Monday, March 27, 2017

Everything Wrong with College

You must never let schooling interfere with education                                            Grant Allen

College is an enormous waste of money and time.
It's not about money, it's about getting an education
I have spoken of this before, but if the opinions of my family and every hiring manager I've ever met are at all representative, this is a deeply unpopular conclusion.

This is, of course, not an original idea (I doubt I’ll get much further in this piece than summarizing Scott Alexander’s Against Tulip Subsidies), but I’ll do my best to persuade.  

If the opening quote didn’t set the tone clearly enough, I’ll be explicit: the educational system is fundamentally unconcerned with education. I recognize that saying it in this way carries a strong whiff of newspeak, so let’s approach it by means of a counter example: Medical School.

Medical School follows the basic trade school model, wherein the students are taught everything necessary to practice a craft. Medical schools are famously grueling, but in the end about 80% of them graduate and go on to become doctors. They also graduate with an average debt of over 160 thousand dollars, but we’ll get back to that.

But, ignoring the financial cost, medical schools are reasonably effective at creating doctors. Likewise, I assume, for Electrician/Welding/Mechanic/Air Conditioner Repair schools. If they didn’t teach a skill, no one would bother going. Let’s hold on to that thought, while we consider the high school diploma.

Please raise your hand if you know what, exactly, a high school diploma is supposed to teach. Because frankly, I don’t have any idea. I know there is a circular answer involving the completion of selected coursework and the passage of state-mandated exams, but I am completely and profoundly confused as to the purpose of it. I’m looking at lists of jobs and careers that don’t require a high school diploma, and a list of them that do, and I’m not seeing any indication that the knowledge learned in high school is at all relevant.

Obviously, the things taught — math, science, literature, history, etc. — have plenty of implicit value. But frankly, they aren’t something most people use on any regular basis, and certainly not at work. And while work is not the only aspect of life where people can benefit from education, it does seem like an important focus.

Now the purpose of education is a debated topic, to say the least. But from the broader economic standpoint, if the goal is to “provide for the fullest possible development of each learner for living morally, creatively, and productively in a democratic society”, it does not appear to be functioning as intended. (That quote comes from the ASCD)

Ignoring high school for a moment, it is a matter of historical record that university enrollment has increased dramatically. Charts like this one aren’t so surprising.
But more striking, I think, is this one:
Peak attendance was in 2009, but this second graph functions fine without it. The most important fact I took away from this chart is just how recent college education is. People went to college, sure, but it was only after the G.I. bill that enrollment really took off. One can, without too much oversimplification, label the baby boomers as the “first” modern college generation. And their children were even more serious about going to college, you can see the sharp uptick at around ’91 on the first graph. 

But, great, right? More people going to school, learning. All that jazz. Seems like a pretty fantastic thing, an unalloyed good, etc. If only it were true.

It’s not a pleasant conclusion to reach, and one that requires a bit of explanation. Which is why I started talking about high school. Consider this graph:
The number of high school graduates (as a percent of the population) has remained fairly stable since the 70s. They made a fuss last year, because we recently got a record high rate of graduates: 83%. And while I’m very happy for those students, it cannot be said that it constitutes significant improvement.

That’s obviously not ideal, but it looks very bad next to this:
The current national average spent per pupil is about 11 thousand dollars. Basically, that line just keeps going up diagonally. I have a more straightforward explanation for this: we hit peak graduation rate back in the 70s.

Now I don’t know all the details behind the various state examinations, but I would be incredibly surprised if they had gotten significantly more difficult since the 70s, especially in the face of No Child Left Behind and “teaching to the test”. The more reasonable assumption is that some (fixed?) percentage of people simply cannot handle the academic work needed to pass the test.

The problem is only exacerbated in college. Some non-trivial percentage of the people going to college are fundamentally incapable of producing college level work. This would not be as big of a problem, were it not for the fact that college degrees are becoming a necessary pre-requisite for any job.

