Friday, May 14, 2010

Are Too Many People Going To College?

I read an interesting article discussing that many economists suggest too many people go to college:
The notion that a four-year degree is essential for real success is being challenged by a growing number of economists, policy analysts and academics. They say more Americans should consider other options such as technical training or two-year schools, which have been embraced in Europe for decades.
As evidence, experts cite rising student debt, stagnant graduation rates and a struggling job market flooded with overqualified degree-holders. They pose a fundamental question: Do too many students go to college?
A couple thoughts:

The Student:

I am a huge fan of people going to college.  It takes a lot to convince me people shouldn't go to college if possible.

 However, I do realize that for many people college is an unneeded hassle that puts them in huge debt only to wind up in a low paying job that they could have done without college and the extra student loans.  I read an article in the New York Times a couple years ago (Don't remember which one) that said something to the effect: "More and more students are graduating with student loans they can't afford to pay given the job end up with."

The Taxpayer:

The issue here is summed up by this quote:
"If people want to go out and get a master's degree in history and then cut down trees for a living, that's fine... But I don't think the public should be subsidizing it."
I have mixed feelings on this too.  How do you take funding away from graduate students who will cut down trees and not poor students who will use their education to do great things for society? (Like an engineer who wasn't rich going to school.)  You can't.

Furthermore: Rich kids do not have the monopoly on talent!  That said, I understand the above example seems like a drain on taxpayer funds.

What do you think?

Given so many of those that write for or follow this blog have college backgrounds, I was wondering what you all think.  I do not want to make a political issue out of this!  I was just wondering, in your opinion: Are Too Many People Going To College?


  1. "Are too many people going to college?"

    My simple answer is no, however I would say that too many people are going to college wrong. By wrong I mean that (a) they are going to the wrong type of college or (b) they are studying the wrong things in college. Let me explain what I mean.

    When I say the wrong college, I mean that too many students are not factoring in the cost of their educations when they chose a college. Community colleges, four-year state schools, and even some less-prestigious public universities are excellent options for some career paths. For example, if you want to be a nurse you could pay $20k per year at a private school or a little over $2k per year at a community college to get the same job. At the community college you probably won't get as well-rounded of an education, but you will save tens of thousands of dollars. Many career paths can and probably should start out in a less expensive, less prestigious fashion.

  2. Continued from above...

    When I say that people are studying the wrong things in college, what I mean is that in too many cases people feel that simply having a college degree qualifies them for a career. In reality it is not the degree but a skill-set that qualifies someone for a career. Too many students are getting degrees that do not provide them with a skill-set that can be translated into a job.

    I think the prime example of this is the business major. I feel that it would be far more useful for people to major in something else and then go into business instead of majoring in business. My friends with degrees in fields like engineering, economics, accounting, or even dietary science have been far more successful in finding high-quality jobs than those that were business majors.

  3. And I should add that most of those business majors came from BYU's Marriot School, which is one of the top rated business schools in the country.

  4. One final point I'd like to make: one of the other problems is that many majors now routinely take more than 4 years to complete. Aside from increasing the cost of an education by 25%, that also discourages students from picking tough majors. I think that all bachelor's degrees should be designed to be completed in four years. Period.

  5. Nick,

    You may not have known this, but we had a physics major at BYU (his last name was Carpenter but I can't remember his first) who went on to Harvard's business school.

    My point is, being a physics major was good enough to go to Harvard's business school.

  6. I think looking at education economically is just part of the picture. There is more value to education than just finding a job. For a free society to work properly, the population must be educated. We are encouraged by our church leaders to obtain as much education as possible. Though I think they would agree with me in that taking anything more than undergraduate physics courses is only for the foolhardy. Just kidding! =:)

  7. Stan,

    Yeah, it's nice to have the public educated. Could you imagine if we decided not everyone in the US needed to go to high school? (Or even perhaps all grade school!) And those are also funded with taxes and arguably have to be to reach everyone.

    But I guess at some point a line needs to be drawn.

  8. "...being a physics major was good enough to go to Harvard's business school."

    For most of my time at BYU I was trying to decide between a PhD program in physics or law school, so I know a little bit about going into a professional degree program with a physics background. I was repeatedly told by people at BYU and recruiters from other law programs that they love applicants from technical majors like physics, math, or engineering. Having additional skills simply makes you that much more appealing to schools and employers.

  9. Stan and Joe,

    I agree about having an educated public, however I think that can be done at a community college or a 4 year school. I think it can also be improved by programs like the SMART grants which provide additional financial aid to those qualifying for Pell Grants who are juniors or seniors majoring in a technical field.

    I want people to appreciate math and science as much as they are currently required to appreciate history or literature.

