Academia

Should the U.S. Say "FU!" To Universities?

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Economist Richard Vedder, who has written a book (Going Broke by Degree) about the American university system, thinks so:

The more evidence that I see that I believe is creditable and meaningful, the more I am convinced of the following:

* Too many students, not too few, are going to college;

* College and universities are extremely inefficient, and at the marginal public spending on them more likely lowers rather than raises economic growth;

* The federal financial aid programs have contributed to raising higher education costs, lowering efficiency, and increasing corruption within higher education –and done precious little good, sending few more kids to college than would have gone anyway (which, given the first point, is not all bad);

…….

*People need knowledge and skills more than ever, but alternative forms of providing those skills, such as vocational schools and on-the-job training are often superior and lower cost options.

*A greater percentage of entering college students should be attending community colleges, moving up to four year universities only if they succeed well at the community college level.

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  1. I’d be very interested to know if he compared/contrasted students matriculating in Liberal Arts and Engineering

  2. * Too many students, not too few, are going to college;

    I’m inclined to agree. Or at least I agree that too many students are seeking bachelor’s degrees rather than Associate’s degrees or other professional certifications. (Disclosure: I used to teach at a place that offered Associates and Bachelor’s degrees.)

    The federal financial aid programs have contributed to raising higher education costs, lowering efficiency, and increasing corruption within higher education

    Agreed. Anything that’s heavily subsidized yet has a price tag growing faster than inflation is clearly messed up. (And I’m aware that some would argue that the part of that sentencing starting with “yet” and ending with “inflation” was superfluous, but professors like extra words.)

    A greater percentage of entering college students should be attending community colleges, moving up to four year universities only if they succeed well at the community college level.

    I agree.

    And I don’t say this as somebody who has any objections to a liberal arts education (social science minors in da house!), nor even as somebody who’s snobbish about the ability of students to succeed in a liberal arts program.

    Rather, my take on it is that if students are mostly interested in their near-term employment prospects (a perfectly good concern!) then spending 4 years in college is not the best path for every person. It’s a good path for those who know what they want from a 4 year degree and are want to get the most out of what a 4 year program has to offer. Not every 18 year old has the motivation or preparation to succeed in college, or to get the most out of it.

    Personally, I absolutely love working with older students. They know why they are there, and I don’t just mean that they are focused on the immediate employment prospects or whatever. Some of them are also more intellectually curious than a typical 18 year old. Whatever their reason for being there, they’re fun to work with.

  3. “A greater percentage of entering college students should be attending community colleges, moving up to four year universities only if they succeed well at the community college level”

    Too bloody true. Lickily for me this is the path my sons have/are following. Unfortunately for my GF hefe daughts are or intend to seek the college experience. What BS!

  4. Higher education is a rip off. Come to think of it, schools in general are pretty useless ever since this intarweb thing took off.

  5. Too many students, not too few, are going to college

    That’s because ever since I was in grade school, kids have heard a non-stop mantra from the edu-establishment that if you do not go to college you will be relegated to a life of back-breaking, low pay work.

    While there are certainly many successful college grads, in my line of work I’ve noticed that the people that have become big time successful often have little or no college.

    I know that is an isolated subset of the general population and may not be representative but it is worth contemplating.

  6. Warren-

    Nothing wrong with a liberal arts education if you know why you’re pursuing it and what it has to offer, and you are interested in what it has to offer. For those who aren’t interested (ain’t nothing wrong with that), then it is a bad idea to go get a liberal arts degree just because “That’s what people do after high school.” Going through the motions to collect passing grades is a bad way to spend 4 years, no matter what the subject.

  7. Yeah, my n=1 supports that; I stayed in college, killing myself working full-time to put myself through, for six years and $40,000 of loans, to get a degree (math) that, while interesting, isn’t something I can foresee myself using in the future. Because I assumed I had to. I’m thinking about trying to become an electrician or a plumber. Then I can build my own solar-powered, compost-toileted dream home. While working to pay off those useless student loans.

