On Not Going to College

parkingBill Gates, Steven Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg.  What do they all have in common?  Tech pioneers, very rich and college dropouts.  So on the basis of these three data points, clearly one does not need a college degree to be successful, even fabulously successful.  It does not, however, take a logic class to see that it does not follow that going to college is not necessary for career and professional success.

The idea that one should not necessarily go to college has been pushed by individuals like Peter Thiel  and has generated articles like a recent Forbes offering by Chris Boyer, “The First Person in My Family NOT to Go to College.”  

In this article, Boyer argues that “college is a bad investment.”  He notes correctly that tuition has risen significantly faster the both the CPI and family incomes since the early 1980’s.  (He wrongly includes the cost of room and board in his argument, as one must pay for room and board regardless of whether one chooses to go to school to not, even if your parents are paying it for you.)  He then makes some spurious arguments about how colleges choose to price themselves.

In the second part of his series, “Captive Consumers: How Colleges Prepare Students For a Life of Debt,” Boyer argues that colleges are intent on desensitizing “young people to the perils of debt.”  Another issue unrelated to whether college is a good investment.

What Boyer never addresses are the returns to investments in education.  The evidence on this matter is overwhelming and has been noted in other posts.

The problem with the kinds of bad journalism that Boyer offers is that it potentially dissuades young people, especially those from less-educated or less well-off families, from making an investment in education.  Maybe if they have a family business to work in, as Boyer does (“I’m working for the family business; we have a media company, we produce some TV and radio shows, and we do some economic work”), they can afford to not think hard about investing in higher education, but those individuals who have professional success and economic security without a college degree are relatively rare and evidence suggests they will become even less common over time.

President Obama said it succinctly in a 2013 speech on education, “”If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century.”  (Obama was offering a 21st century twist on a statement originally made by the former president of Harvard University, Derek Bok who said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”)

By |April 14th, 2014|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments

Rutgers Commencement Controversy Continues; Brandeis Joins In

'13SJUGrad0013-sizedThere is continuing debate about commencement speakers, academic freedom and the meaning of liberal arts at Rutgers.

Similar debates arise at Brandeis University over Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The issues at Brandeis are less about politics and more about religion than at Rutgers.  Critics of Hirsi Ali are upset over her views on Islam.  In addition, Brandeis was planning to give Ali an honorary degree, which arguably implies more acceptance of her public views.  Brandeis does acknowledge the importance of academic freedom and the free expression of ideas in their public statement on the controversy:

 In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history, Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.

Just FYI, the Saint John’s University Commencement speaker this year is retired Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz.


By |April 10th, 2014|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Does the NYT Editorial Board Understand Higher Education?

paperIn a recent editorial, the Editorial Board of The New York Times writes about changes in higher education.  This particular editorial focuses on two concerns: the increase in the number of adjunct faculty and the increase in the number of administrators.  They concluded their editorial by saying, “…the new college campus, rife with adjuncts and administrators, does not seem geared to fulfill what is, after all, the major mission of universities: educating students.”

An economist friend of mine likes to say, “You can’t beat a model with no model.”  In other words, you can’t criticize the results of an economic model, or an educational model, without offering an alternative that you believe would perform better.

Of course it would be great if higher education would offer more tenure-track fulltime jobs, but that would raise costs and tuition significantly, which would lead NYT editors to decry the high cost of education and/or the burden of student loans.

It also would be nice to lower cost by eliminating administrators. But, unless these troublesome administrators are truly doing nothing, fewer administrators would mean fewer services for disabled students or less support for academically unprepared students or less assistance for student struggling with health issues, etc.  At which point NYT editors would bemoan the lack of access for non-traditional and minority students.

Higher education faces real challenges as it struggles to keep tuition down while providing an excellent education experience to an increasingly diverse student population.  It serves no one to pretend that the solutions are easy.  The presumably well-educated editors at The New York Times should know better.