  10. When I was at BYU I had a bishop who was a college drop out. Part way through his education he decided that he could make more money by being a plumber than by getting a job that would require a college degree. So he dropped out, and it did not prevent him from being a well rounded individual. But one thing he would do (and he did it with almost everyone in the ward) was he would sit people down in an interview and would ask them, "Do you really want to be in college? You know you could drop out and get a job and you may have a better life." While that may be an odd thing for a bishop to do in a BYU ward (and some people were upset by it) I have to say, he had a point. Not everyone needs to go to college in order to get the job they want, or to become a well rounded, educated individual.

    In every class that I teach (except the classes for physics majors) I find there is always at least one student who I think would be much happier and do better by going to a community college or a trade or technical school, and the only reason why they aren't doing that is because they they don't realize that it is an option (and some students just need to drop out and get a real job and live a little before they try to attempt to do any thing at the college level, but that's a different story). So there are people out there who could have the opportunity of a better job if they were just able to get a better (correct, well applied, more specific) education, and the only thing preventing them is a realization that that option exists.

  11. Interesting Quantumleap42 .

    I think high schools need to do a better job letting students know about these "options". At this point someone says "Why the schools and not the parents" to which I reply: the schools have access to career councilors and data that would be hard for the "average" parent to get their hands on and understand properly.

  12. In France the situation seems to be quite difficult, from the news: the young French are worse and worse at school and in part because there are more and more premature children. Then they have a behavior quite unpleasant and sometime it is hard for me to endure it. Finally in this country there has also been a trial for a university which was selling some diplomas to some Chinese which were not going to any lecture, so this is well corrupted as well ; if I remember well money could be helpful as well in G.B., if you were enough corrupted to play this game (so there really are some problems in Europe).

  13. P.-S.: I remember quite well me thinking in Great Britain: “If things are not going well because of corruption, I will be a philosopher, no problem; but I will not feed their game.” But I was lucky because it is not so easy to become a real philosopher, and there are some problems when one is one.

  14. There was a guy back home who drove an expensive sports car with a license plate that said "no PhD". Personally I admire people who make a great living and employ others without a college degree. They have a business intelligence that I only dream of. I had to get a college degree to be financially successful. So in a manner of speaking, a college degree is for those who are driven but know they cannot make it relying on their own skill set.

    Having said that, a college degree is a good idea for most people. It develops critical thinking, speaking, and writing skills. The more educated a society, the better off it is. At the same time, our world needs laborers. The appliance repair man who came to my home the other day and walked away with $80 of my hard earned money in "service call" and "trip" fees after spending just 20 minutes at my home must be doing pretty well financially. If my son chooses to become a plumber, electrician, or lab technician, I will not complain - actually those require education as well, just not the typical 4-year degree.

  15. "Personally I admire people who... employ others without a college degree."

    I really agree with this. I worked for an organization where to be hired full time, even if you were doing a very "even a teenager can do it" job, they required you had a 4-year degree. I always thought that was wrong, especially since there were many unemployed with no degree who could easily do these tasks. Furthermore, it would be cheaper for the organization to employ them over someone with a degree.

  16. Cartesian, good luck with the Philosopher thing.

  17. In G.B. it was quite subtle because they were only changing the marks, but not so much that it is too obvious; because in a section with a lot of jobless persons even if you are rather good, if you are not at the top of the top, normally the good jobs are not for you. Hence it was a big temptation for them to change a bit things, because it is not easy after to prove anything; the best proof is your level before and after this time according to some others.

  18. Another thing to think about: Perhaps college needs to be redesigned. We're using a process that is centuries old that maybe doesn't fit in the modern world as it should.
    Our primary/secondary schools still have summers off. Why? How many kids work the fields these days, requiring that time off? It is based upon an old, useless tradition.

    Today, college requires 2 years of generic instruction. Why? Shouldn't that be the stuff we learn in grade/high school? Except for specific degrees for academia, why not adjust colleges to meet today's needs? I think that is one of the reasons we have such a boom in community colleges.

    Next, how does it help to spend 4-8 years in college, only to find out that your degreed area is no longer needed? Imagine spending years getting computer trained, only to find all the jobs are now in China and Russia (I had this problem). What if we made getting degreed a little easier, more adjustable to the real world? We need scientists and mathematicians and medical staff right now. But that could change in just a few years, if the rest of the world can do it better and cheaper.

    Maybe college should be more focused on an ever changing environment of process improvement? As a person needs new skills, give them the few classes they actually need, and then send them off with a degree/certificate that means something in the real world.

  19. rameumptom,

    Interesting points. Yes, the system maybe could use an update. What, kids don't work the fields all summer? :)

  20. rameumptom,

    "Our primary/secondary schools still have summers off. Why? How many kids work the fields these days, requiring that time off? It is based upon an old, useless tradition."

    The Jordan School District in the Salt Lake valley is changing some year-around schools back to the traditional schedule as a way of reducing costs. It seems that unless the student population is high enough to require that facilities be kept open for the summer, or unless the requirements are more than the traditional 180 days of school/year, keeping facilities operating for 12 months/year may not necessarily be the best thing.


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