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

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?