Readers debate the question and related ones. (To chime in, please email email@example.com.) “What’s the point of college?” was also the crux of the conversation during the closing session of our Education Summit:
Some remaining thoughts from readers on the question:
This summer I accompanied my mother to her 65th college reunion. Part of the weekend’s program was a video about the Cornell University Class of 1950, the first class that came in with a large supply of veterans on the G.I. Bill. The film had some inspiring cameos about veterans who would never have gotten to college otherwise and the lives they made for themselves as a result. I wonder if our preoccupation with credentialism and the faith in the bachelor’s degree as a gateway to success and wealth is a legacy of that postwar crop of veterans.
I have observed the 20-year trend toward arbitrarily requiring college degrees for jobs that do not truly need them. I believe this goes hand-in-hand with the growth of Human Resources as a profession.
A company’s HR department usually handles recruiting functions, and it serves as the gatekeeper over which skills and credentials are required for a given position. The trouble is that they have no idea of what it takes to perform well in those positions, and they are absolutely the wrong people to create the requirements. The actual department heads who are hiring are often very busy and appreciate the HR gatekeepers because it means they have to look at fewer resumes.
I entered the professional workforce in 1979 as a general bookkeeper and later, between on-the-job training and self-study, became a controller. My husband was an electronics technician and ultimately started his own business. The ranks of college-degreed professionals in the workforce was a small percentage, and my husband and I, along with many degreeless others, had good careers without a college degree. It was common.
In the mid-late 1990s I noticed that more and more jobs in finance and accounting wanted bachelor’s degrees in “a related field.” The CPA designation, once available to anyone who took the appropriate coursework, was changed to require five years of education in accounting. Only the CMA (Certified Management Accountant via the Institute of Management Accountants) was available to me—but then only if I had a baccalaureate degree.
I did go back to school, majored in history (for the love of it), and obtained my CMA. Once I had a BA, I had opportunities I never had before. My career took off. Still, even now, although I have been a CFO and now serve as a Corporate Controller for a mid-sized companies, I am viewed to be unqualified for many lesser accounting jobs because I do not have a bachelor’s in accounting or finance. It’s absurd.
My last two great hires have been experienced professionals without a college degree. I frequently see articles about open jobs that can’t be filled because of skill deficits and mismatches between the needs of business and the employment pool. That is also absurd. Businesses are allowing a department (HR) that doesn’t understand job requirements to set the standards for those candidates. This harms business and shuts out a lot of really talented, qualified people, relegating them to perpetual underemployment.
Keep stoking this issue. This needs to be changed for our long-term prosperity.
Another would prefer we stop stoking:
So since you’re someone who’s asking the perennial “is college worth it anymore?” question, I thought I’d ask you to look at it from a different angle. My own fascination isn’t with that question, which to my lights has been answered positively, again and again and again—here’s an absolutely massive trove of recent data on the question, for example.
No, my interest is in why journalists are so eager to ask the question over and over again despite the durability of the “yes” answer. It strikes me that our media is really predisposed to find that the answer is no, despite such large empirical confirmation of the value of college.
And I think that’s more interesting: Why do so many journalists and writers want to say that college isn’t worth it, particularly given that almost all of them went themselves?
I, for one, would not say that, especially since I actually used my B.A. in History to a practical end, meaning my first salaried job out of college was writing about history. Eleven years after graduating, I’m still paying off student loans, but they’re definitely worth it, all things considered. The question of whether an M.A. is worth it—that seems much less doubtful, especially given stats like these:
Indeed, between 2004 and 2012, the amount of debt carried by a typical borrower who had a master of arts degree rose an inflation-adjusted 70%, according to an analysis of data by the New America Foundation. The report says this surge may be thanks to a 2005 congressional move that lets grad students borrow nearly unlimited money for school.
