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Education As Sideline

In response to my post suggesting that universities don't do much for their students, one common line of response went something like, "shut your trap non-academic ignoramus-man, universities don't exist to serve their students, they exist to serve the cause of advancing human knowledge!" That's fair enough, but it's less a counterargument to what I was saying than an enhancement. Research indicating that the only real value of a college degree is as a status-signifier and a method by which people from modest backgrounds might acquire elite connections is, as I was saying, highly unsurprisingly in light of the fact that America's major universities do not orient their hiring decisions around the goal of teaching students. In and of itself, this is fine. Most organizations don't exist in order to teach students. The American Prospect produces political commentary. The Urban Institute publishes analyses of social welfare programs. Harvard produces research into a variety of subjects. So far, so good. But of course only one of those three institutions invites 6,000 to study amidst its hallowed halls.

If you don't think your institution should take the education of 18-22 year-olds seriously as a mission, the obvious thing to do is to have your institution join the ranks of the many, many, many not-for-profit organizations that don't educate 18-22 year-olds. Perhaps more fundamental than the question about the mission of any one institution is the question of social design. If colleges don't really exist to teach undergraduates, and if they don't do a very good job of teaching undergraduates, then how much sense does it make for we, as a society, to have turned four-year colleges into the gatekeepers of the American managerial-professional elite. Maybe everyone should just go get a job when they leave high school. If, after a couple years in the workforce which let you get a little seasoning and perspective, you decide you want to be a lawyer, you could then go to law school which might have to be, say, a four year program instead of a three year one. One could imagine similar extended versions of medical school or MBA programs.

January 21, 2005 | Permalink


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» Declining ROI on a college degree -- are colleges just doing a bad job of teaching? from chez Nadezhda
I'm feeling like a bear of very little brain this morning. Usually I get right away the points Matt Yglesias makes. This time, however, I think we've got a leap of faith in here somewhere in his two recent posts on university education.

Matt... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 21, 2005 12:47:55 PM


Pretty simple really, everone exists to fuck 18-24's over in just about every single area.

Bar perhaps video games perhaps not.

Posted by: MNPundit | Jan 21, 2005 10:39:24 AM

Other comments on education:
1) It's useful to differentiate professional education from academic education. Schools such as business schools, engineering schools, medical schools, law schools, nursing schools, and ed schools are in the business of getting their students jobs in their respective areas. Some of these professional schools are terrific (med schools); some are of questionable value (business schools, ed schools). These should be differentiated from discipline-based education -- the liberal arts. In general, professional schools DO think in terms of teaching and pay attentional to the teaching process. I'm not convinced that their track records support this approach. Since in many instances, these schools are also the only ordained liscensing pathway to a profession, they also hold the keys to the kingdom.

2. The second-tier or third-tier colleges in the US can be terrific. I've observed close-hand a number of students who've received remarkable second trys at education via community colleges. Read Frank McCourt for tear-rending annecdotes about these students. And realize that first-rate teacher like Frank McCourt choose to work in these setting. That prestigious colleges and universities are not miles ahead of these fine institutions is less a damnation of the elite schools than a realization that US higher education is doing a good job across the board.

Posted by: John Kubie | Jan 21, 2005 10:50:56 AM

I started to take a course in data base design at a community college which was promoting computer courses. Night classes were packed with people looking for career advancement or career beginning. Many had poor english. These people were working their asses off, with full time jobs and family. Thinking they could complete the degree and be on a path to the American dream. I quit the program because I got straight A's and still knew nothing. Everyone struggled to learn the professor struggled to teach, but no one got anywhere much. The grading wa based on a system where the person who got the higheset grade was an A and it proportioned down from there, regardless if the highest grade was only a 50% score. The whole thing was useless and reletively expensive. I think I was the only one who realized I wasn't learning and that in addition, expert data base programmers were not getting jobs, let alone people strting out who can't speak English and have no understanding of business practice. It was actually heartbreaking and began to seem like a scam. In any case, I think a lot of higher education is kind of a self-perpetuating scam. Because the goal now is employment, it's not self knowledge or world knowledge. It is the filter for a reasonable white collar job, even if what is taught is irrelevent to potential jobs. It is probably different in the rarefied air of top tier colleges, but most kids go to lower ranked schools. Since everybody now has to go to college you get students who have abosultely no interest in academics and little talent for them as well and colleges ahve to cater to them. In the mean time trades are short handed, union electricians can start out making 60, 70k after certification. For some reason, these jobs are looked down upon.

