Sunday, February 13, 2011

What's Wrong With Higher Education

I have a lot of sympathy for the arguments raised in this editorial by a recent Oxbridge1 graduate:
Far too many young people are wasting precious years in a university system taken hostage by the cult of egalitarianism, when in fact they could be doing something useful with their brains. In so doing, they are draining increasingly scarce resources from those who genuinely should be in the academy. And the effect of targets such as that set by New Labour – 50 per cent of students to enter higher education – has been to push ever-more young people down a dead-end route, while stigmatising other wholly legitimate routes into employment, such as apprenticeships.

It necessarily follows that the wrong sort of people are going to university, and that the whole purpose of university has been bastardised to accommodate them. That line of argument doesn't go down well in metropolitan circles. Yet the failure to say it is causing a social catastrophe, and although it is the very height of political incorrectness to express it, the case for a drastic reduction in university numbers has to be made clear.

What is that case? The first half is practical. Although most middle-class parents are loath to admit it, for a growing number of undergraduates, university is a phenomenally expensive waste of time. Unless their parents are upper-middle class, the average student can expect to come out of university with a debt of £27,000. That is disregarding, of course, the earnings that they might have made in those years when they were rolling spliffs and pursuing freshers in the student union. Even if they didn't earn the national median income of £26,000, had they worked for three years they might still have earned a solid, say, £45,000. Add that to the £27,000 debt, and you're talking about a big investment.
The editorial does a good job of exploring how a shift from universities as a source of gains that cannot be quantified in economic turns to the concept of higher education translating into higher incomes, and thus creating the idea that there should be a return on your tuition 'investment', has distorted higher education and expanded the student population of "immature adults who want to delay their entry into the world of adult responsibility, either because they are lazy or because they are scared of it".
We have gone from a system founded on the principle that university is for the brightest, regardless of background, to one in which university is for all, regardless of ability.

This means that, each year, thousands of non-academic students are packed off to do three or four years of... nothing much.
The author falls into the trap of "the degree has a funny name, so it can't be serious", singling out the boutique study of "pig enterprise management" as an example of a non-serious degree. Those highly specialized degrees can sometimes be considerably more rigorous, and considerably more marketable, than a more conventional degree. It seems to me like the degree you would pursue because you intend to actually manage a pig farm, without much appeal to anybody who lacked either the inclination to or prospect for obtaining such a position.

As university costs rise, and alternative approaches to obtaining job skills are discounted in the popular consciousness, you can worsen the social inequality that you're trying to remedy:
The conflation of schooling and skilling, so aggressively promoted in the past two decades, is unforgivable, because it pushes skills on the poor while preserving schools for the rich. But universities cannot remedy that more foundational problem. And it's the poor who have most to lose from three years spent acquiring debt for a degree they don't need and won't use. It's the poor against whom the biggest fraud is being perpetrated: told that a degree course from a university will help to emancipate them from poverty, they are finding in ever-increasing numbers that said degree is leaving them trapped in it.
With the manner of funding offered in the U.S., we have created a system of schools (including low-quality, for-profit institutions) that offer very little for the money. And yes, a lot of students graduate with a solid grounding in a field in which there is no direct market - it's graduate school, or finding a job outside of their college focus. That's fine, if you can afford the luxury. It's not fine if you end up defaulting on student loans, passing the cost of your education onto the taxpayer while being indefinitely dogged by bill collectors over guaranteed student loans that have no statute of limitations and cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

The fact that most people cannot discharge their student loans in bankruptcy should tell you something about the value of a college degree. If the experience of default were rare, or the amount of money small, Congress would not have felt the need to preempt state statutes of limitations for enforcement of federally backed student loans and make student loans largely nondischargeablhe. We can look at ways to diminish the distortion, and to shift the cost of default onto those who accept students unsuited to their programs or offer worthless degrees. We can also do a better job making clear what a college degree (and what specific college degrees) can and cannot do, and encourage students to also consider trade schools, community colleges, apprenticeships, or other methods of entering the workforce without the time and money required by a traditional four-year degree.

If I haven't convinced you, Paul Krugman offers some sobering statistics:
Here’s the question: of college graduates with a bachelor’s degree who aren’t enrolled in further schooling, how many have full-time jobs?

In December 2007, on the eve of recession, the answer was 83 percent.

By December 2009, it was down to 72 percent.

As of December 2010, it had recovered only slightly, to 74 percent.
Even when times are good, for close to one in five college graduates they're not so good.
1. As I've used that term twice in the past day, perhaps I should define it. "Oxbridge" refers to the most elite institutions of higher learning; and in the most narrow definition, to Oxford and Cambridge.


  1. I myself have zero sympathy with any argument grounded in "here is a truth that only I have the courage to say, because I am politically incorrect, which I mistakenly believe has positive connotations." And the belief that uni admissions were traditionally based on seeking merely "the best and brightest" is a strong marker of clueless, privileged assholery.

  2. There's definitely a lack of history in the narrative. The "golden age" of college "meritocracy" in the U.K. was probably the mid-1940's through the end of the post-WWII grammar school system, through which working class kids were given a lot of academic resources and subsidies to reach and complete college. And at Oxbridge they met the much less intelligent, but very much entitled and confident, heirs to wealth and power, fresh out of high-end preparatory academies like Eton, happy to spend most of their time at the pub.

    When you think about it that way, the history of a four year college degree has deep roots in history but shallow roots in academic rigor. Perhaps one of the problems here is that the four-year college evolved as a luxury for the children of wealth, and that the attempt to transform a traditional four year college into a streamlined academic machine is a bit like expecting to install a V12 engine in a buggy and have it perform like a Ferrari.