Why College Is Overrated: Costs Too Much, Accomplishes Too Little


stanford-universityBy William McGurn

For hard-working American families struggling to make ends meet, the student protesters at Occupy Wall Street must seem like cast members of a reality show designed to make them look shallow and self-indulgent. The irony is that these students and recent grads have a point about their college debt. It’s just not the point they are making.

Here, for example, is a typical entry on the blog “We Are the 99 Percent.” A woman is holding up a handwritten note that reads: “I am a college graduate. I am also unemployed. I was lead [sic] to believe that college would insure me a job. I now have $40,000 worth of student debt.”

The headlines tell us that, as a nation, we now owe more in college loans than we do on our credit cards. Notwithstanding the stock horror stories about the kid who leaves campus owing hundreds of thousands, however, the average college debt load is about the price of a new Toyota Prius-$28,100 for those with a degree from a four-year private school, $22,000 for those from public schools.

Even so, these figures don’t touch the most important question: Are students getting fair value in return?

Anne Neal has been trying to help families answer that question for years. As president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, she believes students should leave college with a broad base of knowledge that will allow them “to compete successfully in our globalized economy and to make sense of the modern world.” By that ACTA means universities should require a core curriculum with substantive courses in composition, literature, American history, economics, math, science and foreign language.

“The fundamental problem here is not debt but a broken educational system that no longer insists on excellence,” Ms. Neal says. “College tuitions have risen more than 440% over the last 25 years-and for what? The students who say that college has not prepared them for the real world are largely right.”

At WhatWillTheyLearn.com, students can click onto ACTA’s recent survey of more than 1,000 American four-year institutions-and find out how their colleges and universities rate. Two findings jump out. First, the more costly the college, the less likely it will require a demanding core curriculum. Second, public institutions generally do better here than private ones-and historically black colleges such as Morehouse and service academies such as West Point amount to what ACTA calls “hidden gems.”

Alas, much of the debate over the value of a college degree breaks down one of two ways. Either people pit the liberal arts against the sciences-“Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” asks Florida Gov. Rick Scott-or they plump for degrees that are thought to be more practical (e.g., business). Both are probably mistakes.

If the young people now entering our work force are going to change jobs as often as we think, the key to getting ahead will not be having one particular skill but having the ability to learn new skills. In this regard, the problem is not so much the liberal arts as the fluff that too often passes for it. In other words, though Gov. Scott is right to demand better measures of what Florida citizens are getting for their tax dollars, he’d probably be better off focusing on excellence and transparency than on suggesting specific courses of study.

As for the “practical” majors, New York University’s Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa tell us they might not be as useful as once thought. In a recent work called “Academically Adrift,” these authors tracked the progress of more than 2,300 undergraduates at two dozen U.S. universities. They found that more than a third of seniors leave campus having shown no improvement in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, or written communications over four years. Worse, the majors and programs often thought most practical-education, business and communications-prove to be the least productive.

So yes, the student protesters with their iPads and iPhones may come across badly to other Americans. Yes too, even those who leave school thousands of dollars in debt will-on average-find their degrees a good investment, given the healthy lifetime earnings premium that a bachelor’s degree still commands.

Still, when it comes to what our colleges and universities are charging them for their degrees, they have a point. Too many have paid much and been taught little. They’ve been ripped off-but not by the banks or the fat cats or any of the other stock villains so unwelcome these days in Zuccotti Park.

“If these students and grads understood the real issues with their college debt,” says Ms. Neal, “they would change their focus from Occupy Wall Street to Occupy the Ivory Tower.”