Personally I was fortunate to slip into journalism without going to J-school and rack up more debt. Instead, I got a paid internship at The Atlantic back in ‘07, working part-time to make ends meet and living in a rickety group house. So an M.A. definitely would not have been worth it to me. If you have strong feelings about the M.A. question from your own experience, let me know. Update from a reader:
Your reader who points to a “massive trove of recent data” settling this question should perhaps go back to college himself to learn about statistical inference and the difference between correlation and causation. All the data he points to documents advantages gained by college graduates, but makes no attempt to correct for confounding variables, of which there are many plausible ones.
The most obvious would be family income: people’s whose parents were rich tend to go to college more than those whose parents were poor, and they tend to have higher incomes and better other outcomes later in life. Is it really likely that higher education explains all or even most of those differences? Matt Yglesias ably explains this fallacy.
Furthermore, even if we knew with certainty that college education made people more productive, we couldn’t say with any certainty that it’s worth how much we invest in it, from a social perspective. I made this argument in more detail on my blog a few weeks ago.
I think, taken holistically, it’s pretty clear that getting a college education is worthwhile for most people, but it’s a valid question, and the concern about the growing requirement of bachelor’s degrees for jobs that don’t really require them is a hugely important issue to discuss.
Marxian Economics provides an interesting view of the “value” of any degree. The profits of a company can be divided into two parts: the amount that’s needed to sustain production, and the surplus. Training employees does not directly result in production for a company, which means it must come from the surplus. But the company has many other things they want to spend the surplus on, so they would prefer if their workers were able to do a job from Day One with no training. That means the bill for education/training falls on the individual or the state—which the company also doesn’t want to pay. That’s a different problem.
The readers before me eloquently argued that universities currently have a monopoly on verification for skills; this is sadly true. Even more distressing is the fact that universities operate as companies themselves. Students must pay more money than the value of the education they receive or the system will crash, which is why—I hazard a guess here—they’re forced to take unrelated classes, instead of being speedily prepared for a career.
Now, I learned the basics of this theory from a university lecture, but I haven’t payed a penny.
It’s free on Youtube. Unfortunately, if I want to prove that I know what I’m talking about, I’d need to have a shiny degree—which ironically I would understand is worth less than what I paid for based on the classes I received!
Is this a problem? Yes, it’s a trillion dollar problem. But the universities are getting their money, the politicians work for the corporations, and the corporations only care about their bottom line in the next quarter, so it’s not a problem that’s going to be solved, even though cheaper education is better for literally the entire human race.
Another reader cites a helpful book:
David Labaree’s pessimistic take in Someone Has to Fail is worth quoting in discussions about the value of the B.A. Labaree describes a race between educational access and the demand for educational privilege, and he places it at the center of the history of movements for educational reform. He thinks it unlikely that such a core tension will be resolved in the years ahead, and he imagines an inflation in higher education degrees that will continue unabated for some time:
… consider where the current pattern of expansion is taking us. As master’s programs start filling up, which is already happening, there will be greater pressure to expand access to doctoral programs, which are becoming the new zone of special educational advantage. So it seems likely that we’re going to need to invent new forms of doctoral degree programs to meet this demand, something that universities (always on the lookout for a new marketing opportunity) are quite willing to do. When that happens, of course, there will be demand for a degree beyond the doctorate (the current terminal degree is American higher education), in order to give some people a leg up on the flood of doctoral graduates pouring into the workplace.
In some ways this has already happened to science Ph.D.’s who have to complete an extensive postdoctoral program if they want a faculty position in an American university. We may end up going the direction of many European universities, which require that candidates for professorships first complete a Ph.D. program and then prepare a second dissertation called a habilitation , which is in effect a super-doctorate. This puts people well into their thirties before they complete their educational prepartion.
Another gets into the weeds with a previous reader:
I want to take a moment to reply to the update provided by your reader.
For the most part, he or she is correct that you must have an ABET accredited engineering degree to take the FE exam. A few states allow work experience to count for academic experience, but it isn’t common.
The purpose of the FE is the first step towards obtaining a PE (Professional Engineer) license. A candidate passes the FE, is graded the title of engineer in training and starts to gain work experience. After a number of years, they apply to sit for the PE exam. A number of PEs that they have worked under will provide professional recommendations and the state licensing board grants the PE license.
