College isn't for everyone
I came across this interesting piece but I have not been able to link it to the source. It's a long article, but if you want to know what it says in less than 10 words, here it is - not everyone has to go to college
AMERICA'S MOST OVER-RATED PRODUCT: THE BACHELOR'S DEGREE
By Marty Nemko
AMONG MY SADDEST MOMENTS as a career
counselor is when I hear a story like this: "I wasn't a good student in
high school, but I wanted to prove that I can get a college diploma. I'd be the
first one in my family to do it. But it's been five years and $80,000, and I
still have 45 credits to go."
I have a hard time telling such people the
killer statistic: Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40
percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges,
two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later. That figure is
from a study cited by Clifford Adelman, a former research analyst at the U.S.
Department of Education and now a senior research associate at the Institute
for Higher Education Policy. Yet four-year colleges admit and take money from
hundreds of thousands of such students each year!
Even worse, most of those college dropouts
leave the campus having learned little of value, and with a mountain of debt
and devastated self-esteem from their unsuccessful struggles. Perhaps worst of
all, even those who do manage to graduate too rarely end up in careers that
require a college education. So it's not surprising that when you hop into a
cab or walk into a restaurant, you're likely to meet workers who spent years
and their family's life savings on college, only to end up with a job they
could have done as a high-school dropout.
Such students are not aberrations. Today,
amazingly, a majority of the students whom colleges admit are grossly
underprepared. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007
who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core
subjects of English, math, reading, and science.
Perhaps more surprising, even those
high-school students who are fully qualified to attend college are increasingly
unlikely to derive enough benefit to justify the often six-figure cost and four
to six years (or more) it takes to graduate. Research suggests that more than
40 percent of freshmen at four-year institutions do not graduate in six years.
Colleges trumpet the statistic that, over their lifetimes, college graduates
earn more than nongraduates, but that's terribly misleading. You could lock the
collegebound in a closet for four years, and they'd still go on to earn more
than the pool of non-collegebound — they're brighter, more motivated, and have
better family connections.
Also, the past advantage of college
graduates in the job market is eroding. Ever more students attend college at
the same time as ever more employers are automating and sending offshore ever
more professional jobs, and hiring part-time workers. Many college graduates
are forced to take some very nonprofessional positions, such as driving a truck
or tending bar.
How much do students at four-year
institutions actually learn?
Colleges are quick to argue that a college
education is more about enlightenment than employment. That may be the biggest
deception of all. Often there is a Grand Canyon of difference between the
reality and what higher-education institutions, especially research ones, tout
in their viewbooks and on their Web sites. Colleges and universities are
businesses, and students are a cost item, while research is a profit center. As
a result, many institutions tend to educate students in the cheapest way
possible: large lecture classes, with necessary small classes staffed by
rock-bottom-cost graduate students. At many colleges, only a small percentage
of the typical student's classroom hours will have been spent with fewer than
30 students taught by a professor, according to student-questionnaire data I
used for my book How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University. When
students at 115 institutions were asked what percentage of their class time had
been spent in classes of fewer than 30 students, the average response was 28
That's not to say that professor-taught
classes are so worthwhile. The more prestigious the institution, the more
likely that faculty members are hired and promoted much more for their research
than for their teaching. Professors who bring in big research dollars are
almost always rewarded more highly than a fine teacher who doesn't bring in the
research bucks. Ernest L. Boyer, the late president of the Carnegie Foundation
for the Advancement of Teaching, used to say that winning the campus teaching
award was the kiss of death when it came to tenure. So, no surprise, in the
latest annual national survey of freshmen conducted by the Higher Education
Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, 44.6 percent
said they were not satisfied with the quality of instruction they received.
Imagine if that many people were dissatisfied with a brand of car: It would
quickly go off the market. Colleges should be held to a much higher standard,
as a higher education costs so much more, requires years of time, and has so
much potential impact on your life. Meanwhile, 43.5 percent of freshmen also
reported "frequently" feeling bored in class, the survey found.
College students may be dissatisfied with
instruction, but, despite that, do they learn? A 2006 study supported by the
Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors scored below
"proficient" levels on a test that required them to do such basic
tasks as understand the arguments of newspaper editorials or compare
credit-card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative
skills. The students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to
the gas station.
