Friday, June 20, 2014

Is College Worth it? by William Bennett

As a mom with two girls about to enter college, when Bill Bennett writes a book called Is College Worth It?, I HAVE to read that!

The short answer is, “No.” At least, most of the time, for most of the people, college is not a worthy investment. 

This breaks my education-minded heart, but I have to recognized the days of college offering a real education are long-gone. Bennett states what the original purpose of a college education was in the past, “The universities produced individuals who usually appeared something like William James’s ‘good man,’ conversant in the principles of thought that shape our identities as human beings, citizens, men, and women. Through the dissection of the Great Books, symphonies, paintings, and historical accounts, students learned how to think critically about abstract topics and express those thoughts in writing. Further, the lessons learned from the material itself could be applied to daily situations and serve as reference points for moral and intellectual conduct.”

So if the question is, “Is an education worth it?” I would say a resounding, “YES!” But is paying for a college degree worth it? It depends. Definitely read this book if you want to go with your eyes wide open.

The first consideration is debt. Fifty-three percent of all full-time students took out loans in 2007-2008. The average debt at graduation runs $23,300. College has simply become unaffordable to too many students. 

The first cause of this is, ironically, financial aid. As government poured more money into helping students pay for college, colleges raised their tuitions. More financial aid = less affordability. Another unintended consequence of increased financial aid has led to fewer low-income students going to colleges. Even with the help, the sharp increase in costs has driven low-income students out. 

In addition, colleges have no accountability for how they spend money. This has led to cost raising factors such as over-paid faculty, premier facilities, redundant or worthless classes, and high administration costs.

So why do we send our students to college in the first place? There is a perception that a degree leads to higher wages, there is a social status conferred on those with degrees, and the ease of obtaining loans leads many to at least try college out. 

However, even though our economy seems to be moving in the direction of more jobs requiring a degree and fewer jobs that don’t require one, actually there are many jobs on the horizon that only require an Associates Degree. Many of these require some form of certification and no previous experience. Yet many students are encouraged to go the four-year route instead of seriously considering a two-year school. In addition to these kinds of jobs, there is a huge need for skilled labor in this country. Plumbers and electricians often make more than the professionals who work in the buildings they service!

Also, Bennett adds that many of the majors our kids sign up for have no realistic chance of leading to a job in the first place. Visual and performing art degrees far outnumber the more lucrative STEM degrees in this country. 

In addition, we send our kids to schools that simply don’t do a good job either educating them or training them for a career. It’s not always easy to calculate ROI for a college degree, but the fact is, some school are a great investment (Georgia Tech is #1) and others are a complete waste of money (Art Institute of Chicago will lose you $103,000). Since we have moved away from actually educating students at most colleges, it’s no longer good enough to just graduate. A degree doesn’t guarantee that you even know how to read and write well or think clearly. Studies are beginning to show that some students actually show no improvement in their cognitive skills at the end of their college career. 

Unfortunately a great education is not necessarily a panacea either. With college costs so high, the student must be assured he is being prepared for a career that will increase the ROI he makes in getting his degree. But too many colleges have made a faustian bargain with the students. You’ll get your piece of paper and we’ll take it easy on you as long as your check clears. Again, no oversight. In fact, many college are now finding, because of K-12 failures, they are having to teach remedial classes all too often. What a waste!

Not only is the academic part generally worthless, the social part is atrocious. Co-ed dorms have led to a direct increase in sex and drinking. Almost half of the students in co-ed dorms now binge drink and “rape” is reported by 1 out of 5 girls. Since “rape” is defined as “sex you now regret,” we can safely assume there is a lot of regretted sex going on. Our students know a lot about partying; history, not so much.

Bennett suggests we open our eyes and examine our assumptions. Get out the the “every child must go to college” rut. There are many other roads to success and college is no way the guarantor of success it once was. Look closely at the data before picking a school. Make sure its graduates see a good ROI. 

Bennett goes onto list some “recommended” schools. These include the Ivy League colleges, elite institutions like Harvey Mudd, private Christian schools like Patrick Henry, Grove City College, New Saint Andrews, University of Dallas, Thomas Aquinas, and my favorite, Hillsdale, to name a few. He also mentions some online schools like Western Governors University and University of Phoenix, as well as the exploding field of MOOCs. Udacity has an interesting model where they offer classes and their own form of credentialing to prove the student has mastered the skills. 

The very gifted should look into starting their career right away. Some exciting programs are being created to help the best and brightest do just that. He mentions Peter Thiel, 20 Under 20 program that gives enterprising young students $100,000 and resources to launch out on their own.

Overall this is a great book for those who have no idea how much college has changed in the last 20 years. Any assumptions from that long ago have to be discarded. 

So is college worth it? Um....

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