The reason for all of this process is liability. Only a licensed Professional Engineer can approve construction plans for buildings and public works projects. This is a response to the failures and loss of life that has occurred when these things are not designed and built correctly.
Don’t get me wrong; just because a PE was involved doesn’t negate the possibility of something going wrong. The intent is to minimize that possibility. It’s for the same reasons the bar exam and the medical board exam are required.
As a result, most PEs are in the civil engineering field. Many of the rest are engineers working in related fields, i.e. HVAC, plumbing, electrical wiring, fire suppression, etc. They are working on structures and their supporting systems for construction related to buildings and roads. There are plenty of engineers who never take the FE, and have very successful careers. We are covered under the industrial exemption, or it isn’t a consideration.
Mary Alice McCarthy wrote a piece for us declaring “America: Abandon Your Reverence for the Bachelor’s Degree.” A reader quotes her:
“Undergraduates are supposed to get a general education that will prepare them for training, which they will presumably get once they land a job or go to graduate school.” Au contraire:
Companies simply haven’t invested much in training their workers. In 1979, young workers got an average of 2.5 weeks of training a year. While data is not easy to come by, around 1995, several surveys of employers found that the average amount of training workers received per year was just under 11 hours, and the most common topic was workplace safety — not building new skills. By 2011, an Accenture study showed that only about a fifth of employees reported getting on-the-job training from their employers over the past five years.
Hence the great push for ever-more vocational or job-oriented college degrees. The task of training has been foisted upon higher education.
And another reader is very skeptical of the value of higher ed these days:
The Bachelor’s degree is now the equivalent of a high school diploma. No one is impressed if you have one. But if you don’t have one, they'll toss your resume aside. Colleges and universities know this, which is how they can get away with making you take classes you know you’ll never need. That’s fine for high school. But a college student shouldn’t be forced to take a sociology course or two years of foreign language, especially when he’s paying tens of thousands of dollars per year in tuition.
A Bachelor’s degree is also a convenient way for certain professions to limit their applicant pool.
In other countries, if you want to become a lawyer or a doctor, you apply directly out of high school. In this country, you need a four-year degree before you can apply to law school or med school. By the time someone finishes their undergraduate, they may already have $100,000 in debt to pay off. How inclined will they be to go to law school or med school and pile on even more debt?
As for employers, certain fields like IT don’t even care what you got your degree in. They just want to know about your skills and experience. Gone are the days where employers actually trained people. Now they expect you to be ready as soon as you walk in. Why? Because employers don’t want to spend time and money training people who’ll then apply for a higher paying job now that they have a stronger skill set.
What college needs to do is prove why a Bachelor’s degree is still worthwhile. If the best answer they can give is “because you won’t get a job without it,” that might be true, but it’s still pretty sad. And if that’s the case, they shouldn’t be forcing students to take classes they don’t want to take.
Another reader searches for solutions:
Four or five months ago, I was driving to work and listening to the radio. A commercial was playing for a program called Grads of Life which. According to the commercial [another one is embedded below], Grads of Life is a program dedicated to helping businesses hire from of a pool of workers who didn’t have degrees but possess skills and characteristics that would benefit the employers. “That’s me!” I thought, vainly. “I am possessor of the aforementioned skills and beneficial characteristics!”
Delusions of competence in tow, I hurriedly filled in the web address for the site into my browser. I envisioned the site as what I had been waiting for: some sort of job applicant aggregator that I could add my name to, coupled with some way to quantify those skills. For years, I’ve been crippled in the job market by my lack of a degree, particularly since my skills are in writing, where out-of-work journalism and writing majors are a dime a dozen.
It wasn’t meant to be, though: Grads of Life ended up being a Clinton Foundation fueled PSA program primarily designed to appear to be doing something while in reality only letting companies re-showcase their pre-existing, under-privileged worker hiring programs, without doing any additional work. What few actual programs dedicated to job pathways were dedicated to people younger than my age, and they only served a few thousand applicants a year. It was a program designed to look good and accomplish nothing.