  8. To pull a Cathy Young:

    Too many discussions of higher education get bogged down between people who want to trash liberal arts vs. liberal arts majors in a bunker mentality. Saying that everybody should be in a “practical” discipline is just as bad as saying everybody should seek a liberal arts education. Higher education, like all other goods and services, best serves the consumer when it comes in many different forms so that consumers with different wants and needs can pick the product that’s best for their personal, economic, and professional goals.

    I’ve taught at a trade school as well as a big name university, and soon I’ll start a full time position at a university that emphasizes the professions but still has liberal arts as well. Variety of offerings is the best way to serve the students. And IMHO, older students are often the ones with a better recognition of their own strengths, weaknesses, and needs, and hence a greater ability to choose the right program and succeed.

    In other words, stop telling every 18 year old to enroll in a 4 year program!

  9. There should be more focus on vocational education at the secondary school level, and less of the “if you don’t go to college you are a failure” stuff that TWC talked about.

    I know way too many people in college that went there because its what you were
    “supposed to do” (their words not mine), and flunked out after two years.

  10. I know way too many people in college that went there because its what you were
    “supposed to do” (their words not mine), and flunked out after two years.

    There are two ways to solve that problem. One way is grade inflation.

    Guess which way a lot of schools have chosen?

  11. I think a lot of it (at least in the northeast) has to do with the idea that the whole point of high school is to get to the golden gates of wonderful, binge-drinking, anonymous-sex college. The media portrays the undergrad experience as such, helped by “frat movies” etc.
    In reality, college is not about education. It is about certification – I can show up to class, I can write what teacher says to write, so on and so forth.
    I have a big ol’ chip on my shoulder about education in the humanities and how it’s become a game of “morph into your professor for a semester” that values independent thought somewhere at the level of dog poop.

  12. I agree with the post, I currently am attending KU, and many of the teachers are just babysitters. There are far to many kids going to school, taking a class (and not just an intro course) with 500+ kids (many of which don’t want to be there) is waste of time, energy, and resources.

    I don’t have a problem with a liberal arts education, in fact it offers a wonderfully diverse array of topics, though it is not for everyone. One just has to have a career goal which fits such an education. being a psy major I take my education consist of many liberal arts courses, of course i have to go to grad school to get anywhere in the field of psy, so I no longer have to worry about selecting career.

    I would also note that I did go to a community collage first(of course I was 25 before returning to school, I am now 28) and it is one of the smartest choices i have made. It made sure i was ready to be in class, able to study effectively..etc. And it was cheap enough I was able to pay for two years of school out of my own pocket

  13. I’ve always believed the high-school graduates should be forced to work at a job they truly hate for at least a year before they are allowed to step onto a college campus.

  14. I don’t have a problem with a liberal arts education, in fact it offers a wonderfully diverse array of topics, though it is not for everyone. One just has to have a career goal which fits such an education.

    I don’t quite agree with that last part. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing a liberal arts education for its own sake, on the idea that the general intellectual growth will make you into a smarter and more effective person overall. You just have to be aware of that going into it.

    I’ve always believed the high-school graduates should be forced to work at a job they truly hate for at least a year before they are allowed to step onto a college campus.

    Like I said, I LOVE working with older students.

    But people who worked crappy jobs in high school should get credit towards that requirement. I hated my high school job, and so the first thing I did when I arrived on campus (even before classes started) was seek an assistantship in a research lab.

  15. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing a liberal arts education for its own sake, on the idea that the general intellectual growth will make you into a smarter and more effective person overall.

    The issue isn’t liberal arts per se, but students that think they can borrow $20K or more to get a BA in liberal arts and then find a job to pay back those loans.

  16. Don’t blame me. I’m too damn stupid to go to college. I stopped learning right afetr HS graduation. I know I’m too dumb for college because often, when I hear some graduates (politicians, media “experts”, professors) speak, I can’t make any sense out of their finely honed reasoning skills. Well, I’ll get back to my ditch digging now.

  17. disclaimer:
    not that there’s anything wrong with binge drinking and anonymous sex.

    I keep my decoder ring!

  18. I don’t remember where I read it, but one columnist recommended getting a liberal arts degree while learning a trade during the summers.

    When you graduate you work as a tradesman and work you way up the ladder towards ownership.

