altIs College Worth It? by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol (Thomas Nelson, 2013)

It is the best of times and the worst of times for education.  From preschool through higher education, there has been a steady decline in the quality of public education in at least the half-century I’ve been observing it.  If my father is to be believed—and he was always a very reliable source—it’s been declining for a lot longer than that.  He was frequently appalled at my generation’s ignorance of basic history, geography, and literature.  (He’d have said the same thing about basic arithmetic, but he was surrounded by engineers.)  It doesn’t take much observation to realize that today the average American’s grasp of those subjects makes me look brilliant.

At the same time—and my father would concur—in some fields, for some people, knowledge and ability has soared.  As a science fair judge, he was blown away by the scope and quality of the research done by high school students.  His own high school had offered no math beyond trigonometry, and it was rare among high schools to offer even that.  My high school offered only one Advanced Placement course—and that for seniors—whereas our children had at least a dozen to choose from, beginning as freshmen.  And yet only a few students were actually prepared to take advantage of the generous offerings:  back in fifth grade, I would have said the expectations of their teachers were well below those of my own, and far below those of my father’s.

Despite the best efforts of educators to mush us all into a sameness at any level—better all low than some higher than others—there has always been an upper class and a lower class when it comes to education, and there always will be.  What I’ve been noticing is that the highs are getting higher, the lows are getting lower, and the middle class is rapidly descending—much as is happening with economic measures.

I’m hoping the economic situation does not lead to revolution, but there’s a crisis and a revolution coming in education and I say, bring it on!

Except for Catholics, for whom parochial school was usually an option, and the rich, who had their exclusive, expensive private schools, for as long as I remember—and a long time before that—sending one’s children to the local public school was the assumed, unquestioned, default position.  About 40 years ago Protestant schools began to flourish as well, as more and more Christians found themselves less and less happy with the values being taught in the default schools.  Secular private schools arose to meet the needs of parents of the hippie generation who wanted a different approach to education for their children.  And then came homeschooling, for which there are nearly as many reasons as there are homeschoolers.  Even public schools got into the act, with magnet schools and some—though pitifully limited—choices offered to families.  What all these new options have in common is that more parents and students are now thinking about what’s best for their situations and making informed choices, even if they end up in the default position anyway.

Bennett—former U.S. Secretary of Education—and Wilezol wish to see the same thing happen at the level of higher education.  Just as our public schools have consistently consumed higher and higher sums of money for lower and lower return, so college tuition has risen explosively and yet left an unconscionable population of young people with staggering debt and no employment beyond what they could have found with just a high school diploma.  Everyone from parents to high school guidance counselors to college financial aid advisors to President Obama is urging high school students to make college the default option, and Bennett says this is a disaster waiting to happen—or rather having already begun.  College education, he says, is likely to be the next “bubble,” and when it bursts it will be as bad as the housing bubble.

If I were rating solely for the ideas presented in this book, it would receive five stars.  But the writing could have used a better editor—more than once the same story is presented twice—and the sheer quantity of numbers thrown about is overwhelming and wearying even for a math geek like me.  But even though I’m skeptical of some of Bennett’s numbers—if only because he sometimes uses the same statistic to bolster opposite points—there’s more than enough convincing evidence to prove his thesis.

Everyone considering attending (and/or paying for) college within the next 20 years should read this book.  Now.  What’s best about it is that the authors present facts, figures, philosophies, and scenarios but fall short of (better, rise higher than) answering the title’s question either yea or nay.  Whether or not college is “worth it” is a complex issue comprising such questions as, “for whom?” “for what purpose?”  “which college?” and “at what cost?”  The objective of Is College Worth It? is not to dismantle the higher education system in the United States, but to rethink it, above all encouraging students and their parents to put aside their prejudices, do their “due diligence,” and choose what is best for their particular situation, rather than simply taking the default. 

