I Know I’m a Broken Record…

Every so often, a Facebook friend posts an article about colleges that aren’t “worth” the investment of tuition. Usually, these lists are compiled by magazines or pundits out to prove a point, and I just grit my teeth and scroll on.

But recently, the usually responsible Brookings Institution got into the act.  An article titled “More data can make college less risky” began with the assertion that the “vast majority” of students go to college because they believe that it will improve their “employment opportunities and financial wellbeing.” The authors recommended that students do what other “investors” do—research their prospective investments.

And what sort of “research” did they suggest?

For decades, economists discussed the average benefits of a college education compared to a high school education with no regard to either field of study or institution. Finally, in 2009, the Census Bureau started collecting data that could be used to assess which majors pay the most,[iii] and then just a few months ago, the Department of Education released data on the earnings of alumni by institution, for all students who receive federal grants or loans. These data can be further analyzed, as we have done, to estimate the economic contribution of schools (or value-added) as distinct from the outcomes attributable to student characteristics (like test scores).

This approach is perfectly fine, if one plans on attending a vocational school.

The assumption that college is a place you go to get job training (and if you can afford it, a social life on a pretty campus) explains so much of what is wrong not just with higher education, but with American institutions in general.

Let me be very clear: there is nothing wrong with job training. There is nothing wrong with colleges helping students acquire marketable skills. But that is not their mission. Their mission is education. 

We live in an age where a candidate for President feels free to sneer at philosophers because they make less than plumbers. (Actually, Mr. Rubio, they don’t, but that’s beside the point.) We live in an age where politicians and pundits can and do make ridiculous, factually inaccurate statements secure in the knowledge that only a few “pointy-headed intellectuals” (i.e., people who read and think) will notice or care, an age where ideologues can distort history with impunity because no one has studied it, and cite the Constitution for propositions that would make the Founders turn over in their graves, because their only acquaintance with it is a vague memory of a week in high school government class.

Only in a country that has lost respect for the life of the mind and for intellectual integrity would the Senate vote to deny man’s contribution to climate change. (Perhaps they can vote on the value of Pi next. The Indiana legislature once did that. Or on whether the earth orbits the sun.)

In saner times, we valued knowledge of the arts, literature and philosophy, knowledge of other cultures, science. We valued knowledge for its own sake—and we studied the world in order to understand it, not just in order to make money.

A college that turns out excellent philosophers, artists, musicians, anthropologists and public administrators is probably not going to have alumni earning the highest median wages. That tells prospective students absolutely nothing about the quality of the institution.

I agree that prospective students should research colleges, but not to determine how much their graduates earn.

Here are some questions students should ask:  How good are the professors? How selective is the admissions process and how diverse the student body—will you be studying with people whose conversations will enrich your own understanding and broaden your horizons? How large are the classes? Will you be able to interact with your professors, or will you be in oversized lecture halls tended largely by TAs? Will you emerge with a better understanding of the world you inhabit, and an enhanced ability to be a contributing and thoughtful citizen? 

I’ve said it before: If your only concern is job training, go to trade school.


  1. I would add one criteria to your list. How many tents of homeless Adjunct Professors will you need to dodge on the commons while making your way to class?

  2. I would add one more thing to the list of questions students should ask. Is the college selling a brand that makes research and athletic prestige a proxy for quality undergraduate education? If you see a lot of that in their marketing, stay away! And, for the record, instruction by adjuncts is often better than that provided by tenured research professors.

  3. Universities are like a lot of institutions; they pander to the wealthy to secure those big donations. Pandering includes letting the donors advise them on policy and practice. What you describe is what the donors get for their money.

  4. Whenever I did an interview for one of our openings, I looked for people who could think, not just those who had the right skill set. Those who only have the right skill set often don’t find better ways to accomplish goals. Innovation only comes from those who think.

  5. With student loans averaging $29000.00 for a bachelors degree, it’s hard for me to me to agree that college is affordable if it results in debt so large it’s a burden for years to come. My three degrees were debt free. Education is indeed valuable, but at what cost?

  6. Decades ago a student could attend a state university at a reasonable cost and graduate with little debt or a debt that was at least possible to repay without living as a pauper.

    For the past 15 years a four year degree has become so expensive that the potential future debt has to be carefully considered by whether it is an investment that can be paid back. Indiana began tightening the proverbial belt on financial aid during this time and made obtaining a four year degree even more financially prohibitive.

