Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is college worth it?

One of those subjects that interests me a great deal, is whether a college degree is "necessary" or not. Lately, as the price of (even a mediocre) education skyrockets, the question is a getting a new and respectful hearing. Megan McArdle's in-depth Newsweek article on the topic, has prompted extensive discussion.

I am one who has often had my jobs supplanted by college grads. Frequently, these kids couldn't even decently proofread their own ad copy. I have trained college grad after college grad, many as dumb as dirt. It seems they are getting dumber, too... I think this is probably because the actual value of a degree is less than it used to be. I have trained numerous college grads who barely made it through (sometimes taking much longer than four years to do so), but by God, they had that almighty sacred CREDENTIAL that meant they should make more than I do; never mind that they couldn't even answer a customer's simple questions. (One college grad argued with me that there was no such thing as vitamin B-5. Really.) The dimwitted arrogance of "I have a degree and you don't; so I know everything and you know nothing," is worthy of a whole separate post. I collect such stories. Another big problem with college degrees is that the holder of said degree seems to believe that IQ points were magically bestowed when the degree was conferred... which is more proof of stupidity.

I am also one who has lied on occasion (especially in the pre-digital era) and claimed a college degree I don't have. It never seemed to make any real difference in anything an employer expected me to do. Such unnecessary college degrees (say, among video store clerks) are simply about gate-keeping; making sure that People Like Us are the only people in the break-room. The fact that I was easily able to pass as People Like Them, would suggest that it's the (apparent) fact of the degree, nothing tangible that is learned in the actual process of obtaining one.

From McArdle's piece:

Unsurprisingly those 18-year-olds often don’t look quite so hard at the education they’re getting. In Academically Adrift, their recent study of undergraduate learning, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa find that at least a third of students gain no measurable skills during their four years in college. For the remainder who do, the gains are usually minimal. For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential—a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, and compliant enough to stay there for four years.

When I was a senior, one of my professors asked wonderingly, “Why is it that you guys spend so much time trying to get as little as possible for your money?” The answer, [writer/economist Bryan] Caplan says, is that they’re mostly there for a credential, not learning. “Why does cheating work?” he points out. If you were really just in college to learn skills, it would be totally counterproductive. “If you don’t learn the material, then you will have less human capital and the market will punish you—there’s no reason for us to do it.” But since they think the credential matters more than the education, they look for ways to get the credential as painlessly as possible.
True. Learning itself often seems to be beside the point.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been reading some 'complicated' (but not really), obscure or arcane book (i.e. Jean Paul Sartre) and have been asked by the resident college grad in my office (accompanied by furrowed brow): "Are you reading that for a class?" The idea that one actually reads something "difficult" for oneself, for pleasure, is utterly foreign to them. Sometimes, when I reply "no"--the puzzlement is evident, and they continue, dumbfounded: "Then why are you reading it?" I hardly know what to say. (Tellingly, it is usually the 'uneducated' redneck in the office who giggles, at this point.) They usually punctuate these questions with, "All of that is behind me now! Whew!" or some other amazing comment, expressing relief that they will never have to READ A REAL BOOK again. (Wow, wasn't that shit HARD?) Some have proudly bragged to me they got through their entire college years without actually finishing a single one. I have never doubted it.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to read on Brad DeLong's blog (check the comments), that questioning the nature of COLLEGE UBER ALLES is now regarded as a conservative viewpoint. As Tim Gunn would say, this worries me. Back in the 60s/70s, liberals and radicals made this argument first, offering the common-sense observation that working and living in the real world--as well as a variety of interesting 'learning experiences' (this era marked the birth of that now-common expression)--also conferred 'an education.' I wasn't aware that questioning authority is now up to the right wing. (And how depressing is that?) Are liberals-on-the-coasts THAT out of touch with the situation on-the-ground? Do they interact with college grads from schools that never expected them to do math without calculators, or spell without spellcheck? I don't think they have.

More proof of the disconnect between elite liberals and the great working-class unwashed... and that makes me uneasy.


