25 February 2010

Meatless Friday Thursday, Lenten Edition: The Case Against a College Education?

Ramesh Ponnuru penned this piece for Time Magazine. I post it as a conversation-starter here. College education is a common subject in many orthodox Catholic circles, homeschooled or otherwise, especially as it relates to Catholicity, cost, commute-or-away, and desirability for particular circumstances.

The Case Against College Education

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Even in these days of partisan rancor, there is a bipartisan consensus on the high value of postsecondary education. That more people should go to college is usually taken as a given. In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama echoed the words of countless high school guidance counselors around the country: "In this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job." Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who gave the Republican response, concurred: "All Americans agree that a young person needs a world-class education to compete in the global economy."

The statistics seem to bear him out. People with college degrees make a lot more than people without them, and that difference has been growing. But does that mean that we should help more kids go to college — or that we should make it easier for people who didn't go to college to make a living?

We may be close to maxing out on the first strategy. Our high college drop-out rate — 40% of kids who enroll in college don't get a degree within six years — may be a sign that we're trying to push too many people who aren't suited for college to enroll. It has been estimated that, in 2007, most people in their 20s who had college degrees were not in jobs that required them: another sign that we are pushing kids into college who will not get much out of it but debt.

The benefits of putting more people in college are also oversold. Part of the college wage premium is an illusion. People who go to college are, on average, smarter than people who don't. In an economy that increasingly rewards intelligence, you'd expect college grads to pull ahead of the pack even if their diplomas signified nothing but their smarts. College must make many students more productive workers. But at least some of the apparent value of a college degree, and maybe a lot of it, reflects the fact that employers can use it as a rough measure of job applicants' intelligence and willingness to work hard.

We could probably increase the number of high school seniors who are ready to go to college — and likely to make it to graduation — if we made the K-12 system more academically rigorous. But let's face it: college isn't for everyone, especially if it takes the form of four years of going to classes on a campus.

To talk about college this way may sound élitist. It may even sound philistine, since the purpose of a liberal-arts education is to produce well-rounded citizens rather than productive workers. But perhaps it is more foolishly élitist to think that going to school until age 22 is necessary to being well-rounded, or to tell millions of kids that their future depends on performing a task that only a minority of them can actually accomplish.

The good news is that there have never been more alternatives to the traditional college. Some of these will no doubt be discussed by a panel of education experts on Feb. 26 at the National Press Club, a debate that will be aired on PBS. Online learning is more flexible and affordable than the brick-and-mortar model of higher education. Certification tests could be developed so that in many occupations employers could get more useful knowledge about a job applicant than whether he has a degree. Career and technical education could be expanded at a fraction of the cost of college subsidies. Occupational licensure rules could be relaxed to create opportunities for people without formal education.

It is absurd that people have to get college degrees to be considered for good jobs in hotel management or accounting — or journalism. It is inefficient, both because it wastes a lot of money and because it locks people who would have done good work out of some jobs. The tight connection between college degrees and economic success may be a nearly unquestioned part of our social order. Future generations may look back and shudder at the cruelty of it.


College over-rated said...

My husband has a subordinate working for him in the IT department who is very sharp and started working as an intern for their company. He doesn't have a college degree but my husband has promoted him as readily agreed upon by his superiors. He is now a director, and moving up.

Getting in the door is usually hard without a diploma, but once you are in, if you are a great worker, you should be able to be promoted. Experience on the job is much more valuable than the worthless educations that most people get now.

I have a graduate degree and feel that it was much more usefull than my undergrad degree, because it focused on the information needed.

Anonymous said...

I do believe that networking is a key to finding good jobs and being able to move around. You could be the sharpest crayon in the box, but if your personality is greatly introverted and you don't make efforts to talk to others, opportunities may pass by.

Also, there are many jobs that do and do not require degrees. Degrees aren't needed to pour concrete, cut lumber, drive a mail truck, etc. However they are needed for professional levels. Many technical levels can benefit from trade schools that provide more hands on experience.

I can concur with "College-over-rated" in the fact that, for me personally, I have self-taught myself computer use as an example. I used to build my own computers and i have also self-taught many of the more complex computer programs and programming components that I did not learn in school. I also periodically fix computers for people and at work when IT can't get around to it. Trial and error works well when you are a teen and have quite a bit of free time. It can also help prep a teen for something to do as a career if there is enough interest.

I will be the first to admit that what I learned in college is not what I apply in my daily job, but it did help understand the theory behind much of it. Most of what I do today is based on practical experience and pulling data from tables that have already been established.

Anonymous said...

Those who think that a college educaton is about the "information needed" really should skip college.

Anonymous said...

I agree with all of this, and have a couple of extra rants to boot:

- The trades (i.e. carpentry, plumbing, electrician, stone mason, etc.) are really getting short shrift in our society. They aren't as respected as they once were, and consequently, it is increasingly difficult to find good ones. Yes, the unions themselves share some of the blame, as one of the age-old functions of the guild system was to eliminate competition, but our somewhat elitist society is also somewhat to blame, for denigrating those who make their living with their hands vis a vis those make thier living with their brains.

- The high cost and high demand for "higher" education is largely a function of being subsidized by our tax dollars.

Alison said...

"Those who think that a college educaton is about the "information needed" really should skip college." Megga dittos to this statement.

There is not a day that goes by when I do not think of something my professors Drs. Nellick, Senior and Quinn taught me at the University of Kansas. I thank God everyday for what I learned at college. The "idea of a university" has been lost and sadly most don't even realize it.

College over-rated said...


