The Further Bankruptcy of Conventional Wisdom

“Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.” – John Stuart Mill.

The fundamental conventional wisdom that every child born to man should strive to attend college is comfortable, sounds good, and comes from a noble and decent impulse. It only has one defect. It is wrong. People should only go to college if it matches well what they want to do for a career and they have a genuine, burning drive to learn more about the world around them than they currently have to know.

When John Stuart Mill addressed St. Andrews University in 1867, he spoke to the elite of Scotland’s educational system. He addressed a group of people who valued education for learning’s sake and truly believed Socrates had applied the right value to the unexamined life. Telling this to people who had already graded above the mean and whose livelihood would never be in question was soothing, not controversial.

As seductive an ideal as this is, the modern American economy has rendered it obsolete. For one thing, most of the people attending college are not there to improve themselves for the sake of philosophical purity. They want qualifications that will land them lucrative careers. They go through college – they don’t really want to be there.

Secondly, the people attending colleges and universities are increasingly not all financially above water. I personally borrowed $20K to finance my trip through the diploma factory. Fortunately, I disciplined myself enough to major in Applied Mathematics and still maintain a reasonably decent GPA. Therefore I got paid. Therefore my lenders did as well.

Many of the people going into debt for higher educations are not dedicated enough to major in something torturous enough to translate into job offers and lucrative careers. They suffer several years, or perhaps a lifetime, while trying to unearth themselves from the mound of GSL debts.

To put things in elitist-d__k-h__d terms, SAT Scores and High School GPAs tend to track family bank accounts. College success tends to track SAT scores and High School GPAs. People like stupid, old moi, who have to borrow their tuitions, are taking a gamble out on themselves against fairly long odds.

This leaves the US with a large proportion of people who could make a decent living and stand to gain at least moderate financial success who do not. They waste time borrowing tens of thousands in loans and then wind up flunking out. Then, they end up not getting that career that they originally went to college to acquire. Charles Murray describes the pattern in an American Magazine article from Fall 2008.

For the student who wants to become a good hotel manager, software designer, accountant, hospital administrator, farmer, high-school teacher, social worker, journalist, optometrist, interior designer, or football coach, four years of class work is ridiculous. Actually becoming good in those occupations will take longer than four years, but most of the competence is acquired on the job. The two year community college and online courses offer more flexible options for tailoring course work to the real needs of the job.

This leaves me scratching my head. My job as a Cost Estimator doesn’t require advanced calculus. Algebra, basic undergraduate statistics, determination and common sense will produce a nearly unassailable estimate every time.

When I get really bored at work, I play a facetious game with myself where I try and find a good cost element to estimate with Legendre Polynomials.
It hasn’t happened yet. I haven’t even found a good use for a ordinary differential equation that a regression CER wouldn’t serve as well or better.

I wonder further still. How many people wanted to land a good, solid job and would have been capable of it except for the ridiculous requirement of a college degree. I just can’t imagine what aspect of running the Budget Inn would require a course in Industrial Psychology. One can imagine the half-time speeches a High School Football Coach could give, if he took Shakespearian English and read Henry V.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother;

This would be made out of awesome, if an occasional extraordinary individual was like Marv Levy. Yet this obviously shouldn’t be the baseline requirement for an entire profession. Nor should people who could do solid and acceptable work be kept out of their chosen professions by the requirement that they needlessly spend exorbitant tuition money on a degree that does not really prepare them for what they want to do.

By telling many people that should spend four years in college that they shouldn’t have to, the US economy and society do three negative things to itself as a nation. One, the cost of educating our people gets artificially jammed through the ceiling, in a manner similar to the costs we encounter in healthcare. If people bought only the college they wanted or truly needed, a four year degree would become a lot more affordable.

Two, we eliminate the prospects of people who could do excellent work in a number of professions by requiring them to spend four years doing academic book work that they don’t do very well. A competent Administrative Assistant or Bookkeeper should feel free to get a degree if they want one, or have an interest in some area of academic study. Yet no part of their typical job description is too complex for a smart high school graduate to successfully execute. A smart and enterprising nineteen year old could do either of those two jobs.

Three, by inflating tuitions through excessive resource demand, our society prices a lot of people who could do well out of the professional job market. This becomes an insidious form of class protection and discrimination. Like misguided minimum wage laws, artificial college degree requirements force people out of the job market who could and should land jobs and work.

By making loans available to poor people going to college our society deludes itself that we give them equal opportunity. We don’t. Our system makes them take out a mortgage on their future that wealthier people are not require to ever borrow or pay. It also makes their college experience a high-stakes gamble, instead of the intellectual exploration John Stuart Mill spoke of on the hallowed grounds of St. Andrews.

The United States should find ways to eliminate the use of college as a barrier to entry for the American professional class. This desire to keep out the undesirables isn’t amking American professionals better; it is making American universities more pointless. The conventional wisdom that everyone should have to go to college may not be all that particularly wise.