Stupid College Tricks: Is it worth it?

Today the Daily Beast ran a piece asking the agonizing question: “The Price of College Has Increased 1120 Percent Since 1978, So Is It Worth It?”

The answer is: it depends.

I usually write about foreign policy, but I’ve been teaching undergraduates in one form or another since 1985, so I’m going to wade into this briefly because the question of the value of college, asked over and over as college tuition has skyrocketed, is the wrong question.

It’s the wrong question because it treats “college” as just one big glob of education, with no differentiation among colleges, majors, students, and programs. It’s a question that amalgamates all the costs and benefits of higher education, as though a degree in physics from MIT is comparable to a certificate in clog dancing from Bumblebee State College.

It is also a question that makes no distinction between sticking to four years at a top school and drifting through a party palace like the one described by a graduate as “that magical seven years between high school and your first warehouse job.”

So what is the right question? Here it is:

Is going to certain colleges for certain majors, for certain kinds of students, worth it?

The plain fact of the matter is this:

1. Certain colleges are a complete waste of time and money.

2. Certain majors are not only a waste of time and money, but risk making you stupider for having studied them.

3. Certain kids just shouldn’t go to college at all. They don’t like it, they’re not good at it, and they’re going to hate it.

Let’s take each of those individually.

First, there’s a lot of data out there to suggest that colleges really only fall into three categories: Elite, Public, and Bullshit.

Well, that’s not actually a category, but that third one is where people really get screwed. These are the schools that are neither Cornell nor SUNY, neither Cal Tech nor Cal State. (I am leaving aside for-profit “colleges,” because they’re not actually colleges. They’re debt factories.) Those two sets of schools, the elite and the public, service two distinct groups of students, and for the most part do it well.

So is it worth it to go to an elite school? Duh. Yes. If you can get in, go. But if you haven’t cured cancer at 18 or written for the Times Literary Supplement as your high school English project, public colleges and universities are huge bargains with top-notch faculties. (You can thank the glut of good PhDs cranked out every year for that.) Your lifetime earnings will likely be higher if you go to Amherst than UMass/Amherst, but you’re still going to get a damn fine education at a great price. (Depending on your major. More on that in a moment.)

Yes, there are craptacular state schools, places that warehouse the local dumb kids like a kind of state-sponsored adult day care.  Others aren’t colleges per se; they really exist to train people in trades, and should just hang out that shingle instead of calling themselves universities. They’re cheap, but as the saying goes, you pays your money and you takes your chances. You won’t go broke, and you might learn a skill. So I’m not talking about them.

No, it’s that third kind of school that trips people up. It’s the one that costs a fortune and yet provides almost nothing in the way of a serious or even useful education. This is the boutique school that’s got a gorgeous quad, pretty dorms, great pizza in the student center, and professors who think their job is to keep students happy and entertained. This is the place that lets Mom and Dad say their kid goes to an elite private school, even as they sweat huge payments for the privilege of saying Junior didn’t go to “State.”

These schools charge ridiculous prices that their alums will never, ever recover in their lives, and they know that the U.S. government will help students borrow themselves into penury for it. They don’t demand finishing in four years; hell, you can pay tuition as long as you’d like. They’re okay with that. Just sign here. And here. Oh, and here.

One of the reasons this happens is that for some reason, children are in charge of this process. Each year, parents make long pilgrimages to multiple campuses driving their kids around like maniacs. In many cases, the kids have no chance of getting into these schools, and mostly fall in love with them on sight, because most campuses are beautiful. The idea that you apply first, and visit later, is crazy-talk to these parents, who mostly have completely ceded the choice of school to what their kids want based on impulses flooding them while they’re trying the pizza I was just talking about.

As far as I’m concerned schools like this — and no, I’m not naming any, we all know where they are — are committing something close to fraud. Except that it’s what the students and their parents want. And if you really want to pay nearly a quarter of a million bucks for a name on a window decal, who’s to say you can’t?

[NOTE: Some readers have since pointed out that small private schools serve as a crucial middle option for people who can’t get into top schools, and don’t want to endure the mass production model of Behemoth State University. I completely agree with that, and many of these small schools are excellent. If they’ll eat some of the tuition for you, or you can wrangle a scholarship, they’re terrific options. But many of them, no matter how much we might want to avert our eyes from the reality of it, are just overpriced places to park kids for four years until they leave to get jobs they would have gotten straight out of high school anyway.]

