The Real Value of a College Education (with addendum)

Mass movements, grass-root movements, invariably act as revealers of important societal matters that are seldom discussed. Frequently, that which is revealed has nothing to do with the movement’s declarations or with its goals. The publicity the media has given to the “Occupy” movement of the second half of 2011, and the revulsion conservative commentators have expressed against it, have shown one big thing: Americans don’t understand what colleges and universities do to or for young people. Curiously, the misapprehensions of members of the Occupy movement and those of their conservative critics often match closely. Any number of 25-year old have been displayed on television lamenting that there were not jobs corresponding to their particular degree. At the same time, talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, an aggressively proud college dropout, reviled movement members for choosing stupid, useless majors that could not possibly procure them work.

The laments and the reviling are based on the same fallacy. I will explain what the fallacy is presently but, first, my credentials to address the topic: I taught at the university level for thirty years of which 24 were in the Management department of a business school. I am a sociologist by trade, with a PhD from a good university. I have several years of experience in business, including as an occasional employer of young people. Early in my life as an illegal immigrant I had a large number of bad jobs.

Here is the fallacy: Contrary to what appears now to be a widespread perception or impression, with some very important exceptions, an undergraduate degree, a BA or a BS, do not prepare one for a particular career, for a particular field of endeavor. First the exceptions: Most or all engineering degrees, any degree in nursing, bachelors in Accounting, for sure, and possibly in Finance. I think that’s it.

Now the blinding truth. Graduating with a given major often requires only a handful of courses in or connected to the major. Often this is only five or six courses out of more than forty college courses. In most schools, there is no requirement at all that the student do more than pass the required major-related required courses. Grade inflation being what it is, this means that the student may know no more, or even know less, than the average well-informed person with no such major under his belt. The best students may master the basic technical vocabulary of the relevant field, perhaps twenty terms in all. It’s also fairly common for the best students in a given major to be aware of the canonical tests in their chosen field. So, a major in Sociology (like me) would know something of Max Weber, of Karl Marx, and perhaps of Durkheim. The average Sociology major thinks Weber is a barbecue. The very best departments also expose their good students to some of the important tools of their discipline. This exposure does not imply fluency in those techniques at all, only recognition. Finally, to my knowledge, undergraduate students who major in a normal academic discipline are not able to read its scholarly periodicals nor are they expected to be. This means that whatever little they know in the field upon graduating will soon have become obsolete.

It follows from this shallow journey that satisfying the requirements of a major does not imply a particular competence pertaining to any business field or industrial activity. A degree in Biology does not qualify one to do biological work except perhaps for the Federal Government, as a park ranger, and then only after passing a qualifying exam. Similarly, a major in Marketing does not mean that the holder can “do marketing” for a company (except insofar as marketing includes sales). The completion of a Theater major will not give your daughter a part even in a local production and a Communications major corresponds to no slot in any newspaper. (In fact, I would bet that there are more communications majors graduating every year than there are positions in all media together.) As a former teacher of Management, I assure you that that major certainly does not make one a manager. And a Psychology major almost always implies only a young woman with identity issues. Even the undemanding field of education requires that its workers take additional courses beyond their major. Undergraduate studies – with the exceptions above – do not supply occupational competence. This requires an advanced degree.

How do my cynical statements stack up against the belief that college graduates make more money over a lifetime than others? This is a complicated issued that was well reviewed in the Nov. 19-20 2011 of the Wall Street Journal (Bialik, Carl. “College Does Pay off But It’s No a Free Ride.”) To make a long story short, the figure of an extra cool million dollars over a lifetime is a naive exaggeration and misinterpretation of raw facts. Yet, there is little doubt that the acquisition of a college degree, on the average, corresponds to several extra hundreds of thousands in a lifetime. So, the question remains, what is being financially rewarded there if not occupational competence?

Obtaining a college degree is a sort of obstacle course against oneself, against one’s inner child. It requires a degree of perseverance, the realization that it’s important to get up in the morning, some attention to events – tests – scheduled by others in disregard of one’s internal clock, the obligation to perform – to some extent- in tasks one would not chose freely. (They are called “assignments.”). Every major also requires that one get one’s drinking under control. Finally, earning a degree, any degree, in any major, imposes the ability to retain, at least for a short time, material one finds boring. In other words, a college degree is a sort of certificate of adult middle-classness. There are also some fringe benefits. College graduates often but not always, have read more books than high-school graduates, frequently four or five, sometimes ten. Although the level of literacy is low among college graduates in general, there is a fair chance it’s higher in your average college graduate than in the average high-school graduate.