    We have far too many college graduates that have no possibility of obtaining employment that would enable them to pay back their college debt. This cannot continue. They were able to file for bankruptcy to get out from under their debt and millions of students did that for 20 years or so. The taxpayers picked up those tabs and we all will be paying off that debt for many many years. When the govt. stopped allowing former students to file for bankruptcy it truly became a bad investment for too many students that have been shackled with debt that they may be paying on for the rest of their lives. The lenders are the only ones that completely benefited from our system of encouraging student loan debt. They received all of the benefits with little to no risk.

    While a college education gives students the option to stretch their minds, it really has to be weighed against being saddled with debt that could ruin their lives.

  7. Agree with Martha. Education is a terrific goal, but that doesn’t justify enormous student debt.

  8. I went to college because I am a woman and knew to be some what financially independent I needed a career. Also,college is too expensive not to really think about how much you are going to make and your ability to pay back loans.

    I appreciate the philosophers, muscians, etc…I also know many who are not able to get jobs in their field of interest who are working at minimum wage jobs and are in financial trouble because they can’t pay back their school loans. My parents could not afford to send me to school and I couldn’t get loans (the eldest and first one going to college. my sister got loans)…there were semesters I could afford tuition but not the books. It took me forever working full time to put myself through school only to come out with a Bachelor’s in Psychology degree…while I loved the degree to get a job in your field you needed at LEAST a Master’s and definitely a Doctorate and so I was stuck living with my parents working a job that paid a $1 more than minimum. My parents were always one paycheck from financial ruin and so it really does impact your decisions on college and what major you are going to choose and it is about getting a job.

    I went back and went into nursing because the newspaper was full of jobs (Im not the only one who has gone into nursing for financial stability)…20 years later I still have $5000 left on my school loans…I just went back to graduate school and took on another $46,000 loan. I need a job in an area of interest to pay this sucker back before my kid is ready for school.

    I get what you are saying but college has gotten too expensive…and nothing pisses me off more when they start asking for donations while I am still paying off my loans.

  9. Keep in mind that college tuition does not cover textbooks or necessary materials; these are basic day-to-day expenses to continue a college education. Add living and travel expenses and even living at home with Mom and Dad doesn’t put college expense at an affordable level. The high tuition levels are paying for some of the instructor’s student loans, sports arenas and coaching staff; not only for imparting their vast knowledge to their students. The contracts with coaches, almost without fail, include a clause that if they are relieved of their position, they are to receive the full contract amount agreed to. Resulting in paying double coaching staff salaries. Has IU paid off Bobby Knight yet:)

    As Marv pointed out recently about me; “I know I’m a Broken Record”…but follow the money!

  10. The knowledge of mankind is growing exponentially. So fast that each of us beyond school is unavoidably going backwards in the portion of it that we know. We will essentially get more ignorant over time, compared to all of us, once we leave full time education. That means that whatever contribution each individual makes to real sustainable progress of mankind will have to become more specialized. It is becoming that specialized that defines education beyond high school.

    Anybody who considers education from the perspective that becoming wealthy is the purpose of life to me will never amount to much. They may or may not become wealthy but they IMO will become a burden to society.

    On the other hand anybody who leaves college with a burning passion to maximize progress in a particular arena that greatly interests them may or may not become wealthy but will lead a rich life regardless.

    Like so many conservative things consideration of college only as a financial equation is dumb, dumb, dumb and contains seeds of disaster.

    Behind us is an era where high school was an adequate start for the average learner. It’s way behind us now.

    So now a Bachelors is necessary for the average learner. Unfortunately many colleges still think of it as an elite status and price it accordingly. I have no trouble with businesses who cater to the elite like yacht brokers but we should not regard them as serving mankind. They’re frivolous fashion not substantive essentials.

    This might be a good time to inject that planning the future has to be based on the average person. Outliers are exceptional and will largely take care of themselves plus and minus.

    Considering all of this in the unavoidable future all of us will be served by a society rich with the college educated and all of us in our working years should share in the cost of creating it.

    As Bernie says a revolution is required. And if history is any indication when revolutions are required they will come. The decision that many face today is only whether to get in front of it our get caught in its backwash.

  11. The peacetime military is the place for grads’ continuing education with evaluation of their interests and ability and with no or little family pressure, input and indebtedness.

    I fear this plan might be hazardous with a “boots-on-the-ground” POTUS, the mantra of the horde of Republican hopefuls sucking up to the Oligarchy.

  12. Knowing the difference between education and training and which each of us is best suited for requires understanding and the ability to hear when we listen to those who explain the different outcomes.

    Proverbs 16:22; “Understanding is a wellspring of life unto him who hath it; but the instruction of fools is folly.”

    How many of those buried under student load debt ignored the instruction of those with understanding? There are those who need – and deserve – assistance with these debts but those calling for debt forgiveness for all students are no better than Reagan’s across-the-board cuts to social and human services during his administration.

