Harvard study: Hey, maybe we’re placing too much emphasis on a college education

posted at 9:44 pm on February 2, 2011 by Allahpundit

You think? Can it really be that incurring tens of thousands of dollars in debt to attend a private university where most of what you learn won’t be relevant to your career is a bad investment?

Everything I thought I knew about the world is … pretty much confirmed here, actually.

A new report released by Harvard Wednesday states in some of the strongest terms yet that such a “college for all” emphasis may actually harm many American students – keeping them from having a smooth transition from adolescence to adulthood and a viable career…

“It would be fine if we had an alternative system [for students who don’t get college degrees], but we’re virtually unique among industrialized countries in terms of not having another system and relying so heavily on higher education,” says Robert Schwartz, who heads the Pathways to Prosperity project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Emphasizing college as the only path may actually cause some students – who are bored in class but could enjoy learning that’s more entwined with the workplace – to drop out, he adds. “If the image [of college] is more years of just sitting in classrooms, that’s not very persuasive.”…

The United States can learn from other countries, particularly in northern Europe, Professor Schwartz says. In Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, for instance, between 40 and 70 percent of high-schoolers opt for programs that combine classroom and workplace learning, many of them involving apprenticeships. These pathways result in a “qualification” that has real currency in the labor market…

“If we persist with the illusion that everyone is going to college, then we’re cheating those kids who aren’t going,” Professor Ferguson says. “A majority of the workforce does not have a college degree, and a majority of the things those people do are going to continue not requiring a college degree.”

Read it all. I wrote about this topic a few weeks ago in a post that got more than a thousand links on Facebook, which tells me that these recent cost/benefit analyses about the value of expensive college educations are striking a mighty big nerve out there. Ace has a sharp post on this subject today as well, wondering if deemphasizing college wouldn’t actually be good for the cause of liberal arts by encouraging a culture of sustained, lifelong autodidacticism in the humanities. If kids with an interest in, say, great literature know that they can’t cram foundational knowledge of the subject into four years of school, they may end up pursuing it for much longer than that during their adult leisure time in book clubs, learning annexes, etc. I confess, I’ve barely read a single novel since leaving college, and yet a friend of mine my age who didn’t graduate high school attends book clubs and film clubs to this day. There are weaknesses to this approach, obviously — kids need some exposure to the humanities in school to see if an interest is sparked — but it’s cheaper and more efficient than a four-year curriculum and probably better suited to our new economic reality. If, as is the case in Fresno, there are plenty of jobs available that can’t be filled by the unemployed because they don’t have the right skill sets, maybe focusing on building useful skill sets should be a priority for kids who aren’t much interested in higher learning, no?

Ace makes a good point too in noting how the Internet is helping to make the intellectual “market” more efficient by providing virtual space for people with similar interests to congregate, but to really see the vocational model of higher education take off, I think we’d need huge cultural changes beyond that. The CSM piece quoted above notes, correctly, that the vocational schools we already have are looked down upon, and my sense is that sending one’s kids to college is now as much a part of the American dream as owning a home with a white picket fence. In fact, Obama said in the SOTU that he wants to see the U.S. reclaim its spot atop the list of nations with the highest rate of college grads. That’s an exceedingly stupid goal given the backbreaking cost of private education and the amount of time wasted at school by many students (see last month’s post for that), but I’d bet most of the public is squarely behind him on it. How do you shift a culture from a credentialist mindset to one that’s more focused on the bottom line?


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Unless it’s one of the top 50 in the country, it’s stupid to go to a private college and pay 10X what you’d pay at State U.

angryed on February 3, 2011 at 9:56 AM

More like top 10, especially for undergraduate work. Really, depending on your desired degree, there are maybe 5 or 6 private schools worth paying for an undergrad degree.

ernesto on February 3, 2011 at 10:11 AM

A 4 year degree in computer science or computer assisted design can’t hurt. By all means, don’t go into debt for it; a state school ought to be just fine. This will also allow him to work, even full time, while pursuing the math, programming, and design courses that prepare people for such a career path.

ernesto on February 3, 2011 at 9:47 AM

Thank you. My husband is a studio art major from the ’80′s and taught himself CAD, which led to his current employment. My son sees this job progression (over years) and questions the merits of a traditional education. He would rather get right into immediate application – through an internship or apprenticeship. We’re balking. His cousin (bright student, wealthy family) had the same basic idea (minus the novel writing) until he spent a year at Carnegie Mellon in programming. Now, he’s interested in spyware and cyber warfare, which might not have happened without a broader exposure to the possibilities in the field.