The best college graduates, those with high GPAs (3.0 GPA, minimum although in many schools, the cut-off point would be nearer 3.5) even develop a critical sense. I was rendered so pessimistic by my experience in an expensive university, by my exposure to the bottomless ignorance, to the perverse credulousness of undergraduates that I keep losing track of this fact: Yet, good college graduates, with any major, are liable to be more critical than others. I am not sure about the source of this miracle. It’s a mystery how my politically correct, conformist former colleagues manage this small miracle, or if they have anything to do with it at all. Yet, every so often by happenstance, I bump into an intelligent, well-read person who did not go to college. Almost every time, I find quickly that this autodidact is incapable of absorbing, even of considering, important troves of knowledge that are beyond common sense. One brilliant man whom I knew well could never accept the logic of statistical sampling. He believed that representing a large number by a small number had to involve fraud. Similarly, many self-taught bright people are closed to the logic of natural selection. Although my evidence is completely subjective, the conclusion is inescapable: In some cases, a college education opens mental doors that nothing else opens. Smart people who did not go to college appear to be stuck cognitively in the seventeenth century. In addition, they often seem to me to be uncommonly stubborn. (That’s another story.)

These few but important virtues are what employers, especially large corporations buy. They use the college degree as a basis for the bet that recruits are trainable because they have middle-class values, or sort of do. They make the further bet that a few college graduates possess enough criticality to be able to make small decisions on behalf of the organization. So, with the exceptions named above, a college major nearly never directly confers any skills that draw remuneration. By contrast, there are many non-college courses of training that do exactly that and with a high degree of certainty. Those would include such things as certificate courses for dental hygienist and plumbing apprenticeships, both of which require less time and cost less than the pursuit of any college major. Interestingly neither of these well-paid occupations seems to make one a middle-class person forever the way a college degree with the lowest possible GPA seems to do.

And then, of course, if you have the personality of a Steve Jobs or of a Bill Gates or of any number of entrepreneurs you probably should not go to college for long.

Addendum on 11/25/11:  I often say that writing is thinking. So, I thought about the topics of this essay during Thanksgiving. I realized that if I were again an employer of young people, I would in fact pay attention to majors. I would look at majors not because of what they would tell me about graduates’ competences but because of what they might tell me about their character and about their imagination. The handful of Classics (Greek and/or Latin) BAs and the more numerous Philosophy majors would be high on any list of mine. English majors I would also consider on the off chance that they had learned how to write a little and because  writing is thinking; see above. I would also look briefly at foreign language majors with no family background in the relevant language. I mean Spanish majors without immigrant parents or grandparents from Latin America. To those, I would give a one-sentence on-the-spot test. 98% would flunk; I would think seriously of hiring the 2% who didn’t.

About Jacques Delacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
This entry was posted in Socio-Political Essays and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Real Value of a College Education (with addendum)