  13. Let me add that business interests control the agenda at almost every level of our society. Business wants skilled labor, not thoughtful employees, who can get the widgets out the door for $15/hour and no benefits.

  14. The comments here bring to mind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. While Sheila worries about self-actualization, more and more Americans worry about food and shelter. Yes, the higher education system is troubled, but I think that is a symptom of the slow train wreck that is our democratic system.

  15. Chris, you are absolutely right about the adjunct professors; a good friend is one and she recently posted that she is “busy teaching up to ten classes at a time. Full time staff teach four, for twice what I make.”

  16. “In saner times, we valued knowledge of the arts, literature and philosophy, knowledge of other cultures, science. We valued knowledge for its own sake—and we studied the world in order to understand it, not just in order to make money.”

    I agree with the above statements, and I also absolutely believe that a fine liberal arts education continues to be a student’s best investment for an active life of the mind. On the other hand, the classical, traditional liberal arts education from the not so distant past, the saner times usually was the educational avenue of those whose future livelihood was insured by family money, some bit of family wealth, or a trust fund. In short, they did not need to concern themselves with having to earn a guaranteed living in the near future and did not fret over student loans because someone paid their tuition upfront in cash.

    The winner of the original game of Trivial Pursuit invariably will be the player with a broad liberal arts education and background. I continue to find private gratification from my brother-in-law’s leaving the table in the middle of a Trivial Pursuit game where he was low man on points despite his holding a PhD from the Univ of Michigan and holding an endowed chair in finance/economics at Tulane University. Holding a string of advanced degrees and a vaulted position does not always translate into having a broad understanding of the world.

  17. As the father of a senior in high school, this is more than a little topical for me. Your penultimate paragraph – …question students should ask… is spot-on, as is the overarching premise that college is designed to provide an education, not job training. These are the things we’ve focused on as a family for the last year. The data is readily available.

  18. Chris, I was an adjunct instructor at both IUPUI and the University of Indianapolis. The pay was not bad, contrary to what the spin is. I was making about $45 an hour for every hour I spent inside and outside the class.

  19. I’m a judge on an academic competition show for high schoolers. Most of the judges are my age or so and we talk a lot about which questions we think that the students will or won’t be able to answer. That game is interesting because our perspective is from being formally educated 40 or 50 years ago and having been alive over the last 50 to 80 years.

    One glaring difference is how little students know about what we were taught as the “classics”, vs sciences, especially biology most of which has been discovered in the judges lifetime. Also how slow they are with mental mathematics and ignorant of in geography and history over the judges lifetime but prior to the students. They are also not particularly good at spelling or current affairs.

    So education has already changed a lot. Should we be worried?

    In my book no. They are being prepared for their world just as we were prepared for our world.

    Another opinion is that to us a high school education was adequate for many. I don’t think that’s true anymore. We will not be competitive in the coming world if we settle for that.

    We just need to help the millennials figure out how best to pay for the new table stakes.

  20. Pete, as someone who likely is somewhere in the neighborhood of your age, I too worry about public high school education. Putting it nicely, some high schools are delivering a body of instruction that in no way approaches being considered adequate for what they advertise.

    Case in point is the urban school district where I was under contract for eight years as an Instructional Coach, a fancy title for one who spent all my hours in and out of high school classes and working with the classroom teachers in an effort to improve the delivery of instruction. As a result, I became at ease in navigating the IN Dept of Education’s data website where I particularly focused on the state-wide End of Course Assessments in Algebra I, English 10, and Biology I.

    One specific high school, a medical magnet high school advertised as educating students with an expressed interest in becoming a medical professional, has always concerned me. Even a casual observer would expect the End of Course Assessment in Biology I from any medical magnet high school to post Biology I scores approaching a pass rate. Think again. The most recent posted results for the Biology I End of Course Assessment at this medical magnet high school show that only 2.9% of the students passed. How long can this high school continue to advertise to parents and the community that it is preparing students to enter a medical profession?

    Yes, I worry about the adequacy of public schools.

  21. I have said for years–since I was in school–that ‘business schools’ had no place in higher education. I was right beyond my wildest dreams. Now we are all judged by how well we measure up to an MBA, which is a glorified trade school degree. But tellingly, the people with the LEAST job satisfaction are…..wait for it–MBA’s. Guess making a lot more money than you deserve for just showing up wears on you.

  22. The statement from Brookings displays an almost comical lack of self-awareness: In adopting the whole homo economicus mindset without qualification, they’re exhibiting a complete lack of the critical thinking skills that their professors tried (in vain, apparently) to instill at the no-doubt pricey liberal arts school where Brookings analysts come from.

