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The College Education Racket

Summary:
Although American higher education has been terribly dumbed down since the late 1960s, it still has considerable practical value. College graduates earn more money, enjoy better health, and are less likely to get divorced than those who don’t have such degrees. Plus, their children fare better in these areas than the children of people who don’t get a college education. The credential isn’t necessary to financial success and being able to afford a family, but it’s the surest path to each. So, it continues to be widely believed that everyone should go to college. And of course, academia itself has no objection to the idea. With the government providing grants to needy students and subsidizing student loans, colleges and

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Although American higher education has been terribly dumbed down since the late 1960s, it still has considerable practical value. College graduates earn more money, enjoy better health, and are less likely to get divorced than those who don’t have such degrees. Plus, their children fare better in these areas than the children of people who don’t get a college education. The credential isn’t necessary to financial success and being able to afford a family, but it’s the surest path to each.

So, it continues to be widely believed that everyone should go to college. And of course, academia itself has no objection to the idea. With the government providing grants to needy students and subsidizing student loans, colleges and universities have raised tuitions at exorbitant rates. But while they have reaped enormous profits, the average student in the class of 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt. Student loan debt is the nation’s second-highest consumer debt category—trailing only mortgage debt—and is much higher than both credit card debt and auto loans debt.

Student loan debt is the only type of debt that can’t be got rid of by filing for bankruptcy. Getting a bachelor’s degree in sociology or environmental studies can result in a young person trying to climb out of a financial hole for decades while earning wages that lead him to question the prudence of having “followed his passion.”

There are other problems with higher education, reflecting the poor quality of our K–12 education system. In National Affairs, Chester E. Finn Jr. describes the situation well:

Although there’s much talk of school standards designed to yield graduates who are “college and career ready,” the grim fact remains that, in recent years, 96% of colleges enrolled students who required remediation, and over 200 schools placed more than half of their incoming students in at least one remedial course. In Maryland, more than one third of community-college matriculants need remediation in reading and writing, and two-thirds need remediation in math.

[T]he completion rate for bachelor’s degrees within eight years of entry has long hovered below 40%—almost precisely where the National Assessment of Educational Progress places the extent of “college readiness” in reading among 12th graders. Yet the matriculation rate—the share of those graduating from high school who head straight into some sort of college—is about 70%. It’s scarcely surprising that so many of them need remediation—and that so few make it to graduation. Simply raising the matriculation rate closer to 100% will only exacerbate this problem.

These figures suggest that universal college education is simply not tenable. It’s not surprising, given its central importance, that so many people want everyone to go to college. The trouble is that people have very different interests and abilities, and those differences would persist even if students were better prepared for college.

To be sure, there are other explanations for why college doesn’t work for many people than sheer ineptitude or lack of interest. The same social problems that beset the K–12 education system—illegitimacy, single-parent families, lack of personal responsibility and of other virtuous habits—hinder success in college as well. But independent of these environmental and personal deficiencies, there never was any reason to believe everyone should go to college, as if it were necessary for the common good or the national interest. Human beings are heterogeneous, so our approach to college education should comprehend that.

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