Bottom line, I don't think higher education doesn't serve many people well for a variety of reasons.

Posted by: Cathy | Jan 21, 2005 10:56:18 AM

Matt --

I think the kind of cultural re-evaluation of the real worth of a $140,000 4-year-degree is inevitable. I lived a situation somewhat like you describe; I didn't attend college until I'd been out of high school for two years, and at that point I'd already had some success as a playwright before my freshman year. I ended up frustrated, wondering what on earth I was spending my money for -- I remember thinking that I was learning more from my coworkers at Borders at the time. So I left after a year, and I don't feel like I've suffered a great deal of setback since then (although that sort of thing is obviously impossible to quantify).

Now, I live and work in an industry (theater) that tends to not care a fig whether you've got a degree or not, so obviously I have more avenues available to me in my field than, say, a self-taught individual wanting to go into aerospace. But I'm pretty firm in my belief that college is way, way, way too expensive, and it's not at all clear what actual substantive benefits most people glean from a liberal arts degree. It would be one thing if, say, the goal of such a curriculum was to teach critical thinking first and foremost, but in my experience, that wasn't the case (although it may be in theory).

I think it would be a very good thing if there were a little more accountability in our academic institutions (and I'm not talking about NCLB accountability). If schools had to demonstrate that the $140,000 expenditure actually bought something worthwhile, I believe the education would improve significantly.

Posted by: Joe Drymala | Jan 21, 2005 10:57:47 AM

> I think the kind of cultural re-evaluation of the real
> worth of a $140,000 4-year-degree is inevitable. [...]
> But I'm pretty firm in my belief that college is way,
> way, way too expensive, and it's not at all clear what
> actual substantive benefits most people glean from a
> liberal arts degree.

Which is fine, as long as you also realize it is to the great advantage of the George Herbert Walker Bush's of the world (and the Teresa Heinz Kerry's for that matter) that the middle-middle and nouveau-upper-middle classes believe this. That leaves US society with two classes of "upper" universities: glorified trade schools where the most ambitious worker bees can be trained, gelded of their social ambitions, and led to believe the US is a classless society, and the true upper-class institutions where networking, screening, and mate selection can occur.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jan 21, 2005 11:04:37 AM

I was wondering if Matt Yglesias could take a few more opportunities to remind everyone that he went to Harvard.

Posted by: Dolemite | Jan 21, 2005 11:13:03 AM

Man, was Harvard really that bad? :-)

No, universities do not exist to teach job skills (unless you're planning an academic career.) There are these things called "vocational schools," which, as you might guess from the name, are designed to do that.

I don't know about you, but when I went to college, they were very explicit that your purpose in being there shouldn't be to get a job or make more money, and if it was, you were making a mistake. No misrepresentation there. I work in software, which I do not have a degree in. I could have had about the same career without going to college (and I knew people my age who did.) I went to college to broaden my knowledge, learn from smart people knowledgeable in a variety of subjects, and develop my mind through intellectual discussion.

There's a lot to be said for having teachers chosen for teaching skill, but there's also a lot to be said for learning from brilliant people who are on the cutting edge of their field.

Posted by: Redshift | Jan 21, 2005 11:15:38 AM

I agree with those above who say it is not necessary for most work and too expensive; and also with this from yesterday's Times:

Learn for Learning's Sake

To the Editor:
Re "College Degree Still Pays but It's Leveling Off" (Business Day, Jan. 13):
Your analysis of the "value" of college degrees once again proves that America has some true learning to do before it can catch up to the intellectual level of the rest of the industrialized world.

I am tired of opening the newspaper at least once a year to find an article that basically reduces college education to a question of economics.
Given the intellectual paucity of the American high school experience, all Americans should be going to college to finally learn something, regardless of whether that newfound knowledge increases their salaries.

Prof. Harley Shaken, a labor economist at the University of California at Berkeley, argues in the article that the "obsession with education" overshadows attempts to equalize incomes by other means, and he is undoubtedly right.

