A Complaint About College

Kent Pitman argues that college is overpriced. Perhaps the way out — freedom from needing to go to college to get a decent job — will look like this:

1. American colleges adopt gap years. (I proposed this to the Chancellor of UC Berkeley. My suggestion was brushed aside — impractical, I was told.)

2. A larger and larger fraction of students realize that they can profitably continue to do what they do during the gap year. So they don’t go to college.

3. Given a substantial number in both categories, businesses notice that students who haven’t gone to college (who have, equating for age, more useful skills) do better than those that have. I’ve heard complaints about Ivy League graduates not knowing basic stuff.

4. With less demand for college, there is less demand for college teachers. This causes research universities to shrink because, with less use for a Ph.D, they won’t be able to attract as many graduate students. Harvard is out in front here.

Just as the Pentagon is a tax on women (because the military is almost all men), so are colleges a tax on everyone who isn’t a professor. (It’s an arms race because if your competitor for a job has gone to college, so must you.) As the American economy implodes — in In The Jaws of the Dragon, Eamonn Fingleton says the rate of American decline has no historical precedent — non-professors and non-professors-to-be will become less willing to pay this tax.

6 Replies to “A Complaint About College”

  1. Regarding your last point, don’t forget that Coca-Cola is a tax on everyone who isn’t Michael Jordan (who whoever their current spokesmodel is), and of course don’t forget that your local Dept. of Parks and Recreation is a tax on everyone who isn’t a lifeguard.

  2. Andrew, I’m not forced to drink Coke. And the cost of  lifeguards is tiny compared to the cost of the military or 4 years of life (what students are forced to spend on college).

  3. Seth:

    And the health care system is a tax on everybody who’s not a doctor or a nurse, and the public water supply is a tax on everybody who isn’t a plumber, and public buildings are a tax on everybody who isn’t a bricklayer, zoos are a tax on everybody who isn’t a zookeeper, etc.

    The “is a tax on” framing is a distraction, I think. The real point is that you and I disagree about the value of college. I think college is a good thing, you don’t. If you think something is a good thing, you don’t mind that people get paid to do it. If you don’t think it’s a good thing, it’s natural to get annoyed about it.

  4. I agree with some points each of you make. I think college is very valuable, but at the same time I think there is such a higher expectation that everyone go to college (as if it’s a right, not a privilege) that many more people attend college nowadays who shouldn’t than back in the 30s, 60s, perhaps even in the 80s. But again, “college” is not just one thing.

  5. Andrew, a distraction? Then why mention it? I thought you made an interesting point about the “tax on” usage. To say I “don’t think college is a good thing” is too simple. I think current versions of post-high-school education (= college) work well for a small subset of students. Let’s say 20%. For the remaining 80%, I think that 40% of them would benefit more from a different sort of college (less emphasis on what professors want to teach, more emphasis on what students want to learn) and 40% would benefit from having the requirement of having to go to college removed.

    Aaron, your comment appeared as I was typing the above. I see we agree.

  6. Seth: You might be right about the top 20%. I have no idea, but in our combined experiences teaching at Berkeley, Harvard, Chicago, and Columbia, I expect we’ve pretty much only seen the top 20% in any case.

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