  1. Anon says:

    There is a major systemic problem that was not addressed: students at liberal arts schools (for the past five years at least, and maybe longer if you want to comment on that from your experience teaching at the university level) have been fed this bull about how in college they’re supposed to discover what they’re really “meant” to be studying and are choosing a course of study that “calls” to them rather than something that translates into a viable future (even an indirect translation!). They are being fed this directly from their professors and their academic counselors, this mindset is where the slew of run of the mill degrees saturating the job market comes from (and likely also, the mindset upon graduation that their degree entitles them to a job requiring a college degree). You’re right that there may not be many directly transferable skills that come out of a college education, like there would be with a vocational path. But there are many reasons why a college graduate is attractive to an employer, and whatever the degree itself may be, it is seldom one of them. A degree has become more or less a rubber stamp on your resume that gets you through the first round of screening—without it, you only get the split second it takes to trash your resume. Beyond that, any degree itself, whatever it is (barring your spot-on example of “tracked” majors i.e. accounting, civil/electrical eng, etc. that are actively recruited while still undergrads), is not worth nearly as much as what it shows about the aptitude of the applicant. Employers are increasingly looking toward what a degree shows about the capacity of a potential employee, and not what the degree shows about their actual knowledge (for example, a natural science degree like biology will always demonstrate a certain level of technical comprehension above what a social science degree like political studies does). It’s unfortunately come to resorting to this because, at least in USA, a degree is no longer an indicator of actual knowledge. So yes, you’re right, the only thing a management degree shows is that you managed to haul yourself into class often enough to pass, not that you’re capable of managing anything yourself (including yourself!). And Jacques, God forbid you ever find yourself asking a communications major what their emphasis was and they reply with something like “interpersonal” instead of something more like “mass media”.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      A thoughtful essay. How old is your own experience? I agree with the professors who say you are supposed to discover yourself except, I don’t use those mincing words.A college degree is a luxury; it always was. That almost everyone can seek one simply shows how rich we have become, including the poor. And, incidentally, why would you assume that the average college degree ever indicated anything about knowledge? There is good informal evidence that graduates’ ignorance was even even greater in the 20s, for example.

  2. Anon says:

    p.s. cite instead as: Bialik, Carl. “College Does Pay Off, But It’s No Free Ride.”

  3. Terry Amburgey says:

    I believe that your observations about undergraduates also apply to MBAs; the school is engaged in screening and the students engaged in labor market signaling.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      I know what you mean Professor but I think that’s not the whole story. I think an MBA program is for the average student like high school is for good students. It tells them where the relevant books are on the shelf. I had the experience of opening a business on my own. Had I had a small number of MBA courses under my belt, I would probably have avoided the task of re-inventing double entry accounting on my own.

  4. Bruce says:

    Just a couple of thoughts about college and jobs:
    1. College is big business. As a matter of fact, it’s about the only business Obama has ever had any experience. Columbia, Harvard Law, he thrived. (he’s slightly less articulate without the teleprompter though, and nevermind that as editor of the Law review he published nothing)
    2. The Left has very cleverly captured most faculty positions, except those in the hard sciences that most often lead to jobs. The Left does not do as well with the logical math and science stuff, there’s just not enough feeling there. You have to feel that glogal warming, being able to prove it scientifically one way or the other takes skills they don’t possess.
    3. The media tells us daily about soaring gasoline prices but generally gives a pass when it comes to college costs. There are numerous jobs in the student loan business, most of which are now government jobs.
    4. The government drives it’s affirmative action agenda by withholding money from institutions who won’t play ball. There is intense pressure on colleges to promote whatever insane curriculum will satisfy the Leftist agenda. A gender studies department for example, with all the fixins. Don’t dare laugh either. These are great, high paying jobs, just ask Professor Anita Hill. There are plenty of jobs that spring from this, mostly government jobs and private sector legal department positions that are part of the still growing affirmative action industry. Only thing is, they don’t produce anything. They’re just outcome based programs that need constant administrating designed to level the playing field.
    5. College sports trump academics nearly everywhere but the University of Chicago. The head coaches of the larger schools earn millions per year. The head football coach at Alabama makes $6 million annually. I guess some colleges create jobs for their star athletes, state schools are sort of tax supported farm clubs for the pros.
    6. One way to think about it is to consider what it would be like without colleges. My take on it is that instead of camping out for four years, kids would immediately go to work in the best jobs they could find. Not very many would have the luxury of pondering the universe, as, by the way, I did. It might be better, like a country without big government.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Interesting as usual, Bruce, and I agree that it’s mysterious why the enormous rise in college costs in the past thirty years is not the subject of intense investigative journalism (on the scale for example of the attention that was brought to bear on pedophile priests). However, I think your impressions that such foufou topics as gender studies offer well-paid positions is wrong. You would earn a better living being an environmental engineer (a gardener) for the city of Santa Cruz. (And Anita Hill is a professor of law.) Also, I don’t know what mechanism would be brought to bear on universities to make them espouse this or that course of studies. There are federal government grants, of course, but there are also industry grants. It’s pretty much an open system. Consider this: The leftitst infiltration is much worse than you think because it’s not motivated by greed but by ideology. We can often deal with greed, not with Stalin and Hitler.

  5. Pingback: Autism and National Public Radio « Notes On Liberty

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