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Participation Ribbon Egalitarianism Has No Place In Education

I got into a conversation on Facebook the other day that turned rather heated, as they often do, on the topic of college. I was arguing, as I often do, that there are too many kids going to college today, and as part of my argument I pointed out how poor graduation rates are. Here is a chart that speaks to that I have referenced before:

For white students, only 3 out of 5 have completed their degree six years after starting, which of course means that almost 40% of students start school and likely never complete a degree, and many of them have nothing to show for it other than student loan debt. No one lists on their resume “Completed 4 semesters of college”. For black students it is even worse with 3 out of 5 students failing to complete their degree in six years, and if you haven’t completed a degree in six years the odds are you never will. Schools like the University of Michigan have a staff of almost 100 and spend $11 million a year in their “diversity office” but in the case of blacks the majority of them attending college don’t graduate.

Our entire high school system is geared toward cramming as many high school graduates into college as possible, with the stated goal of sending even more kids to college, yet a huge percentage of those we are already sending don’t complete their education and come off campus with a bunch of debt and wasted years. As Bryan Caplan persuasively argues in his book The Case Against Education (my review here), the college degree is mostly a signal to potential employers that you have the intelligence and stamina to complete a degree. They don’t hire you for the skills you allegedly learn in college, except in some technical fields like chemistry or accounting. They hire you because your degree signals to them something about you as a person. Therefore having half a degree or three-quarters of a degree is meaningless because it fails to signal to an employer what a degree does. A person one class short of a B.A. is essentially as educated as someone with the sheepskin but they are not treated at all the same by employers.

One of the people in the conversation, someone I respect intellectually, attributed the poor completion rate to the failure of high schools to prepare students for college. That is a common charge and one that has some merit as many high schools are financially incentivized to “teach to the test” to boost standardized test scores and that can have a negative effect on college preparation. But I would like to propose a rather more controversial reason for poor completion rates:

We send too many kids to college and a significant percentage of them have no business pursuing a four year degree.

That is quite a counter-cultural statement but one I believe in.

Even when I was in school, waaayyyy back in the early 90’s, it was noticeable just how intellectually unremarkable most students were. They were not the cream of the crop, they were just average kids that graduated from high school and went on seamlessly to college. Many of them were in college because that was what was expected of them. They were not pursuing education with a specific goal of becoming an engineer or nurse. They were just in college as the inevitable next step in their state-mandated “education”. Based on my work experience more recently when I interacted with younger college grads, I don’t see any reason to think things have changed much.

The goal seems to be to make college as ubiquitous as high school, but with the added bonus of a trillion dollars in unsecured student loans. Virtually any city of any decent size has a college and even mid-sized cities like the one I live near often have half a dozen or more colleges and universities. They are all full of students in pursuit of that magic golden ticket to middle-class comfort, the four year degree.

When everyone has a college degree, that degree becomes drastically less valuable. In many respects a bachelor’s degree today is the equivalent of a high school degree 25 years ago. Almost everyone seems to have one and it no longer indicates extraordinary achievement. It has become a bare minimum qualification rather than an exceptional achievement in virtually all professional/business settings. In my last corporate job almost all of my peers had a degree, I would say all of them did but I am not certain of that. We each managed account relationships with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. None of us were using anything we learned in college. We almost universally came up through the financial services ranks, starting out in call centers or as entry-level clerks. We learned on the job and those that excelled moved up the ranks. Even given the significant responsibility of our jobs and the relatively high salaries we were earning, most of my peers were like my peers in college, intellectually unremarkable. Most of us were at least above average in intelligence to be sure, but that would have been true with or without a college degree. None of our degrees qualified us for the jobs we were doing but a lack of that degree would have been a barrier to us getting those jobs. The Bachelor’s degree shouldn’t be the academic equivalent of a participation ribbon that everyone gets, it should be the mark of a significant academic achievement. I like this quote from a review of Caplan’s book, the actual quote is from an article that is behind a paywall but here it is:

Seongho Lee, a professor of education at Chung-Ang University, criticizes what he calls “college education inflation.” Not all students are suited for college, he says, and across institutions, their experience can be inconsistent. “It’s not higher education anymore,” he says. “It’s just an extension of high school.” And subpar institutions leave graduates ill prepared for the job market.

So what to do? Here are a few suggestions….