Reading the first section of the book, it is tempting to wish that Bennett was not so focused on the “return on investment” of a college education in purely financial terms.  Isn’t college all about growth and maturity and broadening one’s horizons?  Has someone who choses homemaking, motherhood, volunteer work, or working for less than his or her maximum potential income wasted a college education?  “Yes,” and “not at all,” the authors would say later on, but for many reasons the economic calculation is more relevant than ever before.  Students have been sold a bill of goods—by those who should know better—that going to college will guarantee them higher-paying jobs.  On average, this is true, but “average” includes doctors, lawyers, and petroleum engineers, which masks what happens to anthropology, religion, and women’s study majors, let alone the 40% of first-time freshmen who fail to graduate after six years of college.  College costs have skyrocketed, a fact cleverly hidden from students by college financial aid offices, which class as “aid” whopping loans that “don’t have to be paid until after you graduate.”  It’s astonishing how many college-bound teens have graduated from high school without realizing the effect on debt of compounding interest.  Then again, they’ve been lured by the siren song of, “it’s an investment; you’ll easily pay it off once you’re earning a paycheck."  Which is patently false for an increasingly worrisome segment of the population.  They’re defaulting, they’re mad, and all they can do is Occupy Whatever and whine that the world is unfair.  To be fair to them, it is our generation that let them think that college was a time for lavish living, wild parties, and little work—all on someone else’s dime $100,000.  Now the bill has come due, and they realize that much of it was on their tab after all.

How did we get to the point where college is where children go to become morally and financially wasted?  I suppose my generation—the ill-named flower children—deserve much of the blame for the moral degeneration.  But the proliferation of massive, crippling student loans is of more recent origin, and Bennett puts that at the combined feet of the Federal government and the colleges themselves.  Intentions were good, but you know the rest of that saying.  The dramatic increase in student loan money has fueled not only correspondingly increased tuition, but has led colleges (who have no stake in the loan repayment) to push loans on students who have no reasonable expectation of being able to pay them off.   In order not “to leave (Federal) money on the table,” colleges have every incentive to accept students who are not fit for college, and to lower academic standards so they bring in student aid dollars for as long as possible.  More sickening still is the use to which much of the increased tuition money—not to mention alumni donations—is being put:  the proliferation of obscure departments, enormous sports facilities, luxurious dormitories designed to wow prospective students (our own University of Central Florida is a recent case in point), and obscenely high salaries and benefits for a few super-star professors and administrators while more and more classes are being taught by poorly-paid adjunct professors with no benefits.

It’s a situation that’s bound to blow up sooner or later, and Bennett predicts (and perhaps hopes, for the sake of necessary if painful correction) it will be sooner.  It was a decade or so ago that a math professor friend prophesied that someday parents would wake up to what they were actually getting from their extravagant college outlay.  We’ve been a little slower on the uptake than he expected, but the time is coming.

There is some good news:    First, contrary to common belief, there are many good, well-paying jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree.

One study conducted by Georgetown University found that by 2018, nearly fourteen million jobs will require more than a high school education but less than a bachelor’s degree. … In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics identified twenty jobs typically requiring less than a bachelor’s degree that had a median salary of $50,000 or more, far above the median annual wage of all professions of about $34,000.  These included air traffic controllers ($108,000), dental hygienists ($68,000), and geological and petroleum technicians ($54,000), jobs that won’t disappear anytime soon.  Many of the jobs on the list were in health care and technology, two fields repeatedly shown to be in the top echelon of fastest-growing economic sectors throughout the next decade.

What’s more, many of these are jobs that are now going to non-citizens, because too few Americans have the necessary skills.  Bennett’s strongest plea is the establishment of an apprenticeship/certification system to which students with the appropriate interest and ability can be directed in lieu of four-year college, or even earlier.  Instead of struggling, languishing, or partying through college, these students could be bringing home a respectable paycheck years before their age-mates graduate with massive debt, a room in their parents’ basement, and a job as a Starbucks barista. 

Best of all, thanks to the Internet, higher education is even now in the throes of a revolution similar to that which opened up pre-college education.  The monopoly claimed for centuries by the brick-and-mortar university model is becoming increasingly available for free—or at least for a whole lot less.  There are still some bugs to be worked out, but the handwriting is on the wall.  The following story is long, but worth the effort to type it in.

One of the men responsible for what may be an Athens-like renaissance in higher education is Sebastian Thrun, Google’s vice president and pioneer in artificial intelligence and robotics.  Known in science circles for his engineering feats—like Stanley, the self-driving car—Thrun is using his technological prowess to make quality higher education available to the world.