  19. carrick-

    That sounds a bit like the philosophy of the photography school where I used to teach optics. They offered a certificate program (just photography courses) but they also offered a degree program that included business classes, liberal arts classes, and communication classes (writing, speech).

  20. “While there are certainly many successful college grads, in my line of work I’ve noticed that the people that have become big time successful often have little or no college.”

    Well the richest man in the world DID drop out of college to get Microsoft started.

  21. Having worked at both the university and community college level, I agree totally with this. And have been saying it for years.

    One additional point about major universities: one greatly misunderstood fact is that, for most of them, teaching students (at least at the undergraduate level) is NOT their primary purpose. Most of these are RESEARCH institutions, going after grant money. Despite any spin to the contrary, teaching undergraduates is second or third down the line in their priorities. Teaching graduate level students is different– the grad students are, after all, the ones that will be used as labor on the research projects. So for the average ‘pipeline’ out-of-highschool student it can be a much, much better choice to attend community college first, to get some of those 200 level courses out of the way. It’ll cost a fraction as much in tuition, and you’ll be in a 20-30 person classroom with a real, hands-on instructor instead of attending a 200+ person course in some lecture hall, ‘taught’ once a week by a professor emeritus who then passes everything else off onto TA’s while they go back to their research.

  22. Absolutely, there are far too many kids in college. (Ergo, too many colleges, too.) A pre-college school system rigorous enough to prepare those students for career paths worth pursuing would go a long way toward solving the problem right there. A long way, but not far enough. College is the default social stratifier in American society and social stratification is not all about income.

    That said, I wouldn’t dream of not encouraging my own kids to go to a four year college, preferably a selective school, and pursuing a liberal arts degree. (Caveat: An undergraduate physics or math degree is still a liberal arts degree. And if they wanted to opt for some specialties right out of high school, e.g., engineering, that would be fine, too.)

    The notion that entering college freshmen need some sort of game plan or vision for the future strikes me as simply foolish. If one can afford the experience, there is no better way to spend those four years of one’s early adult life than poking around different departments and schools, learning for learning’s sake and quite possibly finding an intellectual or occupational passion or path along the way. (Obviously, one can spend the time partying; maybe that leads eventually to some important life lessons, too.)

  23. Caveat: An undergraduate physics or math degree is still a liberal arts degree.

    It may be that the official designation for natural science and math is “liberal arts”, but most natural science and math students identify more with engineering students than, say, history or literature students. So they generally don’t refer to themselves as liberal arts majors. Say what you will about the proper terminology, but I’m telling you what the common usage on the ground is.

    And I’ll agree that you don’t need a game plan for life at age 18 to get the benefit of a liberal arts education. But you do need some motivation above and beyond “Well, this is what you do after high school, so I’ll do the minimum to collect my inflated passing grades”, and the preparation to do more than that minimum.

  24. thoreau:

    Agreed as to your second paragraph. Disagree based on the schools with which I have been associated over the years, but it’s no big deal. The point is that a B.S. in physics doesn’t make you a physicist, that some science majors do but many don’t pursue graduate studies in a scientific field and that all must complete distribution requirements and the rest of the requirements for a liberal arts degree as I understand the term.

  25. I think we invest too much in children in this country generally.

    I’m sure we can come to an approximation of that investment, but how do we quantify the return?

    …and what about morale hazard? What’s the cost of people deconstructing fairy tales when they might otherwise be productive?

  26. DAR-

    Engineering and business majors also have general education requirements. Maybe not as extensive as history majors, but they have them. And natural science and math majors usually have fewer GE requirements than social science and humanities majors. I realize that the school administrators usually classify natural science and math students as “liberal arts majors”, but the students themselves don’t usually use that term.

    Also, I’ve found that distribution requirements usually had to be satisfied from humanities and social science. If a history major took some advanced literature classes, that counted. But if a physics major wanted to take advanced chemistry and math courses, that didn’t count (usually, although it would count as a “science elective”, “technical elective”, or whatever the school calls it). This always bothered me.