Problem is, our kid is not a student per se. Brilliant, dedicated to his vision, not sold on the work assigned to him. We keep telling him this is about building skill sets, which he isn’t buying either. I’m starting to think the School of Hard Knocks for a year would be the most beneficial.

piglet on February 3, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Problem is, our kid is not a student per se. Brilliant, dedicated to his vision, not sold on the work assigned to him. We keep telling him this is about building skill sets, which he isn’t buying either. I’m starting to think the School of Hard Knocks for a year would be the most beneficial.

piglet on February 3, 2011 at 10:30 AM

I’m the same way. I work full time, while attending school full time; if all I were doing was taking classes, I’d go nuts. Most students, for whatever reason, see college and full time employment as mutually exclusive. It needn’t be. He can intern or work while he takes classes. Seeing as the social aspect of college is on the back burner for all of you (as it should be), I’d recommend he put energy towards working and building skills, while approaching school as sort of “read the f*cking manual” (RTFM, a major technical term!) time.

ernesto on February 3, 2011 at 10:55 AM

piglet on February 3, 2011 at 10:30 AM

15 is awfully young to have to make lifelong decisions on what you want to do for a career.

I have 3 homeschooled sons who are 30, 28, and 26. Language analyst for the military, plumber, and industrial engineer. None of them had any idea what they wanted to do at 15. The plumber was in pre-med and took a summer job with a plumbing and heating firm, realized that if he got his journeyman’s license, he would make more as a plumber over time than if he went $100,000 into debt for a medical degree. As an added plus he could do something he enjoyed, and skip 8 boring years of schooling. He does very well for himself and his family. So do the others, none of them knew what they wanted to do until after they had worked at several different jobs. Laying about the house unemployed was never an option. The engineer decided to go back to school at a very tough engineering school and graduated with honors even though he has 3 kids and worked full time. Had he gone to school right out of high school, I have no doubt he would have barely passed. When he went, he had a goal and a reason for being there.

Give him time. You can always go back to school but changing majors is expensive. So is getting a degree you will never use. Work experience is sometimes the best way to find out if a job you think you want is one that you will be willing to do for a while.

Lily on February 3, 2011 at 10:58 AM

ernesto on February 3, 2011 at 10:55 AM

I really appreciate your thoughts. His dad and I were “follow the rules” types, so we have a hard time understanding his thought process. We homeschooled for middle school years, which was a great eye opener and tough slog.

Have you read “The Edison Trait” by Lucy Jo Palladino? Sounds like it might apply to you somewhat. Good luck in your endeavors.

piglet on February 3, 2011 at 11:03 AM

Give him time. You can always go back to school but changing majors is expensive. So is getting a degree you will never use. Work experience is sometimes the best way to find out if a job you think you want is one that you will be willing to do for a while.

Lily on February 3, 2011 at 10:58 AM

We’re hoping that a summer job will open his eyes somewhat. Thanks for your experience and congratulations on raising such wonderful sons.

piglet on February 3, 2011 at 11:07 AM

I have worked with many people over the years who “have a piece of paper that says they know something”… About half of those have actually seemed to know the stuff the paper implied they should… the rest fall somewhere to the below that standard.
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The ones that crack me up are those who point to the paper as a way of ending challenges to their best ideas and solutions. That animal is rare, but I’ve had the pleasure a few times and wow… Underfriggingwhelming.
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See, student… or ‘C’ student… The 2 brothers (twins) that were trying to cheat off my mid-term in electronics! I got the only 100 (why do ya think they picked me ta cheat from)… They got nothin from me, should’a been sent packin, but I’ll bet they are both sportin nice “pieces of paper that says they know something”… and makin some co-workers day… after day… after…
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RalphyBoy on February 3, 2011 at 11:09 AM

In South Carolina in the 1950s we adopted state operated Technology Schools. Here in the Midlands of South Carolina, it is called Midlands Tech. You can go to these schools to learn nearly any trade. If a large corporation wants to locate in the state the schools will adapt to teach prospective employees. Not everybody needs to receive a liberal arts degree (BA or BS) from a four year college. I have one nephew who wants to be doctor. He is on full scholarship at a well-known private University. An A student. I have to wonder if he really needs all the undergraduate courses to prove himself worthy of going to Med School. He will make a great doctor, bought of his grandfathers were doctors.

SC.Charlie on February 3, 2011 at 11:22 AM

I have one first cousin who took some courses at a South Carolina Tech school and went back to help run the family business. The family business went under, it was a car dealership. Now he has gone on to become a great insurance salesman. But he is still asked all the time what college did he go to.

