Two More Reasons Why College Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

George Leef so thoroughly dismantled Help Wanted Thursday and Friday that there’s not much for me to do but poke around the rubble.
Let me take up two collateral points that are too little discussed. First, the assumption that a college degree means that the student has learned much of anything, let alone how to deal with complexity and adapt to changing job requirements, is a joke. I exempt those who major in math, engineering, and the hard sciences. But otherwise, I think the stereotype of the hard-partying, class-skipping, unmotivated undergraduate applies far more widely than most people realize. Hundreds of thousands of the children of upper-middle class parents are in college because their parents are paying for it and it’s expected of them. They treat college as a four-year vacation before they have to think about dealing with the real world. I cannot be more precise because it is one of those topics that hasn’t received as much systematic scrutiny as it deserves. But a recent report on trends in studying among college students concludes that study time for full-time students at four-year colleges fell from 24 hours per week in 1960 to 14 hours per week in 2003. That’s a very big drop to a very low level. And I know that the reaction I got from college professors and administrators—and students too—after I criticized today’s college education in Real Education was overwhelmingly of the “You don’t know the half of it” variety.
My second under-discussed point is that many young people who could profit from a college education are more likely to do so if they don’t go straight to college from high school. My wife, who formerly taught English literature at Rutgers, was just the first of many college faculty to bring this to my attention. The students who have come to college after a hitch in the military or working for a few years know why they are in college, why they are taking a particular course, and what they want out of it, in ways that kids fresh out of high school seldom do. Apart from that, quoting my wife, “Henry James wasn’t writing for nineteen-year-olds.” Neither were Aristotle, Milton, or Adam Smith. One of the best things we could do to improve the college experience for students and faculty alike is to persuade a new generation of high school graduates that they ought to get the hell out of the educational system for a few years and thereby learn something about themselves.

19 thoughts on “Two More Reasons Why College Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be”

  1. I agree. I didn’t really want to go to the university straight out of high school but did so under pressure from my parents … my grades were terrible!
    I dropped out and did what I wanted to do at 18 … serve a hitch in the military. After I returned to the university, I was on the dean’s list every semester.
    What a difference a little experience and maturity makes!

  2. There appears to be an inherent assumption that 18 cannot be an age of great intellectual development, but that is probably based on the lengthy monopoly our current factory school system has had. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Lincoln, Emerson were tutored or self-taught: they learned how to learn and became intellectually curious. Before the factory system came into place, there was no reason why a person could not accelerate through material. After the monopoly was in place fortunate individuals had parents that went outside the system, as Norbert Weiner’s did, to produce ‘child prodigies’. Home-schooling is bringing that possibility back for many families, as it did for my youngest two kids, who finished with ‘high school’ materials and moved on to Yale and MIT years before other kids. The current age step-locked cohort system is not serving us well.
    Secondly, my four kids have different degrees in Mathematics/Physics, German Literature, History and Software Engineering. The point was to create critical thinking skills and intellectual curiosity, not to wallow in a pointless disparaging of recognized human endeavors: law, engineering, medicine, theology, anthropology, literature, etc. all can provide fertile fields for an active mind to till for more than one lifetime. It should be noted that ‘intellectual curiosity’ often inspires creative individuals to explore interests other than their professional tasks; and, well-thought out university programs should intertwine intellectual developments in science with philosophical and cultural developments. This failure to coherently develop the western tradition in colleges, is perhaps the lacuna that makes our Teacher’s Colleges so disastrous and result in the emphasis on pedagogy without content that further contributes to an ineffective factory school system monopoly that stiffles our kids.

  3. Buzz is correct, but the legal hurdles to prove that the test is necessary for the job are quite difficult to clear. The risk of litigation is so great that most employers can’t justify giving such a test because one lawsuit, even if not successful, can be quite costly.

  4. Correct me if i am wrong but isnt it illegal for an employer to insist on some form of an aptitude test before employing a new hire?
    If that were true then the government itself would be guilty of breaking that law. For example, the military administers the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to all who want to join the enlisted ranks. I don’t know about the other services, but the Air Force administers the AF Officer Qualificaion Test to those who want to become officers. Likewise, I’ve read that the Post Office administers an aptitude test to aspiring letter carriers. Do people who want to become federal civilian employees still have to pass the Civil Service exam? Many local police and fire departments also have qualification tests.
    Like Buzz said, the test does have to pass scrutiny to prove it isn’t biased against minorities. For private companies, the potential legal hassles might make it not worthwhile. In that case, requiring a college degree even if the job doesn’t really need it is a screening tool.

  5. Vic
    No, it’s not illegal for an employer to administer an aptitude test so long as he can demonstrate that it tests skills deemed necessary for the job and so long as the exact same test is administered to all being considered for the job.

  6. I agree with most of this, including a stint in the military before college, which is what I did. (My Vietnam-era GI Bill paid a hell of a lot more toward my education than today’s pale version, too.) But I take issue with your assertion that only mathematicians, engineers, and their ilk are the only ones who know how to “deal with complexity and adapt to changing job requirements.” In fact, I find it quite the opposite.
    I majored in philosophy, which immediately brings snorts from most who hear it. Yet I’m the one who waded through the world of ideas and concepts for four years, and I’m the one who has learned to think both concretely and conceptually. Most important, I’m the one, thanks to such wide reading in many challenging ideas, who has the Grade-A bullshit detector.
    I find the technocrats the least imaginative and usually the first to fall for the baloney so readily shoveled our way by Hollywood, Madison Ave. and Washington. It’s the technocrats who know how to do something but not whether we should do it.
    I’m disappointed you sell the liberal arts (at least the concept of it) so short.