Further, there is the increasing importance of teacher evaluations, and whether they are a good or bad thing for education. What does it mean that students now determine whether a teacher stays employed? Is this an education worth paying big bucks for, one that has been "voted on"?

In the New York Times, former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer writes:
Student evaluations are a poor indicator of professor performance. The good news is that college students often reward instructors who teach well. The bad news is that students often conflate good instruction with pleasant ambience and low expectations. As a result they also reward instructors who grade easily, require little work, are glib and chatty, wear nice clothes, and are physically attractive. It’s generally impossible to separate all these factors in an evaluation. Plus, students will penalize demanding professors or professors who have given them a bad grade, regardless of the quality of instruction that a professor provides. In the end, deans and tenure committees are using bad data to evaluate professor performance, while professors feel pressure to grade easier and reduce workloads to receive higher evaluations.
In the mid-90s, I had a short-term temp-job processing teacher evaluations for a technical college. I fed the evaluations with the penciled-in answer-dots into a "reader" (which often spit them right back out at me... just like when you stick your dollar in the vending machine and it spits it back for having a crease in it) ... and then made pie charts on a Model-T-Ford-like-Mac, breaking down the teacher-ratings from the students: Excellent, Good, Fair, Below Average, Sucks. Then I deciphered the written gibberish from the students ("I like Mrs X, she is hot!", "Mrs X needs to stop talking about her cat all the time, some of us HATE CATS!" etc etc) and typed it up separately. Then I stapled the pie charts to the comments. (Yes, it was Model-T level stuff, indeed, but I remember thinking how high-tech the pie charts were!)

And do I need to tell you, how many times the teachers came sneaking in, asking WHO I was working on? ("Have you reached the computer/engineering/CAD department yet?") If I answered that I was working on their department, their eyes would go boinnnngggg (like a Tex Avery cartoon) and they would frenetically rifle through the papers (that I had carefully separated into piles, of course, causing me hours of extra work) looking for their own students' names and replies. My skinny, ADHD-supervisor would attempt to circumvent this extracurricular activity, keeping the door open from her adjacent office (where she liked to listen to Aerosmith) and bust them when they did this... scurrying in and shooing them away like kindergartners, reminding them of rules, rules, rules: YOU ARE BREAKING THEM. They didn't care. They did it virtually every day I had the job. (Some departments, I could see, were far more nervous than others; the nursing department was impervious and never showed up a single time.) The rifling of my careful piles of papers continued, and since my supervisor could SEE that this was not MY fault, I often got paid overtime.

I finally got the message, loud and clear, that their jobs were at stake. One teacher started groaning as he looked at his pie chart, his mortgage payment obviously hanging in the balance. One of them asked me if there was any way to fudge the replies, which I pretended I hadn't heard, just as skinny-supervisor bounded through the door and banished him from the room.

I remember a short, stolen conversation with one such crestfallen teacher, as I whispered (Aerosmith momentarily drowning us out) that his pie chart looked okay to me. He whispered back, shaking his head, that OKAY/FAIR was not good enough, you had to have blah-de-blah percent of GOODS... FAIR does not cut it. (I remember being surprised, since I am the product of a lifetime of FAIR public school teachers, and I still know every single one of my state capitals.)

What does this mean, that the opinions of students now dictate whether college instructors get to keep their jobs? (Even in a field like AUTOMOBILE ENGINE MECHANICS?!?)

Might this lead to getting softer and softer on the students?

And take note, this was at the dawn of the online era. "Rate My Professors" and other such sites that rate instructors publicly (and anonymously) had not even been invented yet.


In today's economy, we now have the sordid spectacle of employers demanding that bartenders and appliance-salesman have college degrees. As a result, we have a class of people who used to self-select out of college and go to work in factories, choosing to trudge through the torture of college, simply to avoid becoming unemployable. Since there are no longer any factory jobs in the USA, such a person is now at loose ends, and preyed upon by all the fake colleges promising a college credential during TV commercials. (Since these particular working-class folks haven't already been hanging out with the college-set, as I have, they are not quite aware that all college degrees are not equal, and some are barely regarded as real degrees at all.)

