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The value of college degrees

Richard Vedder on "The Great College Degree Scam."  Not pretty.
Categories > Education

Discussions - 13 Comments

What kinds of jobs do you expect philosophy and politics majors to get? English? History? Psychology? Sociology? These are only good for going to graduate school, but the vast majority of students aren't that smart. A BA degree is the new high school diploma.

Anonymous, that is completely wrong-headed. It takes a rare breed to go into college in pursuit of a business administration degree to come out even halfway educated.

College isn't just a place you go to so that you can get a job later: Those majors aren't "only good for going to graduate school" either. They are perhaps the last reserve for a very particular set of of people interested in the kind of learning fit for free men and women.

Bloom was right to say that he was "speaking on behalf of a disadvantaged group."

Odd as this may seem, I agree with both you, at least partly. The reason that those degrees as less valued is that, in most cases, not much learning occurred, making the bachelor's degree the equivalent of a high school diploma. Of course, if serious learning does occur, it far transcends a hum drum college career. One should not make the mistake of elevating a business degree beyond its true worth, which is good job potential, but not much else.

Alas, perhaps Murray and Hernnstein are correct; there just aren't enough intelligent people to fill out higher mass education. We've all known people who just didn't belong in school, and yet they felt compelled by the knowledge that a college degree was the ticket to a middle-class future.

As for the humanities and social sciences, I think they are a good grounding for citizenship and any kind of general work that requires independence and a solid knowledge base. Unfortunately, that's only true when humanities and social sciences are taught in a useful way. Too often, our colleges just teach grievance and jargon.

If we get the government to stop subsidizing the crap it would eventually correct itself.

"Too often, our colleges just teach grievance and jargon."

I like the way you put that, Redwald. It is very clear and to the point. I'm going to borrow it.

I mainly agree with Richard, however. Andrew's got a point too but I don't think ending government funding would fix everything. The problem is so deep now that this kind of information is only useful around the margins. Needless to say, I think Ashland's course of study (at least in some departments) is a notable exception to the problems Anonymous and Redwald have observed.

Having worked as both a professor at a liberal arts college and an administrator at a top 5 technical institute, I think the situation is far more complex than Vedder indicates. Non-technical majors such as English, history, psychology, etc. are a relic of an educational system that is no longer particularly viable. These are certainly worthy majors (and one I that own a BA in), but they are majors that I would consider a "luxury" in today's world. It's a luxury to spend 4 years reading Austin, or studying history. These are majors that don't provide direct access to a specific job, but they provide the skills for life-long learning; the ability to think, and to (hopefully) write. They provide a well-rounded education.

What the US needs, however, is more people who are trained in the more "professional" fields such as math, science, and engineering. Engineering firms and computer companies are being forced to import college graduates from other parts of the world who have the requisite knowledge to help build the infrastructure and the computer systems that are needed world-wide in the coming years.

Bottom line, we are producing a lot of college graduates who are not prepared in the right areas for our current needs. The market place will continue to sort this out, as fewer and fewer liberal arts colleges will exist in their present form, while more and more colleges provide professional degrees like business, computer science, and engineering.

A fact that should scare the US is that we are no longer the top producer of patents in the sciences and other STEM fields; that honor now belongs to the Chinese. Our manufacturing base is now pretty well limited to defense products, and we have increasingly relied on our ability to produce "knowledge" but our dominance in this is now also declining. We need to take higher education much more seriously than we do, and more people should be attaining it, but in areas that are not so much "luxuries" as much as "necessities." We can't all be lawyers and doctors who serve and important function but don't really produce anything.

Whoa, there, Agatha, you are shooting from the hip. Fact is, we are still the world's single most creative place, and China doesn't even rank in the top 10.

I agree that humanities are a vestige of an older era, but I'm not sure our young people are up to being pushed into hard science. I do think that Federal funding and loans should be ratcheted down, however. Much of it is utterly wasted, and students (and faculty) would appreciate their opportunities much more if the money tap were turned down.

I think you missed the point of the article, Agatha. These technical, job-specific skills of which you speak are exactly the kind of training a young man or woman shouldn't be getting a BA or BS in - like the article said, the American workforce is filled with people with degrees they don't need.

Colleges should be a place where students learn how to think, not technical skills. I think you can learn more about leadership from a class on Plutarch than some business administration class taught by an academic, and a good class on Shakespeare's Histories would be more beneficial than a class on PowerPoint and Excel (and this is coming from someone who is constantly using PP and spreadsheets).

Agatha, just how many students do you think are pursuing a major in the liberal arts these days???

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