Warning: this is a contrarian post and as such it may question some deeply held beliefs. If you keep going you might not like what you read.

The education industry has successfully installed the meme that not going to college (buying their product) putatively leads to a life in poverty. A common selling point is a piece of shoddy statistics that demonstrates the correlation between average income and level of education. For whatever reason education takes longer and longer while getting more and more expensive at rates way above inflation level. This has promoted counter studies questioning the monetary value of going to college compared to just getting a job and avoid incurring sometimes massive student debt. To alleviate this problem (and perhaps help the education industry) the government has introduced 529 plans to allow institutions to charge even more for their degrees. All in all this is a great deal for the educational institutions but is it a good deal for you? Is it a good deal for society?

If car companies had only been half as successful in convincing people that it is impossible to live without a car … hey wait!

This post was actually inspired by Brip blap, wrote a post called A clear and present danger: the humanities. One of his points was that the government should encourage educational programs that result in higher salaries (such as engineering) and discourage degrees that tend to lead to lower salaries (such as English Litt. and ancient Egyptian algebra). Also financial aid should be cut for people who take longer than 4 years to finish their degree. The result would be for the government to subsidize students that will keep the US at the forefront of technological innovation as opposed to the forefront of publications of deconstructionist studies in incomprehensible sociology journals(?) I found myself agreeing until he said he was being sarcastic 😛 . I guess this means we disagree then. Hence this post.

The idea suggested in the article above has actually been promoted by a number of European governments. With the lower birth rates of an affluent and “older” culture, manpower (in particular in science and engineering) is a genuine problem in Europe. With the higher birth rates of the US, manpower is not as dire a problem. Europe has to get the most out of their youth and thus they desire to steer students towards building bridges and computers and away from writing yet another study on suicidal poets of the 18th century. Also getting them out of the door fast helps too.

I’ll take this one step further.

I think the idea that college education leads to a more productive society is wrong. Hard work and intelligence leads to productivity. What happens when we send 70% to college instead of 30% on the false presumption that education makes people more productive and talented is simply that the levels are dumped down. To keep getting the cream of the crop, education is extended for the smarter part (the 30%). The other 40% get a degree that no longer means a lot. Hence we waste 4 years by sending 100% to highschool, 70% to college and 30% towards a masters instead of sending 70% to high school with higher standards, 30% to a college with higher standards and only a few to higher educations.

Your talents helped you earn your degree not the other way around.

The problem is that higher education does not make people smart or more intelligent. Rather it serves the functions of

  • separating the rich parents’ kids from the poor parents’ kids with some monetary allowance made for exceptionally bright kids of poor families and a lot of intellectual allowance made for less bright kids from rich and influential families.
  • getting money from students’ parents to fund the university sports center, domed buildings, and professors that are researching increasingly specialized and often irrelevant subjects. If it weren’t for grad students who are mainly admitted to serve as TA’s rather than for their bright ideas, the show would be even more expensive unless professors would be paid less or universities would be built like barracks rather than expensive imitations of medieval castles or modern architecture.
  • regulating entry to the job market. This is the their most important function. The more young people there are demographically speaking the higher the degree is required. There is a negative feedback mechanism here. Prolonged education helps decrease growth as it allows people to spend multiple years attending lectures, playing varsity sports and being generally unproductive.

Increased education does not lead to more productivity. Rather it is increasing productivity that leads to the country being able to afford parking their young in essentially unproductive endeavors for increasing amounts of time.

Modern education reads like an intellectual travesty. There are four reasons why this is so. These are: 1) … 2) … 3) … 4) … On the test: List the four reasons why modern education is an intellectual travesty. Thus any person with reasonably well developed intelligence and short term memory can get a degree.

Unless you need highly specialized knowledge (researcher, brain surgeon, accountant,…) a college degree is little more than an admission ticket to get your foot in the door of the white collar work force.

I predict that a more accurate study that corrects for this effect should show that the cause of higher wages is in having an office job rather than having a degree. This would eliminate the two main financial reasons for going to college. It would relegate college to be a place of higher learning and thinking. I think it is naive (I used to be highly naive) to expect these qualities amongst the student population in modern universities.

I TA’ed for a couple of years. Maybe 1 in 10 of my students were actually interested in learning something. The rest just wanted their degree so they could go out and get banking jobs under the illusion that people with hard science degrees are smarter than average. Well, maybe, but if they are, why do they need a degree to prove it?

What smart students care about is economically maximizing their GPA. Studies in economics even uses this idea as a text book example. I can’t think of a better example that demonstrates the cynicism of modern education.

Most office jobs don’t require an understanding of history, biology, medicine, … they just need a modest amount of intelligence and an effective short term memory. It should not have to take 4 years to figure out who has that and who hasn’t.

I suggest return to a gilded system of masters and apprentices. That way people can feel like productive members of society much earlier and does not have to go through the lord of the flies experience of high school. I think this would work. I am positively convinced that if you give me a 13 year old with an IQ of 135+ and a sense for numbers I can teach him how to perform my work in 3-5 years. The counter argument is that a 13 year old would not know whether he wanted to be a carpenter, a dentist, or a research scientist. However, some 22 year olds don’t know either. In any case it would not be harder for someone to change apprenticeship than it is to change career today.

One may argue that this is strictly training (focusing the mind) and not education (broadening the mind passing a bunch of multiple choice tests) as I will only be teaching exactly what is useful. However, I submit that you can not educate a person that is fundamentally uninterested in a topic (the GPA maximizers). I have forgotten many things I learned through HS and college since these subjects were useless to me other than contributing to (and mostly lowering) my GPA. On the other hand a sufficiently clever and voracious person can learn things on his own at any time.

With the perfection of the printing press books are so cheap that one no longer have to go attend lectures to copy down the notes from the professor (the high price of books was the original intent of lectures and the difficulty of communicating new research was the original reason for seminars – talk about institutional inertia!). It is also possible to get lectures and curricula from places like the teaching company, the personal MBA, the self made scholar, and many others. Oh, and the library!

Of course this does not solve the problem of the “admission ticket”. Only a few trades like programming and certain financial subjects focus on certifications rather degrees. On the other hand college degrees are getting so diluted that employers have started testing potential employees because they can no longer trust the quality of education – with so many being admitted it had to happen, market forces right?! Possibly such companies will outsource this testing. This will result in a new breed of institutions that test whether students actually learned anything at the other institutions. At this point one could skip the education and just go for the certification.

What to do until then? You could either do the tried and true and spend a ton of money (and opportunity cost) on getting a degree or you could be entrepreneurial and try to get your foot in the door in some other way. As long as you can get your foot in the door, being autodidact practically puts on you on equal grounds with a college grad.

Disclaimer: I have a MS in one area, a PhD in another area. I have spent most of my life in the educational system. This could lead to the conclusion that either I’m a hypocrite or that I’m bitter and not too smart.

Originally posted 2008-02-17 07:55:29.