If Americans were to stop thinking of education as a means to an end, maybe it wouldn't be constantly cheapened in this way.

Yes, please raise the minimum wage, enact something like the Equal Rights Amendment and strengthen unions. At the same time, strengthen education by reminding all Americans that a sound education is an end in itself. -- Jessamyn Blau

Posted by: harold | Jan 21, 2005 11:17:42 AM

One thing:

The only evidence you provide that universities don't teach undergraduates well is that college students don't make all that much more money than non-elites and that the gap between college students and GED possessors hasn't grown all that bigger.

This, needless to say, is a massive non sequitur. It is pretty obvious that the American economy does not reward great knowledge more generally, but rather specific knowledge subsets.

Posted by: Patrick | Jan 21, 2005 11:18:00 AM

This has always struck me as primarily a market issue. There's a huge diversity in higher education, with different options that make more or less sense for different types of individuals, including some that are highly overrated and priced, and some, like those mentioned above, that are basically a scam.

College can add value, particularly for folks interested in fields that require skills like advanced math, which you're not likely to learn on the job front (note, the Krueger article cited didn't argue that college doesn't add value but simply that less competitive schools added as much value as more prestigious institutions).

The problems is the information available to perspective students doesn't reflect the things that determine whether or not a school is effective for them. , Students at the top of the distribution are making decisions based on things like prestige and US News, which rely almost entirely on inputs and things like academic community prestige that don't really have much to do with what students get out of a schools. Students at the bottom don't really have information to differentiate effective job training and community college programs from scams. If what you're after is skills, there are plenty of cheap community college and even online programs that are effective, but it's hard to figure out which ones are which. Similarly, if you want to be a successful professional you can probably get as much benefit from good programs at a good state school (often not even the most famous or competitive one) at a fraction of the cost of a Harvard, etc. So you have a situation where most traditional students end up making decisions based on quality of life and social factors that may contribute to their outcomes but aren't directly related to their educational results and are quite costly, or based on "prestige," which seems to be closely related to costs. College is probably the only market I know of in which higher prices make a provider more rather than less desirable for a lot of consumers, because they're seen as a proxy for quality. If you want to know why college costs so much, this, and the quality of life competition, are huge factors.

I'm curious that Matt has made several posts in the last few weeks about college that suggest discontent with his Harvard experience--are you regretting something? Do you think you would have achieved the prestige and notoriety you ahve had you gone somewhere else? Of course, given your background I'm guessing you're not saddled with the crippling student loan burden of most Ivy League grads I know, so you seem to have gotten the best of both worlds.

Posted by: flip | Jan 21, 2005 11:22:32 AM

A good friend of mine from Chile once said that American colleges exist to keep people off the job market for 4 years and to in his words "consume surplus value." Of course, now that I teach at one of those 2 tier state U's that geld people's minds, I have to disagree...

Posted by: msj | Jan 21, 2005 11:24:07 AM

MY, of course, is right that the "education" at Universities are such are often useless in getting jobs and the professors at those universities are often even worse than useless. (Don't tell Brad Delong this though - he might try to ban you from his site). But why do so few people go to trade/vocational schools? Because, as someone else noted, they're looked down upon. The middle/upper class seems to have a disdain for non-white-collar jobs. But would I consider that a problem? Not really. In a way it's good because it allows the lower class to get higher paying jobs through trade/vocational schools.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Jan 21, 2005 11:28:39 AM

Don't be ashamed - it happened to me at a 2nd tier private university ;-)

Probably explains those incorrect apostrophes in my original post.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jan 21, 2005 11:30:39 AM

btw, my parents seemed to think the main reason to go to college was to find an appropriate spouse, as did a lot of the women with whom I went to college. since I emerged with only a BA and nno MRS degree, and am still single five years after graduation, despite supporting myself decently in a fun rewarding job and just ahving bought a great new condo, I suppose college did not provide any value for me, either ;)

oh, and I am really horrified that I wrote perspective instead of prospective in my above post. clearly I went to a sub-tier institution.