The reason, if I had to guess, is that we’ve passed some sort of unfortunate societal tipping point. At some point, everyone needed a high school diploma, and if you didn’t have one, you were unemployable. Stanford professor David Larabee seems to think that the role of the educational system is to ensure class stratification, and learning is merely a side effect. He tracks history farther back than my graphs, but the results are the same. Apparently, high schools were originally the elite schools of the rich, while everyone else just went to primary school for a few years. Eventually people demanded parity and government-run high schools, and the rich subsequently decided they needed universities. And that same thing, I fear, is happening with college.

Ignoring the future non-existence of work for the time being, we’re shutting out some large percentage of people from jobs, simply based on the lack of a mostly useless degree (I’m being deliberately vague with these numbers, because I refuse to be derailed into a nature/nurture/IQ debate). This would be a horrific shame, even if it didn’t leave people destitute and suck up many years of their lives.

I’m not going to provide a graph, because it’s not news to anyone that a college education has become exponentially more expensive. It’s hard for any of my contemporaries to imagine, but a few short decades ago, you really could pay for college with a summer job. Today, students graduate with an average debt of over 30 thousand dollars. I’m trying not to let my emotions leak excessively onto the page, but this is really fucking upsetting on several levels, so it’s worth taking the time to figure out how we got to our current financial situation. Unfortunately, I think I know: government subsidies.

The problem is, in any (relatively) free capitalist system, the market will try to correct itself. When the government spent millions of dollars to send the G.I.s to university, they added an outside incentive into the system. It has only gotten worse since then, as the number of universities has increased dramatically, both as a response to student demand and the existence of free government money.

This is not a unique viewpoint, but the concern isn’t merely academic, the 1.4 trillion dollars of student loan debt accounts for more than 7% of the national GDP. It cannot continue. This is another unfortunate case of unintended consequences, and we are all (literally) paying for it.

Please don’t take this as a denigration of education. Far from it, I think learning is an important lifelong activity, and that people’s lives are immeasurably enriched through it. But in a world where everyone has access to Wikipedia, and you can learn advanced calculus on YouTube, the argument for formal education becomes much weaker. And while there are plenty of individual exceptions, it’s not abnormal to see people party through college, coast on an easy degree (buoyed by grade inflation), and then get a normal job in a field unrelated to their studies.

Looking at it from this perspective, it’s hard to see it working any other way. The students get money from the government (or from their parents or loans), and the universities get money from the students. Under such a system, the incentive on the university side is to keep the students as happy as possible. Everything else is just a way to improve the college’s perceived value, allowing them to charge higher tuitions, enroll more students, and get more money.

Clearly, the individual actors in this situation (the professors, the students, etc.) are not consciously behaving in this way. It’s Moloch, or, more specifically, a coordination failure inherent to the system. The momentum may have started by a desire for social stratification, or an excessive influx of money, but regardless it is now barreling forward on its own. And that’s how you end up with doctors being forced to endure 14 years of schooling. Hard to open a little family practice and provide cheap care when you’re 160 thousand dollars in debt.

Understanding the full scope of the problem is necessary, otherwise you get very well-meaning people endorsing free college for everyone. Which is a nice plan for making college more affordable, but only exacerbates the problem in the long term (and ensures that the bachelor’s degree will carry as much weight as a high school diploma). I’m not usually one to advocate for a freer market, but you can’t just ignore the disconnect by fiat. We’ve produced more college degrees (and Doctoral degrees, for that matter) than the market requires. It’s a classic bubble, and I don’t know what society will look like when it bursts.


  1. I can't believe this is an unpopular conclusion. This is exactly what I've always thought about college (since graduating, at least).

  2. Do you have a solution?

    1. Something that comes to mind is use of a certification test, like the Multistate Bar Exame (MBE) for lawyers, Professional Engineer license (PE) for engineers, Medical License for physicians, etc., but removing the rigid degree and other requirements for being allowed to take the test.

      Taking the traditional path (schooling, experience, etc.) should be one way to raise one's odds of passing the certification test, but people taking other paths should be allowed to take it and be accredited just the same if they pass.

      So long as the tests are structured such that they're a reliable and valid predictor of performance at the job they're designed for, then the license retains its function: Those holding the license for a given job can be reliably expected to perform at a baseline standard or above.