Stossel: Why College is a Scam


collegeBy John Stossel

It’s graduation time! Have we learned much? No.

College has become a scam.

Some students benefit: those with full scholarships and/or rich parents so they don’t go deep into debt, those who love learning for its own sake and land jobs in academia and those who get jobs that require a college credential.

But that’s not most students.

Half today’s recent grads work in jobs that don’t require degrees. Eighty thousand of America’s bartenders have bachelor’s degrees.

Politicians such as Hillary Clinton promote college by claiming that over a lifetime, college graduates “earn $1 million more.” That statistic is true but utterly misleading. People who go to college are different. They’re more likely to have been raised by two parents. They did better in high school. They’d make more money even if they never went go to college.

Economist Bryan Caplan argues that there isn’t much evidence that college grads are paid more because they learned anything at college that is valuable to their jobs.

Getting into elite universities and graduating from them is mostly a “signaling” device, he says. It tells employers you’re a smart person, so employers can begin teaching you things you really need to know. Employers, not the colleges, turn out to be the ones making students valuable contributors.

This suggests college is more like a hurdle than an investment. It would be better if companies found cheaper ways to screen for talent than four years of college.

Most of America’s prestigious universities started out as training centers for the priesthood and ways of confirming your status as part of the upper crust. In many cases, that’s still true today. Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize that. But we are.

Now President Obama proposes spending more of your money on “free community college.” Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders goes further, proposing “free tuition” at four-year public colleges.

Of course, “free” just means taxpayers are forced to pay.

This is nuts. When government subsidizes services, people supplying those services get wasteful. Colleges now spend millions on manicured lawns and fancy gyms.

A University of Missouri admissions officer bragged to my TV show crew about the university’s “day spa” and said when it comes to recruiting students, “more important than reading, writing and arithmetic” is giving “our Tigers spring break every time they step into the student recreation complex.”

I’m happy that Missouri’s students like their luxurious gym, but I don’t want to help pay for it. If the school thinks its “day spa” is crucial for recruiting, let them sucker their own alumni into making voluntary contributions for it. Leave taxpayers alone.

Government subsidies encourage students who don’t belong in college to go anyway. Many don’t graduate, feel bad about themselves and end up deep in debt. The subsidies also invite schools to increase the cost of tuition.

Democrats complained we need Obamacare because health care costs “were skyrocketing.” But while the cost of health care rose 296 percent over the past 30 years, college tuition rose 553 percent. College is now a grotesque spending bubble, funded by government, that’s about to burst.

Law professor Glenn Reynolds, author of “The Education Apocalypse,” writes, “The rapid increase in college tuition began just about exactly the time the federal government started helping to subsidize college … (Y)ou don’t want to engage in subsidies that make universities more bloated and more inefficient.”

But that’s what Obama and Sanders propose to do.

A more compassionate move would be to warn people that college is not as valuable as colleges advertise themselves to be.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel encourages students to escape the college trap by paying them $100,000 not to go to college and instead to found their own capitalist ventures.

If we really want to build a better future and not just keep going through the same old motions, experiments like that are a much smarter idea than throwing more money at the college bubble.


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  1. “Most of America’s prestigious universities started out as training centers for the priesthood ”

    This is a false statement. There is one university in Canada, Université Laval, that started out in the 1660s as a Catholic Seminary to train priests. But no major university in America started out that way — Catholic seminaries were generally independent of universities and always offered non-religious instruction.

    Harvard, Yale, and Princeton did start out as seminaries to train Protestant ministers. But not priests. The other five Ivy League colleges never trained clergy. Nor did any state university founded after America’s War of Independence. And Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had all separated their religious schools by 1822.

    Much of the rest of this article reflect’s Stossel’s shoot from the hip style, with a lot attention to rhetorical flourish and little to facts or analysis. The reasons for the skyrocketing costs of college are worthy of study, but Stossel does not offer any. The excessive influence of college athletic programs, most of which get huge subsidies from the university general funds, are also worthy of study (and I think worthy of elimination!) but Stossel prefers to use that as a wedge. The excessive professionalism of undergraduate curricula at the expense of rigorous liberal arts gets no mention from Stossel, nor does he discuss the awful alcohol-drenched social environments that plague many campuses.

    And I dare Stossel try to staff modern high tech businesses without science and engineering graduates. There is such a shortage of American graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics that immigrants are getting most of the new jobs. Not to mention the continuing need for medical professionals, from physicians on down. Does Stossel really believe that these careers should be closed to the middle class?

    Many four year colleges across the country DID have free tuition through the 1960s. It was a great equalizer for immigrants, including many Jews. It can be again. Stossel should review his history and examine facts on the ground.

  2. Stossel is a criminal. If you believe his cordial hate, you will never have Torah in your soul. This man has no time for a human face.