I was disappointed, but it’s nothing new: nobody is seriously trying to establish any way for non-college educated students to find work.
But what would an effective program look like? What’s probably needed is for someone with the clout of the Clinton Foundation to convince a number of large companies to work with the government to establish a way to “test out” of certain skills that are normally certified by a diploma. An employer won’t and can’t believe an applicant who swears that he or she is smart and skilled enough for the job based on promises alone—believe me, I've tried that again and again. There needs to be another way to prove to hirers a minimum level of skills.
Universities hold a monopoly on the ability to certify many skills. I might have read widely and deeply and practiced long hours to become a skilled writer, but without a diploma to prove it, I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of applications rejected. If there was a way to do an end-run around the diploma process for at least some of the skills for which alternative non-university paths of development exist, the monopoly could be broken.
An important point to consider regarding university monopolies on the authenticity of skills is standardized tests for various career fields. Tests for the Fundamentals of Engineering (F.E), CFA, and CPA require degree completion in that field to even sit for the test. Some even require the coursework to be at “upper division,” eliminating the possibility of associates degree holders sitting for these tests.
These careers (engineering, finance, and accounting, respectively) are three of the most lucrative careers available in the primary labor market today. They represent a clear path to the middle class. Colleges have a clear monopoly on the certifications for these degrees, meaning that the cost of an undergraduate education is another barrier to entry in all of these fields.
Describing neutrino oscillations is notoriously tricky. The search for a shortcut led to unexpected places.
After breakfast one morning in August, the mathematician Terence Tao opened an email from three physicists he didn’t know. The trio explained that they’d stumbled across a simple formula that, if true, established an unexpected relationship between some of the most basic and important objects in linear algebra.
The formula “looked too good to be true,” says Tao, who is a professor at UCLA, a Fields medalist, and one of the world’s leading mathematicians. “Something this short and simple—it should have been in textbooks already,” he said. “So my first thought was, no, this can’t be true.”
Then he thought about it some more.
The physicists—Stephen Parke of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Xining Zhang of the University of Chicago, and Peter Denton of Brookhaven National Laboratory—had arrived at the mathematical identity about two months earlier while grappling with the strange behavior of particles called neutrinos.
More than two centuries after it was designed to empower southern white voters, the system continues to do just that.
Is a color-blind political system possible under our Constitution? If it is, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 did little to help matters. While black people in America today are not experiencing 1950s levels of voter suppression, efforts to keep them and other citizens from participating in elections began within 24 hours of the Shelby County v. Holder ruling and have only increased since then.
In Shelby County’s oral argument, Justice Antonin Scalia cautioned, “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get them out through the normal political processes.” Ironically enough, there is some truth to an otherwise frighteningly numb claim. American elections have an acute history of racial entitlements—only they don’t privilege black Americans.
A tectonic demographic shift is under way. Can the country hold together?
Democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For most of the 20th century, parties and candidates in the United States have competed in elections with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers could accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat was not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but rarely existential. In recent years, however, beginning before the election of Donald Trump and accelerating since, that has changed.
As age factors more urgently in politics, a simple test could evaluate who remains fit for office.
Remember these numbers. You’ll be asked about them at the end of the test: 70, 73, 76, and 78.
These are the ages of the leading candidates in the 2020 presidential election: Elizabeth Warren, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders, respectively. In most any other line of work, people in their eighth decade are usually retired. For most of human history—and still in most of the world today—people of this age were usually dead.
Last month, Jimmy Carter, the 95-year-old former U.S. president, said that the office requires a person “to be very flexible with [one’s] mind,” and that by age 80 he wouldn’t have felt able to do the job. He joined the growing ranks of those suggesting they would support an upper age limit for the office, either for purposes of breaking up the gerontocracy or to ensure a person has the physical and cognitive capacity. “You have to be able to go from one subject to another and concentrate on each one adequately and then put them together in a comprehensive way,” Carter said.