    Ken-

    Here’s my perspective on the value of humanities courses, as somebody who teaches more “practical” courses, courses on things that you might do in a job: I find it easier to work with students who have already taken some significant humanities and social science courses, because they are better at reading something difficult and analyzing it, and better at writing a good essay. I don’t care whether they read philosophical tracts by dead white males, poetry by radical feminists, or whatever else.

  27. I’ve been saying this for years.
    This country used to produce lawyers, engineers, financeers, journalists and other professionals without any higher academic training whatsoever.

    No one comes up through the mail room or as a copy boy these days. Are we any better off for it? College limits class mobility, wastes time and resources and poisons peoples minds (ever date a women’s studies major?)

    Just a few weeks ago a young woman called one of the right wing talk shows who was getting a graduate degree in “conflict journalism”. I assume she was studying to be a war correspondent

  28. Part of the problem of a liberal arts education is how much dingbat material has been shoved into it where, frankly, there really isn’t much stuff there. (Women’s studies and media studies are my major pet peeves.) Also there are a lot of so-called liberal arts programs which would better be titled “stuff for the sorority girls to amuse themselves with while husband-hunting.” Art History, Rural Studies, and Marketing would fall in here…..

    Some liberal arts programs can end up being a good foundation–most of those are language programs where, if you manage to peel yourself off at the high end into the more business-oriented courses rather than literature, and swap out some of the sillier literature stuff for some business/finance stuff, you’ve prepared yourself nicely for a career in global business. Also because foreign language profs know that fuhgettabbaht all this theory, can you go and speak to the natives at some point? So there’s a bit more of a hard-nosed crunch time notion of practicality which is naturally built in.

    It will also be interesting to see the advance of internet-based courses….I read where now there’s a private enterprise offering Chinese language courses, totally on line–you get the drills, do them on your own, and then in the evening use Skype to connect to your tutor in Singapore, who puts you through your paces.

    That’s the stuff we really need–practical methods to get more material into our skill sets.

  29. Also, I’ve found that distribution requirements usually had to be satisfied from humanities and social science. If a history major took some advanced literature classes, that counted. But if a physics major wanted to take advanced chemistry and math courses, that didn’t count (usually, although it would count as a “science elective”, “technical elective”, or whatever the school calls it). This always bothered me.

    This reminds me of a trick my university pulled (thankfully instituted the year after I graduated). As part of the general ed requirement, a student needed to take a 300-level humanities or social science course. This didn’t affect any humanities or social science majors since they were already taking a 300-level course to graduate from their program, but all the engineering, natural science, and similar majors suddenly had to take another course to graduate. As you can guess, there was no 300-level science course as part of the general ed requirement.

    As if that wasn’t enough, the university re-organized the 300-level courses so many had 2-3 prerequisites, which served to keep most of the engineering et al. majors out of the interesting* classes. From what later-graduating friends told me, there were just a few classes that the students could get into, so it ended up being classes full of students who didn’t want to be there being taught by professors who didn’t like the material. Even for a university, it was a breathtaking stroke of idiocy.

    *interesting: courses that were the professor’s primary focus. As a result, the open classes were the classes the profs had to teach to keep their job.

  30. thoreau:

    As for engineering and business majors, (1) yes, I know, and (2) the fact that there are fewer is kinda the point. As for however your experiences differ from mine, generations aside, well … [shrug]. I have no experience whatever of a college or university in which the undergraduate requirements for the bachelor’s degree were such that “natural science and math majors usually have fewer GE requirements than social science and humanities majors.” You say you do and I believe you, but I’d bet the general rule is that such majors simply have fewer electives because their major may require more courses. Today, I know, many science and math majors (and, for all I know, humanities and social science majors) can opt out of, say, a foreign language requirement by taking computer science courses instead. Wasn’t that way in my day, still isn’t at many liberal arts colleges and universities.

    That said, the division of sciences, social sciences and humanities is ultimately arbitrary and not everything fits. Math isn’t a science. (Which is of course not to say that scientists don’t use math or that applied mathematics isn’t ‘real’ math but only that the field, as mathematicians themselves understand it, encompasses more than applied math.) History is a swing subject, too. Some force it into the social sciences, others into the humanities; so, yeah, distribution requirements work out unfairly sometimes, I agree.

