An education is a terrible thing to waste

Too many Americans are wasting precious years and vast amounts of cash acquiring a college education.
Kevin Ryan | Apr 16 2015 | comment  



Foreign commentators often speak of the United States as an “exuberant country”, overflowing with animal spirits. We throw ourselves at ventures, at styles, at the new-new thing. They say that is what makes us as a nation so dynamic. It’s also what makes us so vulnerable.

One symptom of our vulnerability is the nation’s tendency to overdo it. We go too far with a promising trend and develop “bubbles”. Recently, we’ve had the “tech bubble” of the late 90s, followed by the “housing bubble” of 2007-08. Now we are in what some are calling the “college bubble”. But while the other bubbles developed relatively rapidly, the college bubble has been long in coming.

Up until World War II, a college education was “no big thing”. Many captains of industry and extremely successful businessmen did very well with just a high school degree. Often, with less. College was primarily for the elite, but in those days the word “elite” did not refer to the super-rich, top-tier athletes and celebrities. It referred to those in the professions, such as the law, medicine, and the military who were to be the leadership class.

Higher education was for that small percentage, perhaps, 8 to 10 percent of high school graduates, who aspired to join that special leadership class. Not business and industry. Not the trades. And certainly not politics.

Since the Mad Men years, we have seen an enormous “democratization” of higher education. Currently, 65.9 percent of high school graduates go on to college. This is a true bubble! But now the chattering class (of which I admit to being a very low ranking member) have sharpened their quill pens and are stabbing at that bubble. And to badly mix a metaphor, they have plenty of ammunition. Among the targets:

  • The fundamental meeting of “going to college” has changed. So long ago, it meant, “going off to a place where I’ll have an opportunity to be exposed to and reflect on life’s important ideas.” College was an intellectual retreat in preparation of doing some serious work. One expected to be systematically exposed to the world’s most important knowledge and wisdom.
  • Colleges now make no pretense that they know what is most important, let alone what constitutes “wisdom”. Increasing trend toward “designing your own education, which means, “We, the college, don’t know or can’t decide what is worth knowing, so will offer a huge menu of offerings and let you decide.” Surrender of the most heinous kind!
  • Professors, who are rewarded for their research, give little attention to teaching and their students. They retreat to the offices, leaving the heavy work to underpaid teaching assistants.
  • Students have quickly learned the game that they are worth roughly $200,000 in tuition money and they know that they have to work very hard to be dismissed for misbehavior or academic failure. Students realize they are valued and privileged customers in the academic bazaar.
  • The increasing revelation that “college would prepare them for the world of work” is turning out to be untrue. Even as the economy seems to be improving, employers are unimpressed with college graduates. Many realize that four years of college means their potential employees have just spent four years indulging themselves, sleeping late, partying hard, picking the easiest courses and easiest professors and generally living the “entitled life”. The new economy demands skills, a work ethic, dedication to a task, and loyalty. These are not qualities currently learned in college!
  • Students, most of whom are innocent of basic economic facts, have taken on substantial debt to pay for their four-year, freedom-vacation from their parents. Seventy percent of the graduating seniors from the class of 2014 have a student loan debt just shy of $30,000. And the debt trend continues to rise. This situation has dire consequences for recent grads from delaying marriage to the reluctance of the low-debt grad to tie-the-knot with a high debt grad. The consequences are far reaching, even to the key building industry, since married college grads are forced to rent rather than early on to buy homes.
  • And, perhaps worst, our politicians see in the college bubble an opportunity for them to “solve yet another problem”. For instance, in an effort to address the student debt problem (largely caused by federal policies) they are proposing to forgive a portion of students’ debt. Translated, that means taking tax monies from workers, many of whom could not afford to go to college, in order to pay down the debts of the entitled. Other politicians set “standards” for colleges and universities. Still struggling with its bureaucratic takeover of health care, they want to swallow higher education.

The rash of current best-sellers on colleges and the admissions process is testimony not only to the bubble quality of higher education, but that increasingly people are concerned with the “Is it worth it?” question. Besides the numerous “How to Get Into the College of Your Heart’s Desire” manuals there are some recent thoughtful critiques of higher education. Among them are Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, and William Derseiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

These three in particular are interesting and quite insightful books. The authors, however, appear terribly preoccupied with the Ivy League and the other dozen or so prestigious American colleges. Hanging over these books is the authors’ anxiety and uncertainty about their own children’s admission into a first-rung college. At the same time there is a recurring, and quite accurate, message that a young person can get an outstanding education at many “unprestigious” institutions. As valuable as that observation is, there is the lingering suspicious that these Tiger Dads are preparing their children and themselves for the family “disgrace” of not making it to Harvard, Yale or Stanford.

Having taught college students for some 36 years of my life, I cannot refrain from offering a few bromides. They emerge from a realization that grew increasing toward the end of my teaching career. So many students were wasting precious years of their lives and vast amounts of dollars attending college. They were drifting, mechanically taking courses that were of little personal interest. Few were taking advantage of the huge opportunities their colleges were offering. So many seemed unhappy and disengaged. Therefore, my three suggestions:

(1) Strongly consider taking time off before going to college. I have never known of a single case for whom a break between high school and college was a mistake. Whether it is one, two or three years, the individual comes back to his or her education with great purpose, maturity and appreciation. Ideally, get away from home. Salaried work brings the advantage of learning how the world works, having to be a “profit center” for someone attempting to keep a business afloat. Paying one’s own bills for food, rent, and clothing is a sobering reality for someone having left the protecting environment of a home. Seeing how those who haven’t and won’t attend college live and think is a perspective that is good for them personally and for our currently class-divided country.

(2) Work hard to emerge from college as debt-free as possible. A year or two of work will surely help thinking realistically about the post-college debt. It will encourage a more careful course selection and use of time. Increasingly there are online courses that can shorten one’s time in college. Working full-time or even half-time is a two-edged sword. Some students are able to organize themselves and take full advantage of the college experience. Others cannot, and while they may do well in their course, it is often a mechanistic process. They have their degree and are relatively debt-free, but they did not get an education. The value of working during college is an individual matter, but, in general, working before college is a better idea.

(3) A college curriculum should immerse students in the best of human thought, art and accomplishment. It should engage students in fundamental questions, such as, “What is a well lived life?”, “What are the ideas and goals that should guide my life?” and “Is there a God and, if so, how should that affect my life?” Increasingly these questions are out of favor in colleges and are relegated to booze and bong parties.

Colleges that require or make available a Core Curriculum make it all but impossible for students to avoid these fundamental Big Questions. More and more colleges today are catering only to students’ employment desires after college. Some curricula are exclusively vocations, more resembling trade schools than the normal understanding of a college. For many students, this increasing vocational focus has real benefits. However, to ignore these enduring questions about how to live a flourishing life in favor of predominantly vocational learning is a mistake. The world of work is continually changing. Answers to who we are and where we are going have a long shelf life.

There is a slogan circling around these days: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Graduating from college with looming debts, a parcel of bad habits and a vague and foggy memory of what was studied suggests that “education” should be substituted for “mind” in that slogan.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at kryan@bu.edu



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