A record-setting acqua alta has left much of Venice submerged, following stormy conditions blowing in from the Adriatic Sea.
Yesterday, strong winds and rainstorms pushed water levels in Venice, Italy, to the second-highest levels ever recorded. The high-water mark hit 74 inches (187 centimeters), just short of the record set in 1966. This exceptional acqua alta has flooded businesses and historic structures, sank boats, and been blamed for one death so far.
HONG KONG—For months now, I’ve been told that Hong Kong’s protests would end soon. They’ll end when school starts, I heard during the summer. School did start, but the protests wore on, only now I saw high-school students in crisp school uniforms joining the protesters’ ranks. Next, the mask ban of early October was supposed to slow protesters down, but the very first day after that ban, I watched streams of protesters in masks and helmets make their way to their usual haunts on Hong Kong Island.
The government shut down many of the subway lines that day, a practice that has become a de facto curfew, because Hong Kong’s über-efficient subway system is the way most people get around. No matter; the protesters ended up walking, sometimes a lot, and I walked with them, asking some of the same questions I had asked for months: Do you think you will continue protesting? What would it take for you to stop?
He can’t help but go after women, even when doing so hurts his cause.
On the second day of the impeachment proceedings, President Donald Trump couldn’t control himself on Twitter: He lashed out at Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was subjected to a smear campaign, and who testified to that effect before the House Intelligence Committee. Trump’s lack of control, in itself, was not unusual. But, for some reason, Trump showed more restraint 48 hours earlier, when William Taylor and George Kent went before the Committee. It was almost as if the president found himself triggered by Yovanovitch, the 61-year-old career diplomat. But why was the president’s response so different to witnesses who were roughly saying the same thing? What was the big difference between Kent and Taylor and Yovanovitch? All three are career diplomats, all three are Ivy League graduates, all three have worked in the State Department, all three are experts in Ukraine. But only one of them is a woman. Could that be why the president singled out Yovanovitch? It is almost as if the president is unable to control his rage against women. It is almost as if the president thinks he can bully women and silence them.
Suppose that the biblical story of Creation were true: God created the universe in six days, including all the laws of physics and all the physical constants that apply throughout the universe. Now imagine that one day, in the early 21st century, God became bored and, just for fun, doubled the gravitational constant. What would it be like to live through such a change? We’d all be pulled toward the floor; many buildings would collapse; birds would fall from the sky; the Earth would move closer to the sun, reestablishing orbit in a far hotter zone.
Let’s rerun this thought experiment in the social and political world, rather than the physical one. The U.S. Constitution was an exercise in intelligent design. The Founding Fathers knew that most previous democracies had been unstable and short-lived. But they were excellent psychologists, and they strove to create institutions and procedures that would work with human nature to resist the forces that had torn apart so many other attempts at self-governance.
President Trump’s pardons for three service members accused of war crimes will have lasting consequences.
None of the services seems happy with President Donald Trump’s decision to pardon two service members accused of war crimes, and reverse the demotion of a third. The Navy’s reply, however, sets some kind of record of disdain. The Twitter account of the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Information Office wrote on November 15: “As the Commander in Chief, the President has the authority to restore Special Warfare Operator First Class Gallagher to the pay grade of E-7. We acknowledge his order and are implementing it.”
Those icy words breathe the mood of the admonition from Band of Brothers: “We salute the rank, not the man.”
To understand why the Navy—and the other services, too—reacted so negatively to the pardons, here’s a story I heard on a visit to Germany a couple of months ago. I had the chance to talk with a senior U.S. officer in that country.
The gravest danger to American democracy isn’t an excess of vitriol—it’s the false promise of civility.
Joe Biden has fond memories of negotiating with James Eastland, the senator from Mississippi who once declared, “I am of the opinion that we should have segregation in all the States of the United States by law. What the people of this country must realize is that the white race is a superior race, and the Negro race is an inferior race.”
Recalling in June his debates with segregationists like Eastland, Biden lamented, “At least there was some civility,” compared with today. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition; the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”