    I didn’t go as an undergrad to a university that had an engineering school, but I did attend a major research university as a grad student. In the former I absolutely assure you the typical physics major perceived himself as getting a liberal arts degree and education and identified as such. (He may have snickered at sociology majors, but so did philosophy and psychology majors.) In the latter, the division tended to be between the graduate arts & sciences grad students working on PhD’s and the various professional school students. Just my experience, is all I’m sayin’.

    I know you’re in the belly of the beast now. I acknowledge your experience is far more current than mine. (Though I have a son who is double majoring in one science and one humanities field.) I’ll gladly state this isn’t worth arguing about but, beyond that, I’ll stick to my guns — undergraduate chemistry or math students who earn a B.S. are getting liberal arts educations whether they are aware of it, dislike or avoid the terminology, or not.

  31. I see the opposite end of this, teaching 110 level natural science courses which are taken overwhelmingly by students who aren’t majoring in natural sciences (unless you count psychology or behavioral sci. as such, which they don’t), the sole exception being Nutrition. It’s pretty grim, even though the students are mostly people who graduated from HS years earlier. Somebody’s told them (often correctly) that they need a sheepskin to get or keep a certain job. In some cases students who’ve clinched F in a course continue to attend perfunctorily to satisfy a financial aid requirement.

  32. I forgot to mention one vexing detail. My institution (and it’s not alone in this detail) teaches Evolution at the 110 level, rather than the 300 level where it belongs. It’s really hard to teach it to students who haven’t had any college biology, but somebody’s got to do it.

  33. This is one of the few times where the author isn’t using “there are too many kids in college” as a cover for “there are too many kids who aren’t the male descendants of Mayflower families in college.” Charles Murray comes to mind here. Lots of people can’t seem to understand that an HVAC technician would profit from learning about the Peloponesian War or counterpoint composition or imagery in Raphael’s “School of Athens.”

    I’m still concerned that any effort to reduce the number of college students or the necessity of a four-year degree will actually have the effect of eliminating upward mobility for lots of people. My father taught history all the time I was growing up at East Texas State University. (It’s now A & M Commerce, but nobody likes the Aggie title much.) East Texas was hardly a destination for Hockaday or St. Mark’s products, but lots of kids from Cumby and Leonard and Yantis got a chance at a cheap degree. In fact, three-quarters of my high school class went all four years, and believe me, we weren’t all faculty brats. It was cheap and convenient, including for older students. (I’ll be 44 next month, so I’m old enough to have grown up with kids whose mothers dropped out of school to get married. They REALLY appreciated the ability to get a degree.)

    I went to Metastatic State here in Austin, and knew more than my share of kids who were just occupying space. Still, I think it’s worth it to allow a few dimwits to sponge off their parents for a couple years to preserve the opportunity for people who wouldn’t otherwise have it.

    I suppose in my ideal world, everyone would understand that HVAC techs or electricians or carpenters do work that requires a great deal of mental firepower. Also, that said techs would take the occasional philosophy class.

  34. “Lots of people can’t seem to understand that an HVAC technician would profit from learning about the Peloponesian War or counterpoint composition or imagery in Raphael’s “School of Athens.””

    Many working class people used to “study” such things on their own in their off time as a means of “self improvement” and to transcend class boundaries as much as for curiosity and entertainment. Now we have college graduates who are culturally illiterate despite 4 years at State or the U.

  35. Many working class people used to “study” such things on their own in their off time as a means of “self improvement” and to transcend class boundaries as much as for curiosity and entertainment.

    Many still do.

  36. Somebody’s told them (often correctly) that they need a sheepskin to get or keep a certain job.

    This is often true. However, there are also the media reports of the segmentation of wages to education levels. People hear that HS dropouts make $15,000 / year, HS grads $19,000 / year, AS grads / $24,000 / year, etc., and assume that a degree is the key to more money.

    I suspect that this at least partially reverses the causality – people who make more money are more likely to follow through, finish what they start, are more intellectually curious – traits that (in well run companies) will bring higher paying positions.

    Unfortunately, the idea that a degree is a magic ticket to cash means that there will be a huge market for diploma mills.