I think that is really sad that as an adult you are still reminiscing about your college professors. Most professors are nothing more than liberal elitists who teach their very slanted, untrue view of the world. It is time we all let them off their pedestals.

A college education is supposed to help prepare you for your career. A doctor goes to be educated in what he needs to be a doctor. An engineer learns what he needs to be successful in his career. Yes, real information is needed, not women's studies, or environmental classes or golf lessons.

If one is going to college to feel snobbish or superior, or enlightened, I think that one should just skip it, and save your parents the money.

Obama is very good example of how poor college education can be. He doesn't even know that you can't spend your way to get out of debt!

Alison said...

College Over-Rated,

Truly, it is not like I am reliving some rock concert. John Senior, Frank Nellick and Dennis Quinn had over 200 converts to the Catholic Faith in the years that they taught. We read the great books in translation and memorized great poetry. Among the students works that you will see fostered by these great men are Clear Creek Monastery and Wyoming Catholic College. The professors graduated about 20 religious (mostly monks)vocations including 2 bishops and one former rector of a seminary. Of those who married, we are seeing second generation vocations and good marriages. Go read Mr. Senior book "The Restoration of Christian Culture" or Dr. Quinn's "Isis Exiled" and it might get you thinking about some great things. I am not the only student who went through their Intergrated Humanities Program and now daily contemplates the Good, the True and the Beautiful. College is not a trade school.

Andy said...

Mr. College-over-rated,

Re-read Alison's post if you would. She referred specifically to three professors and a University. Look them up. Your comments display an unfortunate problem in modern thinking, a problem that could have been remedied, I dare say, by studying under those three.

John Senior a liberal elitist??? Who knew....

Alison said...

Thanks Andy! Are you a Jayhawk?

Andy said...


No. Just a fan of Dr. Senior et al. and a Benedictine Oblate attached to Clear Creek.

Dad29 said...

Actually, education should focus on how to live, as Cdl. Newman taught.

That's not the same as "how to DO." Not by a long shot.

"How to DO" is the function of a company's training program, and for most (not ALL) professional positions, that's all that's needed.

College over-rated said...

Dear Alison and others,

I have heard about the very small Wyoming Catholic College and even viewed a CD about it. It did look amazing and almost out-of-this-world. I'm sorry, but the 500 student from that good Catholic college do not constitute even a fraction of the general population, or represent what most Universities teach.

Most colleges offer many ridiculous courses and even more ridiculous degrees. A relative of ours is majoring in Environmental Studies, so she can make sure businesses adhere to green practices, and farmers don't use up all the water from irrigation. (her quote)

It is very good to learn about theology and great literature in college, but that alone is not going to get you a great job, maybe a religious vocation. You also need to learn boring subjects like math, government and science. And yes, finance classes if you are going into business do help, don't you think? Or computer science classes for an IT person?

One does not need a college course to read good, inspiring works, although that is an added bonus to a good liberal arts education. I want my children to get a well rounded education, so when they graduate they are not working at a Walgreens because they didn't learn anything to help them begin a career.

Anonymous said...

It’s great that you can fix your own computer but unless you have some certifications to go with your knowledge, you probably would never make it to my door. Your resume is my first impression of you. Self-motivation is a plus but it is a big negative if you don’t have some type of formal education. Even Windows certifications are better than nothing.

Today's market is so tough that I can be very choosy whom I even talk to. I need people who can come in off the street and produce. I don't have time to train you on computer basics and theory. I will have enough to do just to get you up to speed on our policies and processes.

Yes, we have four interns here now and have hired a percentage of them but they were all working toward their degrees and we encourage them to get them. I have one manager here who has worked his way up without a degree but he sees the need for one and is working towards it.

I agree about not needing the sharpest crayon in the box. I need employees who can research and work with people. Without those skills, you are doomed to sit in a corner and have work shoveled to you without any chance for advancement.

Alison said...

Andy, That is great. Maybe I'll see you at Clear Creek in April. I'll be staying with Bro. Martin's sister.

Funny thing but a former student of Mr. Senior's gave a mission on the Tridentine Mass this weekend at my parish. He talked about the symbolism in the holy Mass. Another old student taping the conference said I think Mr. Senior inspired the this priest to find out what every little thing in the Tridentine Mass means (and everything does mean something in that Mass). I just looked at him and said just think how much of your life Mr. Senior inspired. He has inspired many of his students lives. If you are at Clear Creek in April look for me and I'll have an audio copy of the talk for you.

Now back to the college talk. True my professors are gone or retired but there are more colleges than Wyoming Catholic College. University of Dallas, TAC, Christendom, Ava Maria are but a few. Also, I could never have read those great books and have the ultimate end be a desire to love Holy Mother Church without those professors. True, college is not for everyone but don't discount the teachers that love their students, the students who love their teachers and the teachers who love God and will impart that to their students. Truly, the Holy Spirit can be at work. And 200 converts who now have increased the numbers to 600 is no small drop in the bucket.

College over-rated said...


I must say that up until your last post I thought that you were somewhat of a snob, who thinks that you don't need to learn anything technical and concrete in college that will help you begin a career, as the Anonymous above pointed out as necessary. Now I realize that you are really just so thrilled with your Catholic College experience and how it helped your faith and other students, that you wanted to praise it.

It would be great if all catholics could afford a true catholic college, but that isn't always the case, especially if they have very large families. Thankfully, parents are able to educate their children in the faith, through their holy example and by teaching the faith. This includes giving them great books to read, and discussing it with them. Then they will go forth among the heathens at the secular universities and convert them.

P.S. Don't forget St. Thomas Aquinas College in California.