College is a racket, straight up. The costs are rising, and increasingly staggering. People graduate and can't find work. Worse, due to the magical degree in their hands, they think a job is promised to them. Thus, when they do get work, they expect it to be a certain KIND of work--the exalted occupations promised on the glowing TV commercials. When expected to mop floors with the rest of us, they are unexpectedly indignant: I didn't spend four years in college for this! they fume. As a matter of fact, you did. You did it to get hired, and now you are hired... now, mop.

I know, you didn't read Twelfth Night and go into six-figure debt to push a mop, and do you now see how ridiculous that was?


Willow said...

College has become necessary because an American high school diploma is increasingly meaningless. Trying math without a calculator? Students in my university's remedial math classes don't know enough arithmetic to figure out what buttons on the thing to push. Spelling without autocorrect? You're assuming the students in my first-year intro class all know how to read.

The conservative push against college is an extensive of their battle against questioning authority--religious/parental (patriarchal) authority, that is. (The Texas GOP making explicit their opposition to teaching critical thinking is a perfect demonstration).

Thank you for pointing out the problem with linking teacher jobs to student evaluations.

I have more to say, but I have to go get ready to teach precisely those students who are supposedly in tears over janitorial work. I find the general attitude is more, Holy fuck my job has BENEFITS! There are special snowflakes aplenty, but that is usually more a case of kids never having been forced to do actual work (see also: the problem with U.S. high schools; the shift of traditional teenage jobs to underemployed adults), not seeing themselves as "too good" for a particular kind of job.

...I would kill for a classroom of students like you, Daisy.

Willow said...

P.S. I'm not defending the existential necessity of advanced education for everyone, just pointing out one corner of current reality that tends to get overlooked in discussions about the usefulness of college. Nobody "on the ground" likes the (blatantly unsustainable) status quo. The real question is not "is college worth it" but "who profits from making it seem that way."

JoJo said...

Or you could be like me and have a useless degree....I have a BS in Mass Communications TV Production. The only way I got into law was to basically beg to be hired as a receptionist and told them to give me a week or two and if it didn't work out they could let me go. I just worked my way up from there. Now I want a simple, mindless, part time job and no one bites b/c I'm 'over qualified'.

thene said...

Much love to this post! I too have a useless degree - I do think my writing skills were improved significantly by it, but I've never made use of it for anything else, and never even had a job where a degree was a stated requirement ('stated' being the key word, I am sure).

You should read - she writes very regularly and with wonderful clarity about the terrible working conditions for the university adjuncts who do the actual teaching in American colleges, their shitty institutional values, and the student debt crisis.

Dirt and Trudge said...

Paul Simon: (Off "Photograph")>;"It's a wonder i can think at all after all the crap i learned in high school"...btw Our Rainbow Names (Given by an Eagle or Hark in New Mexico Gathering) are "dirt and trudge" & you use the the phrase "dumb as dirt" (WE are talking about Our Mother . Earth) becuase i do Oganic Gardening for 35 years Now and it is to remind me to be Humble and Aware. How Tuue you are. There is definately "room for improvement. Goerge Carlin talked about "SCOOL" and his opinion which "opened my eyes"!

D. said...


(Since I am of a couple of minds about the subject!)

Valerie Keefe said...


College has become necessary because an American high school diploma is increasingly meaningless. Trying math without a calculator? Students in my university's remedial math classes don't know enough arithmetic to figure out what buttons on the thing to push. Spelling without autocorrect? You're assuming the students in my first-year intro class all know how to read.

I could say the same thing about almost all college grads who marvel as I estimate in my head, or when someone rhetorically asks, "what're the chances of," and is greeted with a first glance recitation of the likely variables, followed by a calculation involving xCy or other dependent probabilities.


I have little-to-nothing to add to this. Degrees aren't a measure of education anymore, but rather, credentialing, as you say. Socio-economic gatekeeping. If that weren't the case, then University dropouts would earn more than those who'd never went.