In 2011, while teaching a graduate-level artificial intelligence class at Stanford University, Thrun lamented that his course could reach only two hundred students in the suburbs of Palo Alto.  So, he decided to offer his own free online class, with the same homework, quizzes, and tests that he gives to Stanford students.  He announced the proposal with a single e-mail.  Before he knew it, he had a flood of takers. … “Usually I reach about 200 students and now I reach 160,000.  In my entire life in education I didn’t have as much impact on people as I had in those two months.”

By using online videos and educational resources, Thrun’s class was being accessed by students from all corners of the world.  In fact, the students translated the class for free from English into forty-four languages.

Until now, an overwhelming number of these students—many in developing countries and lacking standard education credentials—never would have had a chance at a Stanford-level education.  Yet their appetite for quality education was strong.  When Thrun began testing his new hoard of students, all of the students taking the class globally and at Stanford, the top 410 students were online students.  The 411th top performer was a Stanford student.  “We just found over 400 people in the world who outperformed the top Stanford student,” Thrun said.

Realizing the potential at his fingertips, Thrun launched Udacity, an independent online education company that provides high-quality education at low cost to virtually everyone.  … There are no admissions offices, and anyone can sign up.  After the class, students can choose to certify their skills online or in one of Udacity’s 4,500 testing centers for a fee….

The classes are structured much like university classes, but instead of traditional types of lectures, all-star professors give video presentations that directly engage and challenge students.  Thrun is using technology not only to transform educational access and curricula but also teaching.  For the past thousand years, professors have been lecturing at students.  “[It’s] like trying to lose weight by watching a professor exercise,” quips Thrun.  Now he is leading a new charge—interactive, student-focused technology education. …

As you can imagine, Thrun’s enterprise has rattled the foundations of the education establishment.  His critics say that a Udacity certificate is worth nothing, and how can one know the true identity or scholastic work of a student on the free-for-all jungle that is the Internet?

[Thrun] said Udacity has already partnered with more than twenty companies that verify and accept the certificates of course completion.  Some are already hiring graduates of Udacity courses.  [I would add, who cares?  Hire the person for, say, a three-month probationary period.  Either he can do the work or he can’t.  If he can’t, let him go; if he can, what does a certificate matter?]

We asked Thrun if his enterprise and others like it will be the end of higher education as we know it—exclusive enclaves for a limited number of students at high tuitions.  “I think it’s the beginning of higher education,” Thrun replied.

Much of traditional American higher education prides itself on a false promotion of diversity, opportunity, and excellence.  But to our knowledge, with one class alone, Thrun has provided a level of diversity, opportunity, and academic rigor not seen before.  People from any country, any background, and any income level can receive an elite education at virtually no cost.  We have been talking about equal educational opportunity for years.  This may be its true advent.

Bennett still finds plenty of scenarios under which it is best to go to college.  If money is not an issue for you—or more likely, your parents—you are one of the few who can afford to choose your school and your major without regard for future earnings potential.   If you’re a very good student and can get into one of the elite universities, it’s probably worthwhile to take on some debt, because even though those who know assure me that the quality of education even at Harvard has declined considerably, the quality of the school’s name, its students, and the connections you will make there still translate into financial reward sufficient to enable you to repay your loans without undue hardship.  But if you’re really, really good, you may want to find yourself a way directly into the workforce—such as the son of some friends, who because of his expertise in a narrow field was offered a job straight out of high school making more money than most college graduates.  He lives a good life in California, loves his work, and has already advanced significantly in the field.  Despite his parents’ fears, it would have been foolish for him to waste four years getting a degree.

What about those who can’t afford college tuition, won’t be going to an elite school, and still want to go into a field that requires a four-year degree or higher?   Think about getting creative:  Pick up what credits you can through Advanced Placement, community college, or online classes, particularly those credits that are required but in which you have little interest, then transfer to a four-year school for the last year or so.  You’ll save yourself a lot of money, and it’s the junior and senior courses in which the interaction with professors and fellow-students is most important.  (Just be aware of credit-transfer policies.  Sometimes state universities are excellent, and required to accept community college credits.  Unfortunately, you’re likely to find your community college colleagues less inspiring than in high school, and the courses less rigorous, which is why it’s better to get credits in courses you don’t care much about.)  If you’re considering post-graduate education look for a less-expensive undergrad school that is still good enough to impress the school you want to give you your final degree.  And if you want to major in the fine arts, or gender studies, or something else with few job prospects, consider taking a second major, or otherwise acquiring skills to fall back on while you are awaiting a job in your dream field.

