Is College Worth It?

Parents commonly assume that sending a child to college is the right thing to do. But is it? The college experience is vastly over-rated, and for some students can even be quite bad. Here are some facts to keep in mind.

As parents pack their youngsters off to college, they might ask themselves whether it’s worth both the money they will spend and their children’s time.

Dr. Marty Nemko has researched that question in an article aptly titled “America’s Most Over-rated Product: Higher Education.”

The U.S. Department of Education statistics show that 76 out of 100 students who graduate in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class do not graduate from college, even if they spend eight and a half years in college.

That’s even with colleges having dumbed down classes to accommodate such students. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million students who took the ACT college entrance examinations in 2007 were prepared to do college-level study in math, English and science.

Even though a majority of students are grossly under-prepared to do college-level work, each year colleges admit hundreds of thousands of such students.

Choosing the Right College by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute
While colleges have strong financial motives to admit unsuccessful students, for failing students the experience can be devastating. They often leave with their families, or themselves, having piled up thousands of dollars in debt.

There is possibly trauma and poor self-esteem for having failed, and perhaps embarrassment for their families.

Dr. Nemko says that worst of all is that few of these former college students, having spent thousands of dollars, wind up in a job that required a college education. It’s not uncommon to find them driving a taxi, working at a restaurant or department store, performing some other job that they could have had as a high school graduate or dropout.

What about students who are prepared for college? First, only 40 percent of each year’s 2 million freshmen graduate in four years; 45 percent never graduate at all.

Often, having a college degree does not mean much. According to a 2006 Pew Charitable Trusts study, 50 percent of college seniors failed a test that required them to interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, and compare credit card offers. About 20 percent of college seniors did not have the quantitative skills to estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station.

According a recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the percentage of college graduates proficient in prose literacy has declined from 40 percent to 31 percent within the past decade.

Employers report that many college graduates lack the basic skills of critical thinking, writing and problem-solving.

Colleges are in business. Students are a cost. Research is a profit center. When colleges boast about having this professor who has won a science award or that professor who has won the Nobel Prize, very often an undergraduate student will never be taught by that professor.

It is a “bait and switch” tactic and very often your youngster will take classes not taught by a professor but taught in large classes by a graduate student.

Faculty who bring in large grants are more highly valued than faculty who teach well. Teaching excellence is so often undervalued that the late Ernest Boyer, vice president for Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, quipped that, “Winning the campus teaching award is the kiss of death when it comes to tenure.”

Parents and taxpayers cough up billions upon billions of dollars to the nation’s colleges and universities. Colleges make money whether students learn or not, whether they graduate or not, and whether they get a good job after graduating or not.

Colleges and universities engage in “bait and switch,” confer fraudulent degrees and engage in other practices that would bring legal sanctions if done by any other business.

There is little or no oversight of the nation’s over 4,000 colleges and universities that enroll over 17 million students.

There are some colleges, such as Grove City College and Hillsdale College, that do a fine job of undergraduate education.

Useful information about what colleges are doing what can be found in the Delaware-based Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Choosing the Right College.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He has authored more than 150 publications, including many in scholarly journals, and has frequently given expert testimony before Congressional committees on public policy issues ranging from labor policy to taxation and spending.

9 comments from readers  

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This is but one aspect of the problem with the college fallacy which I've been trying to explain for years to people. Though I've never made any formal attempts to change the situation, I've argued for years that high schools ought to have better vocational programs, because not everyone is suited for nor SHOULD everyone attend college. As it stands now, vocational programs are poorly run and advertised, and are normally attended by students who can't seem to perform in a regular school curriculum, therefore being seen more and more as "fall back" programs for "loser" students.

The educational system does little to change this. How much more beneficial would it be to students and society if they could graduate high school as a journeyman carpenter or electrician, master automotive technicians with the potential to make over $100k annually, retail savvy employees who would become good potential managers? Imagine if high school students were able to learn CNC programming (a high demand, high paying skill) for machining parts while earning their high school diplomas? I remember many of my peers in high school who couldn't have cared a rat's ass about Julius Caesar and Leibniz, who wanted nothing more than to make decent money so that they could get married, buy a house, and bbq on on the weekends.

Some of my friends struggled for years in community college, or going from state university to community college, switching schools, etc. A lot of us now have ended up doing just a job to get by, but all of us could be much further in our fields if we hadn't floundered for so many years in college. I couldn't really blame them because there weren't any real alternatives, such as the ones I mentioned above.

By the way, I'm 29 years old, and was a 4.0 student in high school. I initially attended William and Mary, near you Mr. Williams. I completed my degree elsewhere. By the way, after attending subsequent schools, I've realized just how good the instruction at WM was; it was excellent. The expectation was so strong for me to go to college and do well that I didn't really feel I had a choice. Even though I was a very good student in high school(4.0) and college (3.5), I still wish to this day I had had an alternative.