{The Wall Street Journal/Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. misleading on numerous counts

    1. statistically, college graduates have a significantly higher income than non college graduates – yes .. many exemptions are around, dont bet you will be the one

    2. A college education in NY can be free – Queens College, Brooklyn College etc. In fact if one is accomplished – CUNY Honors will pay for the student to attend. No need for student tuition debt

    3. the concepts in the article will be used by neanderthal thinking people as ammunition against college – perpetuating the cycle of poverty – reliance on welfare and handouts – prevalent today in the kollel communities

    bottom line

    a college education in todays economy is a not a luxury, but a necessity

  2. Right on, mialeading!

    In addition, the current unemployment rate for college graduates is less than half the national average of 9.1%

  3. I believe that this article is only truly relevant to people in those colleges who are taking courses that are worthless and pursuing unimportant majors. As someone who is in college right now, I know that i am amassing thousands of dollars of debt, but I realize that the education will help me in the future, and that my critical thinking skills are improving.

  4. Idiots
    That wasnt the point of the article. All he wants to point out is that unfortunately colleges dont give you your moneys worth, not that you shouldn’t go!
    Colleges need to focus more on there curriculum and educational goals instead of their pockets!

  5. “bottom line
    a college education in todays economy is a not a luxury, but a necessity”

    As someone who teaches in a university, I can state with confidence that you are absolutely mistaken. College can do a lot for many people, but it cannot guarantee success and many people will find success without it.
    I know hundreds of people who never spent a day of college and support their families in fine fashion, just as I know many people who spent years in college and do the same.
    The difference is that the college grads are often saddled with debt, and the self-starters have to invest large sums of money that they often must borrow.
    College should be seen as a possible answer, but not THE answer.

  6. If there is enough demand for cost-effective, useful college-level education, someone will supply it—look hard and you’ll find it now.

  7. For mialeading and those who agree with him, here is the real world:

    In my 20+ years in running a computer department in Corporate America I have hired well over 1000 people. Never once was a college degree a plus in any of the applicants, either it was neutral or a negative. For a long time the colleges taught everything but what the business world demanded, focusing on computer sciences, obsolete languages, anything but practical knowledge. Worse, college grads came with a chip on their shoulder, making them even less valuable.

    If you calculate the amount of training in any particular subject you will see that a couple of weeks of hands-on experience outweighs the value of the degree. Four 45-minute class per week multiplied by a 3 or 4 month semester gives you no more than about a week of equivalent work on the job. If you spent 3 semesters learning a subject, you’ll learn more in your first month on the job so your initial training is not more valuable whether you learned it in an Ivy League college or in a vocational school, or from books. This isn’t conjecture, this is experience.

    I have rarely seen anyone apply their college knowledge UNLESS they were a doctor, lawyer and the like that demands college. I HAVE met diamond salesmen, real-estate agents, headhunters, storeowners, factory managers, museum curators, etc. etc. who have college degrees and have no use for them. They succumbed to the myth that this piece of paper will bring happiness no matter the cost and are sometimes still trying to defend that poorly informed decision.

    Bottom line: If you KNOW you want to be an CPA, go to college but be aware that much of the time will be wasted on minors or other silliness. If you want to do web design or go into business, spend your time wisely, go to vocational schools to get the knowledge you need, or apprentice yourself for free to someone willing to train you. The employer is more interested in what you will bring to his bottom line than to what you spent 4 years of your life doing.

  8. I looked long and hard to find an alternative and this is what I found, go see for yourself if you think these guys are in it Leshem Shamayim.

    An alternative to expensive college without compromising on quality should go to straighterline.com

    It is sad that so many “For PROFIT” colleges and internet degree factories are attracting most of the attention.

    They ate still a new program so they don’t have a full four year curriculum but I am confident that it will be coming soon.

  9. Yeshiva tuition is the next rip off. We are expected to pay 10k a year per kid until high school and seminary? We are dreaming that our kids would get a better shidduch if we paid these crazy prices. A fund needs to be set up for all frum yidden to pay for local tuition not on the parents alone! Period this will lower the fees and give parents less time in the office and more quality with the children we are bringing up.

  10. It’s all a drop in the bucket in a world where the “top brass” of society fleeces the rest. “Inflation”, “tax hikes”, “price hikes”, “job cuts”, “quantitative easing”, etc… Call it whatever you want, the goal is one and the same.