Posted by: flip | Jan 21, 2005 11:32:40 AM

A good friend of mine from Chile once said that American colleges exist to keep people off the job market for 4 years and to in his words "consume surplus value."Look at this discussion of the Airborne Laser project. What started out as a not-too-bad idea to put anti-missile lasers on an Air Force jet is now a 15-year, $40 billion project. Which besides transferring lots of $$$ into the pockets of defense contractors is no doubt spinning off millions of dollars of research contracts to universities, funding graduate student fellowships, consuming new engineering gradutes, etc. It is hard to see something like that, and the military/industrial/research complex, as anything other than a mechanism for transferring surplus value that has somehow worked its way to the middle-middle-class back to the upper class.Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jan 21, 2005 11:36:57 AM

The fact of the matter is that even most of the brighter people who are admitted to college haven't the slightest idea what they are there for. This is precisely why one is required to take introductry level courses in the first couple years of school. They, hopefully, help you to discover what really interests you. If it turns out to be engineering or "business," you might as well (though they don't exist in this country) be in a voc-tech. However, if you're there to learn about the complexities of human existance, which includes dabbling in, okay, a whole lot of alcohol, drugs and sex, then one should pursue a liberal arts degree. If you later decide you want to be a souless, probably socially useless money grubber, you can always take the LSAT or GMAT and become a Republican.

The adage holds - you only get as much out of university as you are willing to put into it. And if you can afford to go to a better school, you'll probably encounter better professors as well, though this is not guaranteed. I had some real wastes of space in grad school at Columbia, so a big time reputation doesn't guarantee quality.

A good friend of mine from Chile once said that American colleges exist to keep people off the job market for 4 years and to in his words "consume surplus value." Of course, now that I teach at one of those 2 tier state U's that geld people's minds, I have to disagree...
Posted by: msj.

Your friend is actually describing the university experience in Japan. It's a four year vacation granted because you survived the mostly pointless rigors of the Japanese secondary school system (exam hell to the nth degree), and then it makes you four years older as a lower management cog when you enter a company and have to supervise the guys on the loading dock who didn't go to university.

Posted by: Jeff I | Jan 21, 2005 11:41:49 AM

I repeat Matt: universities pay a great deal of attention to teaching, both in hiring, renewing, and tenuring. Anyone who says otherwise simply is talking out of their posterior. I've sat on search committees, and I say this with great confidence.

Of course, some schools pay more attention to undergraduate instruction than others, and students can choose to attend those places.

Now perhaps your alma mater-- I can't quite recall its name-- had the wrong balance for you. But I find it bizarre that you view it as failing in its mission. It seems to me that you learned a great deal there, which is one reason why you've managed to gain a large readership in your very-early twenties.

Posted by: AWC | Jan 21, 2005 11:51:10 AM

Keep in mind that another purpose that elite university educations serve is a means of advancing (or maintaining one's place) in the social class. There's a reason that a job as an electrician, which pays very well, is "looked down upon," while a position as a professor at a small college is held in higher esteem, despite the poor pay-- the latter position is considered to be a higher place in the social class, and one's connections (and those of one's children) will be of a higher social strata.

Without a college education or with an education from a 3rd-tier insitution, there aren't huge barriers to making a good living-- or even being very successful, over time, particularly for those who own restaurants or other small businesses and invest their money wisely. On the other hand, try getting a job with McKinsey & Co. or a position as an investment banking analyst Goldman Sachs without that $140,000 education. They recruit almost exclusively from those top schools and provide successful applicants with a high-paying career path, alongside your peers who also went to such top schools.

I'm not saying that this is the be-all and end-all of life, but such high-priced educations do provide certain social-class amenities and access to a certain set of jobs, if those are the things you want, rather than simply "a good living," which can be had through any number of different means (though perhaps shutting you out from the job of your dreams).

Posted by: Constantine | Jan 21, 2005 11:52:39 AM

It is hard to see something like that, and the military/industrial/research complex, as anything other than a mechanism for transferring surplus value that has somehow worked its way to the middle-middle-class back to the upper class.

That's insane! Lockheed Martin employs 130,000 Americans. Boeing 157,000. Northrop Grumman 123,000. Raytheon 78,000. Are you telling me that these 400,000 Americans are somehow all in the upper class?

Now we can argue the merits of individual programs or the level of defense spending all we like -- this one in particular seems like a bit of a boondoggle. But to suggest that it's a class warfare scheme to screw the middle class makes absolutely no sense.

