a college subsidy? Maybe. In that person’s case, probably. But still, I don’t know much else about him or his experience at the for-profit. Maybe he enjoyed the intellectual rigor of learning whatever he had to to get his degree, or maybe years from now he’ll come to the conclusion that he learned really valuable, non-technical type stuff he would haven’t learned in an apprenticeship program.Report

      • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Would it be better to spend public money to help someone like him get the credential/training? I have a hard time saying no.

        To clarify, I have an easier time saying “no” if we’re talking about for-profits. I have a harder time saying “no” if we’re talking about expanding access to private (but not for profit) or public colleges. I have an even harder time saying “no” if we’re talking only about public colleges.Report

  8. Avatar Saul Degraw says:


    Re: Empathy and What the White Working Class Hear

    Suppose what you are saying is true. How do you propose liberals respond to the snob accusation while maintaining the importance of the program and defending it?

    I noted above that the representatives of the urban poor do not make the snob accusation and this raises the issue of whether the Democratic Party should just double down on their natural base and constituents or not.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “I noted above that the representatives of the urban poor do not make the snob accusation ”

      It depends on the context. Vincent Gray beat Adrian Fenty in the latter’s re-election bid for DC mayor because Gray voters found an implicit condescension in the way Fenty ran things and moreover, the type of people that supported Fenty.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Simple, focus on Education & Training, rather than just the benefits of a University Education.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      @saul-degraw “Suppose what you are saying is true. How do you propose liberals respond to the snob accusation while maintaining the importance of the program and defending it?”

      Well, for starters, you can actually listen to what people are saying when they say you’re snobs. And I mean this in no little way. If you are coming off as snobby and overly-superior to someone and that person says that to you, not acknowledging what they are trying to communicate and being casually dismissive with them is a pretty damn sure way to make them believe that they were right about you all along.

      Look, I agree with you that liberals tend to have better policies for the poor, urban or otherwise. And I support these policies. But despite that, I still get that for a whole lot of people hearing the message “you can totally be successful without anyone’s help” is a more self-affirming message than, “you’ll never amount to very much without our help.” So crafting a way to communicate that to people who aren’t on the same page that doesn’t amount to some version “What’s the matter with you?” or “Why are you people so backwards?” is probably a better way to get them to buy into your policies and candidates. Up above, Mike notes that he knows better than the people whose lives he would effect what “the truth” is, and if those people disagree with him then simply don’t like having their feelings hurt. But when we get into how we communicate with one another, there really is no “truth” — or maybe to be more precise, there are many, many “truths.”

      And BTW, this isn’t just good advice in politics. If you’re going to hang your own shingle soon (and I hope you do), learning to communicate with clients rather than being good at telling them things is necessary to keeping your doors open.Report