why we need to rethink higher ed once again

In light of eye-opening reports about higher ed, Americans need to start asking themselves a fundamental question: how many people really need to go to college?

professor in class

Once upon a time, I heavily criticized a financier who took to the web to declare that college is for chumps and instead of immediately going off to get a four year degree as is prescribed by custom, a new high school graduate should spend at least a year doing something else instead. And while there are still points that I will not give to James Altucher under any circumstances, I’m seeing more and more evidence that his suggestion that it may be worthwhile to simply skip college altogether might not actually be as ridiculous as it sounded to me last year. I know, changing my mind with new evidence which challenges my previous opinion. I could not survive as a political pundit if I tried pulling this kind of crap on something other than a pop sci blog. But back to the topic at hand. The reasons for my change of heart haven’t just been based on my own experiences, but also rather disturbing essays in which colleges declare that it’s not their problem if their grads can’t find jobs and it shouldn’t be their concern, the wave of studies which find that college yields little in the long run, and as odd as it may sound, a comprehensive and well thought out essay on the subject on a comedy site…

Why would I seriously care about what a comedian who writes for a site best known for pop culture trivia and weird history factoids says? Because he actually manages to tie the disturbing findings about higher ed in a cohesive package which points out not only all the flaws in the logic that college means earning more money over your lifetime, the idea that everyone desperately needs degrees, and even references the study showing how short the promise of a college degree falls in the real world, the study which I mentioned in the previous paragraph and dissected at length a few weeks ago. And after outlying all the issues we see with colleges in the new millennium he doesn’t do the typical convoluted leap of backwards logic to justify that all we need to do is to teach better and study harder to make a poorly working model successful, but that college should not be mandatory for every profession and those who want to learn something new should just audit the classes that interest them. It’s somewhat idealistic, true, but it’s a hell of a lot better than recommending more of what was just defined to be the problem as the solution, or sending people into the arms of a predatory vocational school which teaches its students little and saddles them with debts through questionable loans.

Under this model, someone in a STEM major would still require at least a four year college degree because we may end up working on systems critical to infrastructure and defense, in medical research, and areas we know to require a lot of very specific knowledge and training. But for those who are undecided and want to go into business, or literature, or philosophy, college is likely to be far less consequential and real world work in actual real world projects would teach them far more than just reading lots of books they don’t care to read so they can write a lot of papers they don’t really want to write. Again, this does make sense because we’ve seen how rarely business school training translates into good corporate leadership and how CEO positions slowly but surely turned into a revolving door for countless companies who’ll hire a business school darling with the expectation that he or she will do something amazing to find out that the vaunted MBA programs’ case studies aren’t all that useful out in the real world. On a funny note, having graduated with a social sciences degree, at one point I considered perusing an MBA since I had the right grades and the right major. After consulting with business people who were likely to employ a newly minted MBA, their unanimous advice was not to do it.

But why would business people suggest not to peruse a terminal degree in business management? Well, it seems that none of them could figure out what an MBA actually did and what expertise someone with such a generic and broad training could bring to a specific business. An expert in something concrete could mature and develop to a leadership role by taking on more and more supervisory duties. A pencil pusher whose only expertise was in telling people what to do and use a lot of buzzwords was likely to fail because he didn’t know what the people he was supervising were doing or had to do. And he would have paid between $60,000 and $150,000 for the privilege of this achievement, if he ever actually got hired that is. Certainly, taking classes in accounting, social psychology, and law would be advantageous for any future manager, but why do we insist on a degree riddled with redundancies and general education classes stuck in there to “just expand minds,” and justify higher tuition costs? Why not make that mind expanding voluntary and to provide opportunities for those financially secure enough to take advantage of them for the sake of just learning new things? We could keep on cramming those classes into the curriculum for noble academic goals, but when those forced to take classes they don’t want to take view them as a waste of time, the results will be pitiful at best.

Colleges have dug in their heels and said that they’re not in the business of providing job education. And it’s certainly their right to do so. But if that’s the case and we should stop trying to pin degrees to jobs, why insist that undecided students who spent the last 12 years in school have to be saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debts for a diploma that in no way guarantees them a job and doesn’t seem to do a whole lot for an entire branch of major concentrations on an academic level as well? Maybe we need to give out less degrees and insist on more relevant education and stop fantasizing about how we’ll be showered with jobs once we’ll sink another $20,000 or $30,000 in a degree with vague applications? And maybe, we should rethink the idea that everyone should have a college degree and that more degrees equals better education and a workforce that’s better paid and more competitive. A truly competitive workforce in the developed world is one based on research, innovation, and creative applications of real world experience, not one that was told it will be given a nearly magic level of comprehension of a particular specialty with its diplomas. It’s a workforce that learns on an ongoing basis and does so because it’s members want to, not because they were mandated to do it.

# education // college / college degrees / higher education


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