  37. Personally, I absolutely love working with older students.

    I imagine this is the case with most teachers/professors.

  38. Lickily for me

    Uhhhuhuhuhuhuhhhh… You said “lickily”…

  39. Good point about upward mobility, Karen.

    I guess I would say this: I think everybody who has the motivation should attend college, because there’s a lot of personal intellectual growth to achieve.

    I’m just not sure that everybody who attends college should do so at the age of 18.

  40. “more likely lowers”

    Translation: this guy doesn’t know shit. He writes a book and concludes, basically, who the hell knows what’s wrong with universities, if anything. It’s anybody’s guess. And how much does this book cost?

  41. My dad is actually friends with Vedder. He’s got some sense to him in several ways. His main talking points are that people see college as an achievement rather than a practical thing – like to get a job or gain understanding of a field. People who don’t belong there are going in droves. Even smart people who have no motivation don’t belong there. He especially doesn’t like how high society looks down on vocational work and two year colleges, especially when people go to get a specific job.

    His other main point is that federal aid has contributed significantly to the explosion in college tuition increases across the board in both the public and private universities. He does statistical analyses for his presentations. Really an interesting man.

  42. Many working class people used to “study” such things on their own in their off time as a means of “self improvement” and to transcend class boundaries as much as for curiosity and entertainment.

    Many still do.

    Not me. See my previous post.

  43. It’s a mystery to me why some of the people who criticize American public schools heap praise on colleges. They say stupid things like “America’s univerisites are the best in the world” – which *might* be true in some narrow sense at the Harvard/MIT level, but has nothing to do with the typical college student.

    The whole school system is wasteful and inefficient from top to bottom. But it’ll never improve. It hasn’t improved in hundreds of years, and nobody is seriously trying to improve it.

  44. They say stupid things like “America’s univerisites are the best in the world” – which *might* be true in some narrow sense at the Harvard/MIT level, but has nothing to do with the typical college student.

    Even below the Harvard/MIT level, America’s colleges and universities attract students from around the world. Clearly our higher education system is competitive. Even our technical schools attract students from around the world. I used to teach at a technical school (taught optics at a photography college) and we had international students. Granted it was a pretty darn good photography college, in the top level of its niche.

  45. Eh, I don’t know about this thesis. It doesn’t jibe with my local experience. A few thoughts:

    I used to work with Japanese students in Osaka for a while. They know a lot more than peers from the US coming out of highschool but about the same after university. With the exception of masters and technical type programs, which are comparable in quality, their university system is much more of a joke than ours.

    Near term employment is a goofy measure of academic value. Try lifetime income.

    I believe strongly in the liberal arts undergrad. Here, I mean “liberal arts” in the way it was used in my experience, which is to say the focus is on broad intellectual experiences. Long term success in the economy for the forseeable future will have a lot to do with the flexiblity of your skill-set.

  46. Also, I have experience dealing with some of the bazillions of Indian technical school graduates. Given supply and demand, I would not want to have to compete at the level of ‘execute this set of clearly defined code requirements’, but I would be more than happy to compete at a level of ‘help develop some requirements’.

  47. I confused. How can “too many” kids attend college. Shouldn’t we be ecstatic that we’re so rich in the US that we can continue on with education past high school levels now, that we can all broaden our knowledge base at the expense of immediate payout? Kids going to college doesn’t seem to be a problem unless we’re wagging our finger at all those whippersnappers that are acquiring debt before they enter the job force. This article strikes me as disingenuous from an economist who thinks this will hurt us as opposed to demonstrating how rich we really are.

  48. Even below the Harvard/MIT level, America’s colleges and universities attract students from around the world. Clearly our higher education system is competitive.

    Doesn’t follow. I would suggest that they are attracted more by the prospect of living and working in the U.S. than they are the supposed quality of U.S. schools. Even really crappy schools attract plenty of foreigners.

    Again, I ask: how can colleges be good while public schools are bad? Quality is basically determined by the IQs of the students and teachers. Although an elite college may be superior to the average public school, there’s no reason to believe the average college is any better than the average public school.

  49. how can colleges be good while public schools are bad?

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