First, high schools, and perhaps even middle schools, need to do a better job channeling students into appropriate paths. Kids with average intellects ought to be encouraged to seek vocational training after high school. That could mean learning a trade like welding or it could be some basic computer skills at a community college, just enough to get a decent entry level job where you can learn as you go. Students with below average intellects have no reason to take college prep classes or be forced to take coursework they will never use. High school and especially the last couple of years should be aimed at giving them some marketable skills so they can get a job when they graduate rather than sending them off to a school where they will fail and lose valuable years of experience. The intellectually exceptional students should be in classes that will help them hit the ground running as they pursue degrees in actuarial science or electrical engineering. I would mostly ditch foreign language (the retention rate after high school is atrocious) and classes like art that don’t add any value.

No parent likes to think that their little Johnny or Suzie is below average but by definition half of all kids are so let’s stop pretending otherwise. Oh, and one more thing. All kids should be getting more practical schooling in things like budgeting and finance, basic mechanical skills so they can fix a faucet or change their own oil. Get rid of the superfluous art class and make kids take at least one class in practical life skills per year of high school.

Second, shut off the unlimited fire hose of government funding and government backed student loans. People whine incessantly about the need to “make college more affordable” without seeming to understand that by providing a limitless pool of funding you are inevitably going to raise prices. When an 18 year old kid can take out loans of tens of thousands of dollars, with nothing securing the loan and with no underwriting for credit-worthiness or ability to repay, schools have no incentive to control costs. So instead they build new facilities and hires hundreds of administrative positions that have no teaching responsibility. Those costs are passed on in tuition which in turn is passed on to the tax-payers. It is a pretty sweet business model for colleges and universities. Paint yourself as indispensable and then convince the tax-payers to blindly hand over truck-loads of cash.

Many people on the left clamor that the solution is to make college “free”. Now, no one with an ounce of intelligence thinks that it will be “free”, instead the costs will simply be buried in the general budget of the state. Rather than each student paying, we instead force everyone to pay in part for kids to get degrees in gender studies and communications. If you think colleges have no incentive to control costs now, just wait until they can hide their costs in the general budget of a state!

Third, close a bunch of schools and in the ones that remain slash the degree offerings. Colleges and universities are so ubiquitous because there is so much demand and because they have unlimited revenue sources. Reduce the demand by channeling fewer students into the 4-year degree tract, eliminate the artificial funding mechanism and many schools will fold up. How many schools offering generic degrees in business do you need in any given city?

Most schools brag about the dizzying array of degrees and majors they offer and a significant portion of those offerings are absolutely useless, especially in the contemporary world. You can learn more about politics from Youtube and the library for free than you ever will listening to some faux intellectual PoliSci prof nostalgic for communism with a pony tail. If you are interested in history you can watch videos or listen to podcasts from some of the greatest minds in the academic world, many for free, rather than attending a lecture from a mediocre professor. Education for the sake of education is fine but you can get the same results for free that you spends tens of thousands of dollars and years of your life to obtain at a university. Sure you can make an argument of the value of a “well rounded education” but in reality the retention rate of information people were taught in general education classes at the university level is atrocious. Most students take a ton of non-major related classes, finish the final exam and promptly forget everything they learned. What did I retain from my undergraduate coursework in geology, economics and philosophy? Essentially nothing. I only took them because I had to in order to get my golden ticket.

There are plenty of other ideas but those are a few that would cause a huge paradigm shift in our educational system. I am not anti-college. I am all in favor of students with specific vocational goals pursuing the education they need at a four year school. If someone wants to be a chemist or a physical therapist, by all means head off to school with my blessing (but not with my tax dollars please). If someone wants to work with computers or be an HVAC technician, go to a community college. But if someone doesn’t have the intellectual aptitude for a specific career path, we should be helping them find something worthwhile to do for a living instead of postponing adulthood by sending them to college where they will as often as not fail and rack up debt while wasting valuable time where they could be getting work experience. College should serve a very specific and narrow function in our broader economy but right now it mostly serves as a very expensive adult day-care where young adults waste years of their life and gain no practical vocational skills in return.

The real world is not Lake Wobegon where all of the kids are above average and the egalitarian impulse to pretend all people have equal ability is silly, counter-factual and harmful. Let’s make higher education great again by sending fewer kids to college!

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