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The Great College Education Con

As far back as the 1800s, when college was reserved for the elite, there were those, including Mark Twain, who had their doubts as to its usefulness.  Observed Twain:

“Some people get an education without going to college.  The rest get it after they get out.”

Twain may not be far off the mark.  How much knowledge is actually attained in college? If graduates were to stand on a soapbox and be required to recall all they learned while in university, most would come to silence within 5 minutes.  If education per se was the goal, it is a poor return on investment.

If graduating students could choose only one — the education they gained during those 4 years, with no documentation to prove their attendance or the purported ticket to a job or professional school that the degree provided, with none of the knowledge — which would it be?

These days, most don’t go to college to learn.  What is learned is of little value, and even that is not retained.  One goes to college for advancement, for the credential.

The cost of that credential, for the individual and society, is massive.

Student loan debt is $1.6 trillion dollars.  Through lobbying by the financial industry, Congress made student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  The campaign was led by two executives at Sallie Mae, who personally received nearly half a billion dollars in just a 4 year period.  This is a remarkable transfer of wealth from the working and middle classes to a politically connected elite.

By giving these loans for the asking, federal policy has allowed colleges to increase tuition to levels far more than a rational free market could otherwise bear.  Between 1985 and 2011 average tuition nationwide increased 500%.  It continues to rise at only a slightly diminished rate.

Where is that tuition going?  The president of Auburn University has a $2.5 million dollar salary.  The University of Phoenix earned $423 million in profits in 2012 with a 1% graduation rate.  Ashford University’s CEO earned $20.5 million in 2009.

While corporate academia garners further and further wealth, the greater part of an American generation is consigned to the status of a 19th-century Russian serf –  little prospect of ever owning a home or achieving financial independence.

How so?  The debt, adversely affecting credit scores, precludes the ability to buy a house.  And the financial cost of higher education is not merely in the direct tuition and the living expenses of those college years.  More important is the lost opportunity for real wages during that period.  This is a period considerably longer than most realize.  The four-year college degree is a myth.  Nearly 60% of students who pursue a degree will take 6 years or longer to graduate.

As a consequence, most young Americans cannot afford marriage and certainly can’t afford children. Both are now significantly delayed.  For many, this will not occur at all.

But the financial impact of college is less significant than the temporal impact.  It is not unreasonable to surmise that a primary reason for the delay in marriage and decline in children is those 4-6 years spent by much of the younger population in college and the oftentimes subsequent additional years spent in graduate school.  One can be in class, or one can be an adult.  One cannot be both.

American families are significantly smaller than they were in the 1960s.  Intellectuals will hold that this is good.  Children eventually turn into people, and fewer people is good for the environment.  And many intellectuals will hold that not being burdened with children allows young adults to broaden their horizons.

There is another impact to college — one that has heretofore not been seen – affecting a very different population.  College stereotypically has been the province of the middle class, the bourgeoisie.   But it also directly affected the working class.   Over 40% of factory jobs now require a college diploma.   Even unskilled labor (working the car rental counter) can require a baccalaureate degree.

Young adults are forced into prolonged adolescence.   Their maturation is stunted.  This was greatly exaggerated by the courts when they barred the use of IQ tests in hiring in 1971.  For employers, college replaced that test.  It cost the employer nothing.  It cost the employee at least 4 years.

How did college become entrenched as a necessary rite of passage for the middle and upper classes?

The genesis is instructive.

In 1904 the American Medical Association set out on a policy to increase the income and prestige of physicians. It would severely limit the number of doctors in the country by requiring college before admission to medical school.  To implement its plan, it contracted with the Carnegie Foundation to make a “survey” of medical education in the US and Canada.   Abraham Flexner, who would become one of the pillars of American education, was hired to conduct the survey, covertly funded by the AMA, and to make recommendations.  Flexner concluded that the number of schools should be cut, through new regulations by the states, from 155 to 31, and called for a university education as a prerequisite for admission to those few medical schools that remained.

The goal of the AMA was to draw medical students only from the upper class of American society, and the expense of 4 years of college was the means to accomplish that. The report acknowledged, and at the same time was indifferent to, the impact the cost of college would have.   As explicitly stated in its introduction: “It is clear that the poor boy has no right to go into any profession for which he is not willing to obtain adequate preparation.…”

With a lobbying assist by the Rockefeller Foundation of 100 million dollars (over 2.5 billion dollars in today’s money), state legislatures throughout the country implemented the changes.

Mimicking the template set by organized medicine, the legal profession would soon follow suit.  Quickly college became required for all professions, even elementary school teachers.  And college became required for virtually all white-collar employment.

The most productive years of tens of millions would be expended in an endeavor that outside the piece of paper it grants, is inherently non-productive.  The demographic decline of the middle classes is in no small measure is due to college over family.

Flexner is the author of one of the key writings in American education:  “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,”  which he published in 1939.   His thesis was that all apparently useless research might eventually prove to have some unexpected practical value, and should therefore be encouraged.  It’s the title, though, not the substance of the piece, that Academia is enamored with.  It has used the bon mot as justification for the Academic state.  Academia imposes on America’s young adults years upon years of mandated education in useless knowledge.

This should be a political issue.  It isn’t.  We should make it so.

The secret of politics is to learn from the tactics, language, and success of your adversaries.

The overwhelming majority of college students are oblivious to their true station in life.  An agenda has to be established.   Bar the requirement of a liberal arts college degree for entry to professions and professional schools.  Mandate an affirmative action program to prohibit discrimination against those with only high school diplomas in employment and corporate advancement.  Use the left’s weapon – affirmative action – against the left.

It will take a mass movement.  Perhaps the kids will wake up.

Graphic credit: iconscout CC BY 4.0 license

August Harriman is the pen name of a professor at one of America’s most famous universities