America's Most Overrated Product: Higher Education
America's Most Overrated Product:
College students with weak high school records usually drop out,
having learned little, and with devastated self-esteem, a mountain of debt, and a job they
could have obtained without college. Amazingly, many good students don't do much better.
By Marty Nemko, Ph.D
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 units to go."
Weak in High School; Weaker in College
I have a hard time telling such people the killer statistic: According to the U.S.
Department of Education, despite colleges having dumbed-down classes to accommodate
to the weak students, among college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40
percent of their high school class, 76 of 100 won't earn a diploma, even if given
8 ½ years. Yet colleges admit and take the money from hundreds of thousands
of such students each year!
Even worse, most of those college dropouts leave college having learned little of
value (see below) a mountain of debt, and devastated self-esteem from all their
unsuccessful struggles at college. Perhaps worst of all, those people too rarely
end up with a college-requiring career. 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
that colleges admit are grossly underprepared. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million students
who took the ACT college-entrance examinations in 2007 were ready for college-level work
in the core subjects of mathematics, English and science!
Fully qualified students don't fare much better.
Perhaps even more surprising, even 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 eight years it takes to graduate--and only 40 percent of
each year's two million freshmen graduate in four years; 45 percent never graduate at all!
Colleges trumpet the statistic that, over their lifetimes, college graduates earn more
than non-graduates, but that's terribly misleading because you could lock the
college-bound in a closet for four years and they'd earn more than the pool of
non-college-bound--they're brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.
Too, 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 offshoring, part timing,
and automating ever more professional jobs. So, many college graduates are forced to
take some very non-professional positions. For example, Jill Plesnarski holds a bachelor's
degree in biology from the private ($175,000 published total cost for four years) Moravian
College. She had hoped to land a job as a medical research lab tech, but those positions
paid so little that she opted for a job at a New Jersey sewage treatment plant. Today,
although she's since been promoted, she must still occasionally wash down the tower that
holds raw sewage.
Or take Brian Morris. After completing his bachelor's degree in liberal arts from the
University of California, Berkeley, he was unable to find a decent paying job, so he went
yet deeper into debt to get a masters degree from the private Mills College. Despite those
degrees, the best job he could land was teaching a three-month long course for $3,000. At
that point, Brian was married and had a baby, so to support them; he reluctantly took a job
as a truck driver. Now Brian says, "I just have to get out of trucking."
He's now been trying for a year.
How much do college students 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 institutions of higher education, especially
research-centric ones, tout in their view books and websites. Colleges and universities
are businesses, and students are a cost item while research is a profit center. So, many
institutions tend to educate students in the cheapest way possible: large lecture classes,
with small classes staffed by rock-bottom-cost graduate students and even by undergraduate
At a typical university, only 30% of the typical student's class hours will have
been in a class with fewer than 30 students taught by a professor. That's not to say that
professor-taught classes are so worthwhile. The more prestigious the institution, the more
likely that faculty is hired and promoted much more on how much research they do than how
well they teach. Faculty that bring in big research dollars are almost always rewarded while
even a fine teacher who doesn't bring in the research bucks is often fired or relegated to
the lowest rung: lecturer. The late Ernest Boyer, vice-president for Carnegie Foundation
for the Advancement of Teaching said, only half-joking, "Winning the campus teaching
award is the kiss of death when it comes to tenure."
So, no surprise, in the definitive Your First College Year nationwide survey conducted
by UCLA researchers (data collected in 2005, reported in 2007) only 16.4 percent of
students were very satisfied with the overall quality of instruction they received
and 28.2 percent were neutral, dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied. A follow-up survey of seniors
found that 37% percent reported being "frequently bored in class" up from 27.5 percent
College students may be dissatisfied with instruction, but, despite that, do they learn?
A 2006 study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college
seniors failed a test that required them to do such basic tasks as interpret
a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials,
or compare credit card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills.
For example, the students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station.
Unbelievably, according to the U.S. Department of Education's most recent Higher Education
Commission Report (the Spellings Report,) 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
workplaces." (Emphases mine.)
What must be done to improve undergraduate education?
Colleges, which receive billions of tax dollars with minimum oversight, should be held
at least as accountable as companies are. For example, when some Firestone tires were
defective, the government essentially forced it out of business. Yet year after year,
colleges turn out millions of defective products: students who drop out or graduate with
far too little benefit for the time and money spent. Yet, not only do the colleges escape
punishment, they're rewarded with ever-greater taxpayer-funded student grants and loans,
which allow colleges to raise their tuitions yet higher.
Even though a college education costs much more than a tire, takes years of a person's life,
and, for the vast majority of users, has a greater impact on their entire lives, I
ask colleges to do no more than tire manufacturers are required to do. To be
U.S.-government-approved, all tires must have--prominently molded into their sidewall--a
variety of critical information, notably ratings of their tread life, temperature-resistance,
and traction, compared with national benchmarks.
I believe in a variant of the Spelling Report's key recommendation: that colleges should be
required to prominently report parallel data on their website and in recruitment materials:
Value-added. This test, created by the College Board, should measure the
skills critical for responsible citizenship, connoisseurship, and career success. So, it
should measure, reading comprehension, quantitative reasoning, information literacy,
summarizing, arguing, analyzing, critiquing via counter-examples, finding criticisms
or reviews of products online, identifying hidden costs, and skills in self-assessment
and others-assessment. Some of the test should be in explicitly career contexts: the
ability to draft a persuasive memo, present an argument for a workplace policy change,
analyze an employer's financial report, defend a revenue-generating plan based on
statistical evidence, use online research tools to develop content for a report, and
resolve personnel problems.