Second, even reasonable colleges can’t stop you from majoring in worthless degrees. Now, let me be clear: I don’t mean esoteric degrees, or degrees with limited use after college. I would hate a world in which there were no philosophy or art history majors. I mean make-believe majors that demand little of the student, and mostly exist as default majors to create the life-support tuition stream that keeps small schools alive.

If you decide to major in “visual arts” at Tiny Charm School, you’d better learn to froth my cappuccino properly, Future Barista. Some majors just don’t teach you anything except how to write a check to your school. If you want to major in communications at Boston University or Syracuse, you’ll almost have to try to be unemployed, because those schools do that and are known for it. But if you major in Human Communications (i.e., “talking”) in a decrepit local school, you will prove almost nothing except that you have successfully exchanged oxygen for carbon dioxide for at least 48 months. Good luck with that.

The same goes for liberal arts degrees like history. I knew a lot of history and government majors at Dartmouth, and they’re all fine. They’re mostly on Wall Street, which is where they were headed regardless of their major. But if you head just down the road or across the river to a small state college in New Hampshire or Vermont and major in history without Dartmouth’s juice, you’re in for a rough ride.

Remember, even though some of the liberal arts are in the list of lowest-paying majors, that data aggregates all majors from all schools, as though the Lit major from Vassar is facing the same future as the Lit major from East Cupcake University. In the end, as much as it makes us itch to think of it, lesser schools cannot provide the social imprimatur, alumni networks, and other social advantages their elite cousins dish up for that pretty penny. Yes, I know it’s unfair, but grow up: Pedigree matters.

This is a hard truth. It offends every fiber of our egalitarian notions about college, because college is supposed to be the grease that makes social mobility possible. And it can be. But if you go to some half-assed school, state or private, and major in something that up until 40 years ago wasn’t even a major, you’re going to end up four, or five, or six years later wondering why you don’t have a job, money, or a future, because the fact of the matter is that while you “went to college,” you didn’t actually go to college.

Finally, this brings us to the type of person who should — or more accurately, shouldn’t — go to college. Yes, yes, I know, everyone has to go, it’s the only way to get a job, blah blah blah. The legions of unemployed people with “college degrees” (and see what I did there, using air quotes?) should tell us by now that the notion we must all go to college is crazy. When the President says he wants everyone to go to college, it is the one time I rage at my Commander-In-Chief’s image on the television as though he were a straight-up commie agitator.

The fact of the matter is that some people hate college, and are worse off for going. Their misery in college could stem from anything, but usually, it’s from lack of college-oriented smarts. We’re never supposed to say that, but some people do not have the skills for college and never will.

But so what? College smarts are not the only smarts there are, and it shows just how elitist we’ve become that we think college is the only thing that matters. This completely ignores the people around us who enjoy trades, are good at it, and get rich doing it. The world would come to a dead stop without them. I write books about world peace and all that cool stuff, but when my washing machine leaks, I’m completely useless. Explaining to me how to fix it is like explaining plasma physics to my cat.  (Maybe worse, because at least talking to the cat doesn’t cause feelings of helpless anxiety in the cat.) I just had a great electrician rewire my house, and as far as I’m concerned what he does is indistinguishable from magic.

And yet, we cling to this craziness that every single kid must go to college. So they go to college. They go to Generic University (motto: “Lather, Rinse, Repeat”), major in Something-Something-Something, hate everything about it except the partying and socializing, take several years to do it, defer marriage, work, and the onset of adulthood, and end up with little to show for it.

At this point, I can feel the irate trigger fingers on the keyboard, all wondering how many kids I’ve fleeced out of their tuition, or whether I blew a king’s ransom on one of these useless schools myself. So here’s my backstory. Briefly.

Neither of my parents went to college. We were working class folks in a mill town in Massachusetts. I had some talent — I mean, hey, I was a National Merit Scholar — and I thought I would major in chemistry, which I loved. I applied to many schools, including the classic reach schools, but in the end, it came down to Washington University, Boston University, or Carnegie Mellon. For a lot of reasons, not all of them rational, I chose BU.

In those days, BU was over-priced and under-powered. It was not a smart play, except that I was going to major in the sciences, which would help. When I defected to the socialsciences, I had a serious talk with my adviser who insisted I take a rigorous program that included economics and Russian, so that if I could get through at least an MA, I would be able to find work (it was the Cold War, after all) if I were willing to work for Uncle Sam. It was a good plan and served me well.