  7. Correct me if i am wrong but isnt it illegal for an employer to insist on some form of an aptitude test before employing a new hire?
    This fact may be the genesis of a lot of the college education requirement in many jobs.
    Imagining me as a potential employer (i am one though, I am looking for someone who is smart hard working capable and doesnt piss off everyone he/she works with.
    No matter what you do, a new hire is a gamble. The odds might work out better if i was able to administer a battery of IQ and psychological tests prior to hiring. As i cannot, i use a college degree as a proxy for smarts. This may not be very smart on my part as education undergoes a ongoing dumbing down process. Skills and knowledge that one would expect would be required for a GE, are now pushed into college, and perhaps beyond.
    By insisting on a college degree for all but the most menial of jobs, we are a. letting public schools get away with abrogating thier responsibility. and b. dumbing down colleges too.
    The overwhelning majority of kids in party schools are NEVER going to be capable of analytical reasoning and abstract thought, that college ed should first and foremeost inculcate. My impression is that when we send a kid who is tempramentally and intellectually unsuited for the rigor of academic life, he spends 150,000 of his parents money learning to play beer pong.

  8. The point about some time off from education is very significant. I remember returning to college in my early 30’s because I needed to learn something, something specific, in a very short time (3-6 months). I was amazed at all the slow-moving teenage drones surrounding me, every one of them convinced that it was going to take 4 or 5 years to graduate, *and that they had that much time to waste.*

  9. I agree with you that students should spend some time in the working world before moving on to college, and not all college students have the abilities to learn at the collegiate level, although they somehow continue to end up there.
    All of our children graduated a year early from HS and took some time off — doing a variety of things – community service, working fulltime, traveling, etc. My twenty year old turns 21 this September, and could benefit from another year of working/studying part time but will be returning to classes full time this fall, because my husband’s health and dental insurance plans will only continue to cover him if he is a full-time student after the age of 21. So there is also that hidden pressure to consider. His workforce job does not provide the same quality of benefits that his dad’s employer does. It is almost a maniacal synergy going on there.

  10. Your wife is spot on – I remember some of my undergrad, however, after my four year stint with the military, I went back to graduate school full-time in another type of engineering and I remember almost everything I studied then – I wanted to be there, I was motivated based on interest in the subject and I realized how ‘easy’ the life of a full-time student was compared to my time in the active AF. I was the only one in my graduate class who had come back to school after working for awhile – most of the others had come straight out of their undergraduate studies. The joke was that I had my homework done the night or the day after it had been assigned. To this day, I attribute my success in my current field to the fact that I paid attention in graduate school and wanted to be there. Maturity does wonders for focusing one’s mind.

  11. On your second point, I have held this view for many years after experiencing a MBA program in which most students had “real world” work experience. What a difference in the discussions and contributions between those who had worked and those fresh out of undergraduate programs.
    You miss another aspect of this point, however. I contend that not only will the life-experienced students gain more from the college, but they will also demand more from the schools and faculty. One wonders if many “x studies” or other gut programs would survive with such an audience.

  12. Actually, Aristotle was writing for eighteen year olds. Eighteen himself when he went to Athens, he became Alexander’s tutor when the latter was thirteen. Maybe we should try teaching our kids to be great-souled? That or powerpoint.

  13. I have overall agreement, but would like to add two more points. First, “college” has subsumed the role of professional education in some areas. In those areas, hours of studying per week also tend to be quite high, but the end goal is not learning about “complexity and adapting to changing job requirements.” Music instrument performance is one example, where something similar to a conservatory apprenticeship — with six hours of practice a day not unusual — has been grafted onto a purported “liberal arts” education.
    Which leads to the second point. There would be value in adding a liberal arts education to the conservatory, but universities tend to do poorly at that job, requiring a smorgasbord choice of courses in various broad category with no quality control over the content of the courses, in many of which the idea of teaching thinking skills is the last think on the instructor’s mind.

  14. It seems to me just by eyeballing it without any empirical evidence that the difference between having a graduate degree versus an undergraduate degree today is about the same, in terms of job security and opportunity as it was to have a college degree versus a high school diploma in the 1950s. Not only have we had grade inflation but a change in the value placed on the respective degrees. We look down on someone with “only” a high school degree when, in fact, that is exactly what they need to do the job they have always wanted to do. Conversely, there are now thousands of people with advanced degrees that are out of work because of market saturation and economic downturn. It seems that this change over the last fifty-sixty years has not been a positive one.

  15. Actually, I think Aristotle, Milton, Adam Smith, and yes even maybe Henry James to a certain extent were writing for nineteen year olds, if you take into account that when they wrote most nineteen year olds had spent their lives not going to school year after year but instead playing adult roles in society. With the imposition of universal and mandatory public schooling at the beginning of the twentieth century (which herds teenagers into youth ghettos and forces them to behave like children long past the time when it’s appropriate) then you do end up creating nineteen year olds who are not fit readers of these authors.

  16. I think one reason few people want to put college off for more than a year is because the expectation that mom and dad will pay the tuition comes with an unstated expiration date that is generally uncertain, but perhaps just about that long.

  17. Regarding your point about how young people are more likely to benefit from a college education if they don’t go to college straight from high school: reminds me of a cartoon I saw in “Mad” Magazine about, oh, 40 years ago. Two young college students were grousing about how the “old people” in their college classes were “ruining the class curve” because “they study”. I agree that the “college experience” is overrated. The Democrats, the “party of the people”, is pushing college enrollment on people who would be best served (and would probably make more money) in a trade. That’s one reason why the “for profit” trade colleges like DeVry and ITT are gaining popularity (another reason is one doesn’t have to waste time taking required, mind-numbing, “politically correct” humanities courses).

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