Just as the U.S. Department of Education's No Child Left Behind program mandates
strict accountability of K-12 schools, I believe the Department of Education should
require that all institutions of higher education--as a condition of receiving government
financial aid-- administer that test to all entering freshmen and to students about to
graduate, and report the mean value added, broken out by pre-college SAT score, race,
and gender. This would place great pressure on institutions to improve their undergraduate
education and to admit only students with a reasonable chance of deriving enough benefit
to justify the time and money. Societal bonus: Employers could request that job applicants
submit the test results, enabling them to more wisely select employees.
A table reporting the average cash, loan, and work-study financial aid package
for varying levels of family income and assets. This should be broken out by race
and gender. (It would be unfair, for example, for a white student to select a college based
on the overall average if--as some institutions do--it gives disproportionately large cash
aid to students of color. Some colleges use the drug-dealer scam: give the first dose cheap
and then jack up the price for all subsequent doses. So, colleges should be required to provide
the average, not for the first year, but the average for years one through at least four.
Retention data: the percentage of students returning for a second year,
disaggregated by S.A.T. score, race, and gender.
The percentage of the institution's students who have been robbed or assaulted
on or near campus.
The four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates, disaggregated by S.A.T.
score, race, and gender. (Nationwide, the percentage of male graduates has plummeted in
Employment data for graduates: The percentage of graduates who, within six
months of graduation are in graduate school, unemployed, employed in a job requiring college-level
skills, are earning less than $30,000 a year, $30,000-60,000 and $60,000+.
The most recent results of a student satisfaction survey.
The most recent accreditation visiting team report. (Executive summary
only in the college's printed recruitment material, the full report on its website.)
Being required to conspicuously provide this information to prospective students and parents
would exert long-overdue pressure on colleges to improve undergraduate education's quality.
I propose a model for the ideal undergraduate institution in my article, Utopia College,
which appeared in the January 14, 2005 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
What should parents and guardians of prospective students do?
If your student's high school grades and SAT or ACT are in the bottom half of his high
school class, resist colleges' attempts to woo him. Their marketing to your child does not
indicate that the colleges believe he will succeed there. Colleges make money whether or not
a student learns, whether or not she graduates, and whether or not he finds good employment.
And if the student is of color, the college may derive special benefits. If a physician
recommended a treatment that cost a fortune and required years of effort without disclosing
the poor chances of it working, she'd be sued and lose in any court in the land. But colleges--one
of America's most sacred cows--somehow seem immune.
So, let the buyer beware. Consider non-degree options:
- apprenticeship programs (a portal to apprenticeship)
- short career-preparation programs at community colleges
- the military
- on-the-job training, especially at the elbow of a successful small business owner, non-profit director, etc.
Let's say your student is in the top half of his high school class and is motivated
to attend college by more than the parties, being able to say she went to college, and the
piece of paper. Then 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 on the smallest loan. College is among the few products where you don't
necessarily get what you pay for--price does not indicate quality.
If your child is one of the rare breed who, on graduating high school, knows what he
wants to do, and isn't unduly attracted to college academics nor the Animal House environment
that college residence halls too often are, then take solace in the fact that in deciding to
at-least postpone college, he is preceded by scores of others who have successfully taken that
non-college road less traveled.
Examples: computer super entrepreneurs Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Oracle founder
Larry Ellison, and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Buckminster Fuller,
Eleanor Roosevelt, famed anthropologist Richard Leakey, Ted Turner, Maya Angelou, former
Governor Jesse Ventura, IBM founder Thomas Watson, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Virgin
founder Richard Branson, Malcolm X, film director Quentin Tarantino, ABC-TV's Peter Jennings,
Thomas Edison, cookie makers Debbie Fields and Wally Amos, writers Ernest Hemingway, William
Faulkner, Neil Simon, Doris Lessing, and John Cheever, Ben & Jerry's founder Ben Cohen,
Henry Ford, Erik Erikson, chef Wolfgang Puck, Coco Chanel, Walter Cronkite, Walt Disney,
Dreamworks co-founder David Geffen, Roots author Alex Haley, airplane inventors Wilbur and
Orville Wright, Nathan Pritikin (Pritikin diet), billionaire moguls John D. Rockefeller, and
Kirk Kerkorian, former Israeli president David Ben Gurion, and nine U.S. presidents from Washington
College is a wise choice for far fewer people than are currently encouraged to consider it.
It's crucial that they even-handedly weigh the pros and cons of college versus the aforementioned
alternatives. Their life will depend on that choice.
About the Author:
Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. specializing in education evaluation from the University of California,
Berkeley and subsequently taught in Berkeley's Graduate School of Education. ABC-TV in its summit
on education, introduced him as "The Ralph Nader of Education." The San Francisco Bay
Guardian named him "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach." He is Contributing Editor for
career issues at U.S. News & World Report. 500+ of his published articles are free on
Marty is also the author of Cool Careers for Dummies
and All in One College Guide.
Contact Marty Nemko, Ph.D.
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