Or, you could do what we did, and what our children did:  choose parents whose own parents paid for their college educations, and who felt an obligation to pass on the blessing.  But I suspect even that is no longer sufficient.  Students today need to be much wiser, and more creative in their college choices than we were, and than our children were.  On the whole, that’s a good thing, a needed wake-up call.  Following  the default actions of the crowd is rarely advantageous.  Parents, too, need to consider that spending money on a child’s pre-college education (private school, high-quality homeschool materials, specialized camps, educational travel) may in the end be more valuable than saving extensively for college.  Note to parents:  that’s not a go-ahead to buy an expensive boat or golf club membership, unless your child happens to be Jacques Cousteau or Tiger Woods.  Note to students:   above all, get out of your heads the idea—no matter how widespread among your peers—that the purpose of college is to party with your friends.  (Unless it’s on your own—unborrowed—money; then, as you please.)   You can buy a LOT of beer with just one semester’s tuition payment.

The bottom line is:  go into the post-high school decision well-informed, well-prepared, with your eyes wide open.  A good place to begin is by slogging through Is College Worth It?

Legal Blather Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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And for less than the cost of one semester in UCF's luxury dorms, you can buy airfare for studying in Europe and coming home for Christmas. At the moment, many countries still have very low tuition, if you're willing to speak another language - and education in itself. Then you can travel Europe on the weekends and still end up with less debt than going to a US college . . .

Posted by Janet on Wednesday, July 03, 2013 at 2:16 am

I hope this unbeatable deal will stay around for a while. I'm shocked that more U.S. high school counsellors apparently don't know about this.

Posted by SursumCorda on Wednesday, July 03, 2013 at 6:53 am

I think it is closer to "on someone else's $200,000(+)." At least that is the case for the colleges we went to and that our nephews are now attending.

Posted by dstb on Wednesday, July 03, 2013 at 7:44 am

I'm bringing the book with me....

The sad thing is that both Colby and Oberlin make the list of "most overvalued" colleges. (Barnard is #1.) At least one person reading this will be pleased to know that Virginia Tech is #3 on the "best value" list. The authors do acknowledge that there are other valid reasons for choosing a particular college than cost vs. earnings potential: "Families with more resources at their disposal (or students with a greater willingness to take higher amounts of debt) may have few qualms paying high out-of-pocket costs fro luxuries like Barnard's Manhattan locale, Oberlin College's idiosyncratic creative community, or the Florida sun of Rollins College."

Posted by SursumCorda on Wednesday, July 03, 2013 at 7:57 am

Interesting - and considering I paid no tuition for my year at Virginia Tech (only the Swiss tuition), it was extra good value for me. Though I'll say our university had higher standards of performance, the US approach finally got me to do homework.

Posted by Stephan on Wednesday, July 03, 2013 at 5:04 pm

That sounds like a story waiting to be told. The Swiss school had higher standards, but didn't inspire you to do your homework, whereas the American school was easier but got you working. Frankly, if you can meet high standards without doing homework, EPL sounds like the better deal to me.

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, July 04, 2013 at 10:19 am

On community college courses - don't take anything that will be a prerequisite for a curse at another school. You won't be prepared. At least in NYS, where the 4-year SUNY's are required to accept the community college credits, even if they know the courses aren't really equivalent.
On Udacity and its relatives - the assumption being pushed by Thrun, et al, is that they are teaching all of these students the material. They don't talk about the fact that their audience finds local people like me to help them. I end up doing a lot of work whenever one of my students does one of these courses.

Posted by Kathy Lewis on Tuesday, July 09, 2013 at 11:27 pm

That's quite interesting, indeed. I imagine not everyone needs such help, but probably most do.

Posted by Janet on Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 12:56 am

I wonder if in some places it becomes a community effort. If there were all those who voluntarily translated the course into other languages, I would imagine there would also be volunteer tutors. Of course, that might be the blind leading the blind, and certainly anyone would choose to ask a Ph.D. who's known for being willing and able to help people understand math, if one is available. But I would think a group of students working together -- with a cooperative attitude and plenty of time -- could make good progress as well. I'm thinking of the students who wrote the books in the Who Is Fourier? series, who seemed to have accomplished a lot as a group. (Note: this is not an endorsement of group work in a school setting, for which I know only negative examples.)

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 6:25 am
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