  23. BSH. Here’s an alternative way to view education. Is it the best way? I don’t know.

    First consideration is who are the customers of education, the primary stakeholders in the product? I maintain it’s not students who really have little perspective on what being adults in the future might be like, nor is it companies who are optimized only for making money today in their narrow slice of life, nor is it parents who are totally unobjective about their kids. It’s the part of society that is doing today what the objects of education will do in the future. And they need leadership to help them understand how the future will be different than the present. They already know what the past was like.

    So education is an inherently democratic socialist market. And that’s the way that public schools have been traditionally directed. IMO what the future demands is applying that same “government” to what used to be called “higher” education but will be standard education.

    What empowers teachers are the unique skills of imparting knowledge but not the knowledge per se. They are occupied in creating future citizens but because of that have less experience in all of the ways that adults who were once students actually create progress in business or government.

    So education government has to direct the knowledge content that the teachers deliver to students.

    Like all things democratic that doesn’t translate into perfection, but the best that imperfect humans can do. We will always have a few Texas school boards who insist on spreading ignorance rather than knowledge.

    Parents should understand that they individually do not have the best insight into the future individually but only collectively. Their kids will have to succeed or fail in the collective world. Preparing them by instilling the collective opinion of what the future will be like is infinitely better preparation than preparing them for the past which is guaranteed to be different than the future.

    One essential job of the present is prepare for the future that’s beyond their life. It requires the contribution of everybody not the views of the few.

    Education is everyone’s business.

  24. “They are occupied in creating future citizens but because of that have less experience in all of the ways that adults who were once students actually create progress in business or government”

    Add: , they need to receive continuous feed back from many other perspectives on what they teach, not necessarily how unless their results are substandard.

  25. The admissions process is indicative of our consumerist culture. We evaluate educational institutions as consumers who want to attain greater buying capital. All of our institutions are oriented in this way now. It’s all about consuming rather than contribution. Intrinsic value is no longer a shared value.

  26. We have an over-supply of mathematicians and scientists in the USA. Some 75% of math and science college grads cannot find jobs in their field. Yet we have business lobbyists pushing for EVERY student to take still more math and science – claiming they cannot find skilled workers.

    A few years ago I was a dedicated supporter of the DREAM act, the goal of which was to permit foreign students who gained their college degree in America to remain here. Some of the biggest supporters were Microsoft and other Silicon valley high tech firms. Then I learned that Silicon Valley was laying off 18,000 high tech employees – preferring to hire younger college grads from India who were educated here and who would work for less. I’ve become convinced the push for ever more STEM graduates is a push to increase the over-supply of those graduates to drive down wages.

    While an argument can be made for exposing every high school student to at least one year of algebra, and while a number of skilled trades require knowledge of algebra and more advanced math, an equally good argument can be made for exposing every student to courses on logic, civics, managing a household and family finances, fine arts, health, nutrition and physical fitness and more. Unfortunately these courses are being squeezed out of curricula nation-wide for STEM courses that give the false promise of job security. Math, science, and technology are important but forcing every student into that narrow approach to the exclusion of equally important coursework is NEITHER education nor job training in our current and future job market.

  27. Oh Education, I weep for you! Standardized testing, such fear of “bad teachers” that we won’t let teachers actually teach, low pay, outrageously expensive colleges, few young people going into teaching, charter schools. I could go on. The monetisation of college outcomes is just a sign of what has become important in our larger society. Sadly the cards are stacked against anyone who wants to live the middle class existence that they or their parents grew up in; 62 people own half the wealth of the world’s population.

  28. Excellent. You summarized the reasons Susyn and I sacrificed to ensure that our 5 had that opportunity

  29. I was talking to my husband about this topic and some the comments (probably the only place where you continue to learn by reading the comment section)…..he feels college tuition should be based on what your expected income could be when leaving the institution. Philosophy majors should not have to pay the same as someone with a an engineering degree.

    My husband and I both come from poor… there was no safety nets for us and so we could not take the chance on incurring debt and picking what we want to do….I appreciate someone’s above comments on those students who chose to go into fields where they didn’t have to worry about income stability when they left college and could pick majors where having a job after completion didn’t matter. My cousin went to Oberlin and told me of kids majoring in folk lore…my response coming from a family where we were one paycheck from homelessness I responded with …where are they going to work to pay that off?

    Higher education costs has to change….today’s middle class can not afford to send their children to college unlike the middle class households of yesteryear especially since the base requirement for entry into any job is a bachelor’s. However, I do not think higher education is interested in changing with the times.

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