SC.Charlie on February 3, 2011 at 11:28 AM

amerpundit on February 2, 2011 at 10:25 PM

Thanks you for bringing that up. My “lack” of a formal degree did in fact prevent me from being viewed as qualified to even get an interview for the position I now hold. Those folks with the paper, but without years of practical, organizational, leadership and operational response experience were considered automatically “more qualified”. And my point all along is that evidence of education does not equate to capability.

Freelancer on February 3, 2011 at 11:34 AM

We’re hoping that a summer job will open his eyes somewhat. Thanks for your experience and congratulations on raising such wonderful sons.

piglet on February 3, 2011 at 11:07 AM

Thank you. We have been blessed for sure.

A summer job will help. But so will age. And I agree with ernesto. There is no reason why a kid shouldn’t work their way through college. And there is always the military, which is the way our oldest went.

Our kids are on their own paying for college because hubby and I saw too many of our friends go off to 4 years of partying on daddy’s dime. We told them that we gave them brains, the talent, and the basic education. The rest was up to them. They could find their own way in the world. And they have, along with their two sisters. The girls knew right out of high school what they wanted to do. Girls are different. At least ours are.

Your son obviously has brains and talent so he will figure it out too. I think you have the right idea, but many parents get too enmeshed in the kid’s decisions and take it personal if the kid doesn’t do it like they did. Also, it is a control issue. If dad is paying the bills, then dad gets to call the shots. It is very empowering for a young person to realize they can make their own way. And it is a relief for a parent when you realize they CAN make their own way.

We have one 16 year-old still at home, and his case is different because he has physical disabilities. And he won’t qualify for scholarships like his siblings. But that is not his fault and we may have to help him a little. But he is still weighing his options and trying to figure out what to do with his life. We want him to be his own man and live his own life in the way he sees fit without being beholden to anyone but God and his own family, should he be so blessed.

Lily on February 3, 2011 at 11:46 AM

You’re a little off. Recruiters from Wall St prefer exactly those degrees. Philosophy, polisci, psychology, etc. I know this since I did a bit of recruiting myself while working for an IB. These degrees (along with top grades) show a candidate is well rounded and can think critically. – angryed on February 3, 2011 at 10:01 AM

I got my degree in history from a good private college, but became a CPA. I have a curiosity in about everything.

SC.Charlie on February 3, 2011 at 12:31 PM

You think? Can it really be that incurring tens of thousands of dollars in debt to attend a private university where most of what you learn won’t be relevant to your career is a bad investment?

9 times out of 10 that kid will have so many doors and opportunities opened to him that a Harvard education will pay for itself 10 times over within the first decade. That’s the way the world works. You’re kidding yourself if you think we live in a meritocracy.

bayam on February 3, 2011 at 12:39 PM

Harvard study – says it all for me. Look, a degree isn’t for everyone. It all depends what you want out of life.

Everyone does not need one, but face it, there are fewer and fewer jobs that one can get without one.

In my humble opinion we have to do a better job of helping young people determine what they want to do with their lives and how to go about that selection process.

dogsoldier on February 3, 2011 at 12:47 PM

Believe me, those of us in higher education recognize that there are many students who don’t belong here. They are either incapable of or uninterested in doing college level work, and the entitlement mentality that many of them have makes it hard to cater to the relatively small cadre of students who actually want to learn something useful.

My own son attended college for two years, but because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with it, decided not to waste any more time or money on college. He is now exploring other “career options,” many of which won’t require him to have a college degree. As long as he is doing an honest day’s work for an honest dollar, I don’t much care what he chooses as a career. It’s too bad that most parents don’t see it that way.

College Prof on February 3, 2011 at 1:08 PM

Believe me, those of us in higher education recognize that there are many students who don’t belong here. They are either incapable of or uninterested in doing college level work, and the entitlement mentality that many of them have makes it hard to cater to the relatively small cadre of students who actually want to learn something useful.College Prof on February 3, 2011 at 1:08 PM

Now that they have turned high school into college prep schools it is the same thing here. Instead of training kids for jobs they have the aptitude and the desire to do, everyone gets trained for college.

So now you have a classroom of kids, half of whom have no desire or aptitude for college prep work, but they are forced to be here.

We had to take out our machine shops, home economics rooms, etc. because it is “demeaning” to assume that some students shouldn’t or don’t want go to college. What the blazes is wrong with being a welder, for crying out loud? Why shouldn’t a kid who wants to do a trade not be able to train for one? We used to quite successfully train for trades. But no more.

Lily on February 3, 2011 at 1:28 PM

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