I hate to say it, but I actually regret attending college when I did, because I am certainly not in a job that requires college at this point. I would have much rather worked for a couple of years, gained a better understanding of myself, and then gone to college with a fervor and determination I never had during those years.
Thanks for this informative and insightful article. Maybe you're next one could be about alternatives to college.
I have to agree with this column - I went to MIT, which cost a fortune, and I can't say that I learned anything that matters to me today. The classes were mostly taught by grad students, and the nobel prize winning professors were generally terrible at teaching.
Bravo, Mr. Williams! While my college experience turned out to be rewarding, it is largely because I sought out professors I wanted to learn from and leadership opportunities on-campus and in the community. I saw far too many people barely pass classes and party every night instead- such a waste of the taxpayer's/the parents'/their money!
Thanks for your fine article. Of course I'm reminded of Howard Roark's educational rollercoaster ride.

I'm from a creative family of engineers and artisans, none of which where college educated. My Dad retired at the top of his field as senior engineer at a top manufacturer thanks to night schools and on the job training. His three sisters all had successful creative lives without any college.

As a product of the NY public school system and having high SAT scores, I naively attended the Rhode Island School of Design seeking a higher education. The freshman year was structured and challenging with classes in drawing, 2-D / 3-D design and art history with wintersessions of holography and puppets. I was very proud of mastering my drawing skills.

On entering my sophmore year I was skipped a year since I had already done in high school most of what RISD's filmmaking department offered. Seeking a knowledge of philosphy, I took the only class available on the suject, the philosophy of all things...Nihilism. This tragic blunder was then followed by the school's open curriculum of progressive education so revolutionary for it's day. The lack of any structure and/or literary or thaetrical curriculum made for a wasted hard to raise tuition and board.

On finishing my senior classes one year ahead of time I was informed that I'd have to repeat my senior classes for no good resason. I realized this was just to get another year of tuition so I left without a degree and a sketching education (no pun intended). In all the thirty years since RISD, no one has ever even asked about my college degree with respect to the hundreds of creative projects I've been employed on.

It wasn't until ten years after college that I was introduced to the phlosophy of Ayn Rand's Objectivism through my interest in prog rock music via the band RUSH. Thanks to several young brilliant objectivists I met at that time, my intellectual education took a sharp turn towards the light of reason. It's an on going project to this day.
You forgot to mention that every big school deliberately tries to cull the most expensive students**.

I am an engineer and every one of my fellows remembers "weed out" courses. Typically: Physics with calculus, Differential Equations, and/or some variant of Quantum physics. The "weed out" variants, of these courses, were designed to make the topic unnecessarily abstruse and used the worst textbooks on the subject.

Rather than teach the material, these courses caused many to drop out or switch majors.

I understand that Organic Chemistry was used in a similar manner upon the pre-med and pre-vet majors.

** "Hard Science" students are more expensive because they need specialized facilities, with expensive equipment, continual lab resupply, and rarer, costlier instructors.
Is the author suggesting that government regulate universities? I can't imagine that would improve the process. It would, however, make college more expensive.
And then, there is the dirty little secret; Some people do not have to go to school. Some very lucky people are equipped with a strong primary education that allowed them to take charge of their lives at an early age and direct their own higher education.
Excellent article!! The pressures to publish, obtain grants or perish are extreme in our Universities and Colleges. Generally, spending time to teach well takes away from the ability to survive. There has to be a change in "what is valued" in a college/university professor from the top down before change can even begin to occur for our students.
A very significant misconception, or at least a major misapplication, which underlies the problem with modern higher education is that society has come to confuse post-secondary education with vocational training. The oft-repeated maxim that "A College Degree adds $xxx to one's lifetime income" is a sham argument, first because it is no guarantee and second because it mistakes cause and effect.

An agile mind can certainly be improved by education, permitting that mind to build upon a bulwark of prior thought and practice, but the value lies in the mind, not the training. The military can train virtually anyone to fight, but no amount of training can guarantee to turn all soldiers into leaders and strategists. Most of history's finest leaders began with the quality of leadership; that quality was and is often refined by education, but never created by it.

To our detriment, however, we have permitted the "education establishment" to redefine the issue, so that today even the most cursory scan of the employment ads reveals "higher education" as a virtual gatekeeper of industry, with "A 4-Year Degree" (discipline unspecified!) frequently required for any career-track position from Mailroom Assistant on up. Under such restrictions, the "lifetime income" argument becomes self-fulfilling, due not to the value of the education but to the virtual shunning of those who lack it, a chilling reintroduction of the medieval "guild" concept carried to unprecedented heights.

Classical higher education, such as is offered by Grove City, Hillsdale, Providence College (Ontario California) and a scattered few others across the country and around the globe, remains as valuable today as in ancient Greece, not for increasing the student's earning potential but for recognizing, cultivating and maximizing his or her learning potential.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.