Unbelievably, according to the Spellings Report,
which was released in 2006 by a federal commission that examined the future of
American higher education, things are getting even worse: "Over the past
decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined. … According to
the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, for instance, the
percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has
actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade. … Employers report
repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking
the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today's
What must be done to improve undergraduate
Colleges should be held at least as
accountable as tire companies are. When some Firestone tires were believed to
be defective, government investigations, combined with news-media scrutiny, led
to higher tire-safety standards. Yet year after year, colleges and universities
turn out millions of defective products: students who drop out or graduate with
far too little benefit for the time and money spent. Not only do colleges
escape punishment, but they are rewarded with taxpayer-financed student grants
and loans, which allow them to raise their tuitions even more.
I ask colleges to do no more than tire
manufacturers are required to do. To be government-approved, all tires must
have — prominently molded into the sidewall — some crucial information,
including ratings of tread life, temperature resistance, and traction compared
with national benchmarks.
Going significantly beyond the
recommendations in the Spellings report, I believe that colleges should be
required to prominently report the following data on their Web sites and in
- Value added. A national test, which could be developed by the
major testing companies, should measure skills important for responsible
citizenship and career success. Some of the test should be in career
contexts: the ability to draft a persuasive memo, analyze an employer's
financial report, or use online research tools to develop content for a
- Just as the No Child Left Behind Act mandates strict
accountability of elementary and secondary schools, all colleges should be
required to administer the value-added test I propose to all entering
freshmen and to students about to graduate, and to report the mean value
added, broken out by precollege SAT scores, race, and gender. That would
strongly encourage institutions to improve their undergraduate education
and to admit only students likely to derive enough benefit to justify the
time, tuition, and opportunity costs. Societal bonus: Employers could
request that job applicants submit the test results, leading to more-valid
- The average cash, loan, and work-study financial aid for
varying levels of family income and assets, broken out by race and gender.
And because some colleges use the drug-dealer scam — give the first dose
cheap and then jack up the price — they should be required to provide the
average not just for the first year, but for each year.
- Retention data: the percentage of students returning for a
second year, broken out by SAT score, race, and gender.
- Safety data: the percentage of an institution's students who
have been robbed or assaulted on or near the campus.
- The four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates, broken out by
SAT score, race, and gender. That would allow institutions to better
document such trends as the plummeting percentage of male graduates in
- Employment data for graduates: the percentage of graduates who,
within six months of graduation, are in graduate school, unemployed, or
employed in a job requiring college-level skills, along with salary data.
- Results of the most recent student-satisfaction survey, to be
conducted by the institutions themselves.
- The most recent accreditation report. The college could include
the executive summary only in its printed recruitment material, but it
would have to post the full report on its Web site.
Being required to conspicuously provide
this information to prospective students and parents would exert long-overdue
pressure on colleges to improve the quality of undergraduate education. What
should parents and guardians of prospective students do?
- If your child's high-school grades and test scores are in the
bottom half for his class, resist the attempts of four-year colleges to
woo him. Colleges make money whether or not a student learns, whether or
not she graduates, and whether or not he finds good employment. Let the
buyer beware. Consider an associate-degree program at a community college,
or such nondegree options as apprenticeship programs (see
http://www.khake.com), shorter career-preparation programs at community
colleges, the military, and on-the-job training, especially at the elbow
of a successful small-business owner.
- If your student is in the top half of her high-school class and
is motivated to attend college for reasons other than going to parties and
being able to say she went to college, have her apply to perhaps a dozen
colleges. Colleges vary less than you might think (at least on factors you
can readily discern in the absence of the accountability requirements I
advocate above), yet financial-aid awards can vary wildly. It's often wise
to choose the college that requires you to pay the least cash and take out
the smallest loan. College is among the few products that don't
necessarily give you what you pay for — price does not indicate quality.
- If your child is one of the rare breed who knows what he wants
to do and isn't unduly attracted to academics or to the Animal House
environment that characterizes many college-living arrangements, then take
solace in the fact that countless other people have successfully taken the
noncollege road less traveled. Some examples: Maya Angelou, David
Ben-Gurion, Richard Branson, Coco Chanel, Walter Cronkite, Michael Dell,
Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Alex Haley, Ernest
Hemingway, Wolfgang Puck, John D. Rockefeller Sr., Ted Turner, Frank Lloyd
Wright, and nine U.S. presidents, from Washington to Truman.
College is a wise choice for far fewer
people than are currently encouraged to consider it. It's crucial that they
evenhandedly weigh the pros and cons of college versus the aforementioned
alternatives. The quality of their lives may depend on that choice.
Marty Nemko is a career counselor based
in Oakland, Calif., and has been an education consultant to 15 college
presidents. He is author of four books, including The All-in-One College Guide:
A Consumer Activist's Guide to Choosing a College (Barron's, 2004).