BU was an overgrown community college, but it was trying hard, and over the years, as BU has improved, the value of my degree improved with it. These days, BU is a magnificent place, a world-class university. In 1979, not so much.

But even now, if you’re going to go to BU because it has that bitchin’ dorm on the Charles River, and you plan to fart around for five years doing some dinky major while you “find yourself,” believe me that you will cry impoverished, angry, unemployed tears when it’s over. It’s a great school for kids with money and/or a strong sense of direction. Others might wanna rethink it.

Anyway, I worked my way through, including grinding out an MA in one year at Columbia while working 30 hours a week. (Not fun.) At one point, I was running out of money, so I was dropping out. Realism means knowing when it’s time to go to work, and I accepted a civilian job with the Army. Fortunately, Georgetown took a chance on me and gave me a full scholarship for a PhD, and I was off to DC instead of a cubicle at Fort Bragg. But it was a near-run thing.

In my teaching career, I never lost a night of sleep about teaching at Georgetown or Dartmouth; those kids were going to be fine, and it’s a privilege to teach in a rich, elite school. (Fun, too.) I felt a little hairier about moving to a tenured job at La Salle, but even there, my mission from the Dean was to improve the social sciences and get them into better shape mostly to produce kids able to move on either to good careers or to professional schools, especially law. I couldn’t stay long enough to do it, but that school cared deeply for its kids, and I have a great affection for that little island in North Philly.

Today, I teach in the Extension School at Harvard, which might be one of the greatest bargains in higher education. It’s a night program, mostly — the nation’s oldest — to get education to people who are looking for it. Some of them are there for a course, some are filling a spot in a major at another school, others are there for the skills (including writing) offered by the liberal arts degree, and some just want to come to class and learn interesting stuff. My students range from high-school to middle age. I teach them in person and by distance, in class and in hybrid modules, and it all works.

I feel like I’m doing the most “value added” in this kind of teaching, because I can see real improvement and movement toward careers in my students, all while knowing that Harvard isn’t hoovering their pockets empty doing it. I especially enjoy teaching writing, and I’m good at it: I’ve been honored with commendations and awards from Harvard for my teaching. But just ask my students if it’s pure popularity; check their workload and my demands on them, and you’ll see they’re getting something of value for the time and the money they spend.

So, that’s it. College is a great idea if you’re smart, motivated, dedicated, and intend to study something appropriate to your talents and goals. If you want to go putz around at some middling school, have a good time, but don’t think you’re ever seeing that money again. That’s gone, vanished. You might graduate. You might not. The school will get your money either way.

One last point. College isn’t a miracle that solves your problems, nor is the lack of college the sign of inevitable doom. We all have stories on both sides of that equation. I had a friend who dropped out of college, became an entrepreneur, and now owns a spread in Vermont with his own trout stream. Another, who went to high school with me, was a troubled kid who went to college on a scholarship, landed a big job on the West Coast, and ended up divorced, broke, and dead from a bar fight right back in our home town. College can do a lot to strengthen what you have. It can’t make you what you’re not.

So here are four things to bear in mind when picking a college:

1. Pick schools that offer programs you want, not campuses you like. Make sure you can imagine at least some sort of career that major leads to. (Hint: Not “video game designer.” That’s not a thing.)

2. Think hard about those programs. Have a plan B, since you could end up changing majors. (I did.) Remember, college is only four years. People have car leases that will last longer than your entire education.

3. Don’t be seduced by schools that say “we’re just as selective and rigorous as Yale!” They might be, but that’s not a marketing point. Get sucked in by propaganda, and you will not only pay now, you will pay later.

4. Take stock and decide if you really can finish in four years. If you can’t, or won’t, maybe a year or two in the job market or the military will clear your head.

In summary, do not drift by default into an expensive local charm school, pay huge money, major in Indian Fertility Rituals, sink in debt, and then make everyone around you miserable bitching about your life sucking. That, my friends, is a self-inflicted wound, and you will richly deserve the job waiting for you under a paper hat.

College should produce an educated, literate man or woman who is capable of clear expression in English, who is well read in a spectrum of literature, who possess a grasp of Western civilization, who has learned at least one foreign language (no, not Spanish, one that’s in demand), and who is competent in at least a baseline amount of social and scientific knowledge.

If you’re not going to go to a school or take a major that gives you those skills, then yes, I would like fries with that.

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