Corey said...

I love this post so much. I just graduated from a masters program and it was one of the most exasperating experiences of my life. I graduated with the same credential (and damn near same gpa) as a few people that wouldn't know a critical thought if it bit them in the ass. Couldn't write their way out of a paper bag either.

bryce said...

u know what i think, d.

great post.

Michele Hays said...

Here's my feeling: there is college and college.

Think about learning as similar to eating. If you stick with what you know, you're going to have a very limited diet - and that can be very unhealthy.

In a best-case scenario, college makes you try out things that you wouldn't otherwise do. It provides structure that self-directed learning does not, that stretches you in directions you wouldn't otherwise go. This is a good thing, and is probably what employers think they are paying for when they hire college graduates: someone who has a had their worldview widened with outside perspectives.

That being said, there are an awful lot of colleges that push specialization too early and don't create structure to help their students grow. There are also an awful lot of colleges, both non- and for-profit that are more interested in the bottom line than in developing the minds of their students.

Willow said...

I could say the same thing about almost all college grads

Indeed. There is a lot of pressure on faculty, especially TAs, adjuncts, and anyone else without tenure (i.e. nearly all people actually teaching), to keep passing rates artificially inflated.

Believe me, if I could make a halfway viable living by teaching more adult literacy and community-based ESL classes, I'd do it in a heartbeat, and would probably be doing more good.

Anonymous said...

your shoulder-shrugging "it is what it is" attitude is where the problem starts, in my opinion. the children, in that they are children, can hardly be held responsible for the paltry educations they've been offered.
that you are willing to consciously reduce the quality of your classes while still maintaining that "college has become necessary" is exactly what's wrong with the picture. you bemoan the meaninglessness of a high school diploma, and at the same time you justify your own role in dumbing down the next level up.
you need to revisit your assumptions about your students' responsibility for their apparent illiteracy, and about your own responsibility to them. your job is not to keep your job, it is to teach. when those two come into conflict, the quality of any instructor shows itself in which one is his or her priority.
in short, dropouts drop out because the classrooms are full of professors like you.
sorry if i'm being rude, but frankly i found your comments to be exceedingly disrespectful and irresponsible, and i felt a dose of rudeness was called for.

daisy, this piece was absolutely fantastic, but i've come to expect that from you, so no big deal.

DaisyDeadhead said...

I really appreciate everyone's comments, thanks so much!

Willow, I think my difference with you concerns the fact that I am highly skeptical "critical thinking" can be "taught"... what I see on the net, in people who have (supposedly) studied "critical thinking"--is a certain vocabulary and approach, but not much actual critical thinking. Its a pose, like fashion. It's still a "herd of independent minds" to a large degree. I find more genuine critical thinking in the geeky scifi con-attendees (example, not saying it is confined to that demographic by any means) , than I do in the people who have studied actual "critical thinking"... I am not sure why. Is it the type of person attracted to the fantasy/scifi subculture, or does the subculture itself somehow widen the horizons and make people think in new ways? (Some combination of both?) And of course, you don't need college for that... although it may be the first place you are introduced to that subculture. Can other subcultures serve this critical-thinking role, as an "outsider" viewpoint?

As I said in an earlier post, I've also been reading Susan Sontag's diaries... and its interesting she thought scifi and fantasy were the last bastions of real storytelling in our culture, everything else has devolved into mostly a narrative of the journey of the self (which is good reading of course, but not "storytelling"). Maybe there is some connection there, too?

Anyway, I agree we need more critical thinking, just not sure it can be "taught"--I am not sure WHERE it comes from. I honestly have no idea. I know my grandfather somehow embodied it, and yet never even finished high school. I think it came from his "outsider" status, having been raised as a Christian Scientist. He just thought very differently from other people in his working class environment. (And he loved scifi too!) I think I learned it from him... but did he "teach" me, or did I just listen to him carefully?

Again, I have no idea.

And thanks for the compliments, everyone. I love you!! (kisses)