Posted by: right | Jan 21, 2005 11:52:50 AM

It should be noted that Matthew attended Harvard, which is a bit of special case. Harvard's graduate schools and research are hugely prestigious, but its entire undergraduate curriculm is seen (at other top-tier universities) as a bit of a joke.

I attended a four-year, hideously expensive, moderately prestigious liberal arts school, and actually learned a lot. A few of my humanties courses were actually quite interesting, and the science curriculm was hugely informative.

Of course, my university pays enormous attention to undergraduate teaching, and uses it as a key part of the tenure process. Harvard is rather notorious for not giving a damn.

If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have applied to MIT. Their technical departments are even better than ours were, and their humanities departments appear to be good enough.

Posted by: EK | Jan 21, 2005 12:18:01 PM

This is related to the social security question. The projections would be better if more people entered the labor market sooner. Maybe for starters, the public sector should be prohibited from considering education above the basic requirements in making hiring decisions. As it is, the consideration of masters' degrees is often an effective screen to filter out applicants, but not necessarily a real measure of the applicants' strengths.

Posted by: s | Jan 21, 2005 1:02:40 PM

Hmmm, EK, a person who attended less prestigious school calling Harvard a joke...gee whiz, never got that before. Brown's the real joke and having spent time at Columbia, it ain't any better than Harvard.

I went to Harvard myself, and I learned an awful lot and I make very little compared to the cost of my education. But that was a CHOICE.

THe American collegiate system must be doing something right given our productivity gains and our competitiveness with other countries.

Look, our high schools are the worst in the industrialized world, yet our colleges are arguably the best research institutions in the world and they create a society that is more productive and innovative than most?

How can that be if our colleges suck?

Posted by: Patrick | Jan 21, 2005 1:25:38 PM

Matt these are questions that one can only will ask if one is sitting behind a lap top while working at a think-tank wanna-be monthly rag- post harvard graduation. You are the absolute product of this system. Don't fool yourself, as smart and talented, as you are, you would certainly not be where you are doing what you are doing if not for Harvard. The vanity inherent withinthe elite college and post college socialization creates a pretense that all people of value and ability are within or close to one's circle. This is absolutely far from the truth. The college process is and has always was about the culling of the next crop of elites, lesser elites and their subordinates and their life partners, and gathering toward the current spheres of power and control.

Have you learned nothing these last four years? Everyone, repeat everyone; is unnecessary, minus those physically holding the reigns of power. This is why there is no wonkery under bush, ideas don't matter, loyalty and demonstratable control matter. This has always been the case it has never been so nakedly on display. What was all the endless parading and new gushing about yesterday. It was a demonstration of control. Only when those with the reigns of power do not or cannot hold them tightly can the illusions of progressivism be maintained.

Your discussion of this topic serves no purpose. It will either be used as fodder to limit education avaialable to the lesser of the elites and their subordinates or it will serve to devalue the presitige of the foundations of you own reputation. Cranky has the most realistic take. But as you have blogged before talk without organization particularly via the web is just a waste of electrical energy.

Do you want to change the US educational infrastructure? Do it, or don't. Please stop slinging sophmoric crap, you sound like a suburban housewife bemoaning her hummer's lack of fuel efficiency.

Posted by: patience | Jan 21, 2005 1:41:45 PM

" If colleges don't really exist to teach undergraduates, and if they don't do a very good job of teaching undergraduates, then how much sense does it make for we, as a society, to have turned four-year colleges into the gatekeepers of the American managerial-professional elite."

Because while they don't teach undergraduates well (for one thing, most undergraduates don't want to learn), colleges do perform the winnowing job of who is to get into the American managerial-professional elite very well (for one thing, that is the prime motivator behind most undergraduates).

Posted by: Andrew Boucher | Jan 21, 2005 1:50:05 PM

My God, there it is - "social class"...

It's hard to believe in the 21st century prople are still prattling on about "social class". If social class meant good manners, respect for others, honesty, compassion, intellectual curiosity there might be something in it. What it usually means is a dandified cover-up for some pretty revolting behaviour.

The above-mentioned electrician doesn't care a whit that some self-inflated fops "look down" on her/him. There's a job to do and a life to build and enjoy.

Posted by: mdf | Jan 21, 2005 1:57:03 PM

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