Students and Parents: Read This Book

You’ve never heard of Sarah Danaher or the company she founded, Ampersand Photography. What makes Sarah’s story interesting is that she could easily have gone to college after finishing high school, but chose not to. She likes learning, but is passionate about photography and didn’t want to spend years in college taking courses she wasn’t especially interested in and piling up debts.

Now Sarah owns her own business and manages the considerable array of work besides photography that it entails. There was a lot to learn and she did it, all without any formal education after high school. She is a CEO who never took a single business course.

I know about Sarah because I read the new book by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol Is College Worth It? The authors (the former served as secretary of education under President Reagan, the latter is a fellow at the Claremont Institute) have written a strong challenge to the conventional wisdom that getting a college degree is a great idea for almost every American.

“Talented students,” the authors write, “will be successful no matter where they go to college or if they don’t go at all.” On the other hand, poorer students (both in the financial and academic sense) need to avoid making bad educational decisions that will burden them with debt and leave them without gains in useful knowledge and skills. Bennett and Wilezol certainly are not against college education, but caution students to consider the entire range of educational alternatives in light of their own interests and abilities before putting down money for anything.

Money—that is, the high and rising cost of education—is a key part of the book. Bennett is famous for having advanced the idea that government student aid was largely to blame for the steady increases in tuition when he was the secretary of education. That was 25 years ago; events and scholarship since then have only strengthened his argument.

Easily obtained grants and low-cost loans have lured many Americans into colleges, which could then charge more and increase their spending. That flood of money has enabled schools to expand, mainly in ways that have nothing to do with education (more administrators, more amenities, more professors doing less teaching) and then claim that students need more aid to keep up with rising costs. Students wind up paying more, while usually getting less actual education.

Equally important is “the academic side of the Bennett Hypothesis,” namely the decline in academic standards and the erosion of the curriculum. College officials focus more and more on their bottom lines than on educational excellence, and thus have allowed or even encouraged trends that keep students happy. Among those trends are the dropping of demanding core curriculum requirements, the proliferation of soft and fuzzy courses, and what Professor Murray Sperber has called “the faculty/student non-aggression pact.”

As a result, many young Americans who don’t have much interest or ability in scholarly work have been drawn into college-lite programs that will supposedly give them a bright future after graduation. We know, however, that a large percentage will never graduate and even if they do, probably won’t have the abilities that employers are looking for. They’ll end up working in low-paying jobs, struggling to cover the cost of their student loans.

Bennett and Wilezol want to stop this human and financial waste.

To begin with, they say that we need to restore K-12 education so that students don’t need to go to college to catch up on basic education that was neglected in earlier years. The authors are absolutely right about that, but don’t endeavor to explain how that revolution can be accomplished. So long as most kids go to public schools that are under the control of the ferociously change-averse education blob, we are stuck with the dismal status quo.

Secondly, the authors want to see students given better guidance while they’re still in high school. Far too often, even weak students are herded toward college. Instead, school counselors should objectively assess their abilities and show them that there are often better choices than enrolling in college. That will require breaking them of the notion that it’s a stigma not to have gone to college. Toward that end, they point out that none of the following successful people has a college degree: Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, Rachael Ray, Wall “Famous” Amos, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, and John Mackey of Whole Foods.

Another change Bennett and Wilezol would make is in the financing of higher education. They would eliminate all federal aid for students who are not “needy” and tighten eligibility for students who are needy by instituting a “skin in the game” feature. What they have in mind is a requirement that colleges have an “equity stake” of ten to twenty percent in loans originating so students can attend there.

That change would compel schools to evaluate the likelihood that students they admit won’t be able to repay their loans. When private lenders make student loans, they usually insist that a responsible party co-sign the note, which forces that party to think carefully about the student’s prospects. Having the schools do essentially the same thing for government loans would have the same salutary effect.

A well-prepared student who intends to study chemistry would almost certainly get the school’s backing, while a weak student who wanted to major in a “soft” field such as “communications” probably wouldn’t. And although the authors don’t make this point, it would also make schools think more carefully about where they put their resources.

Finally, the book offers students and parents a lot of useful advice and information: colleges that are low in cost but high in educational value; non-college alternatives such as (E)nstitute, and a discussion of the points students and parents should think through before deciding whether to go to college and if so, where.

Among the options worth considering are online courses. Bennett and Wilezol write about Sebastian Thrun’s famous MOOC on artificial intelligence, “American higher education prides itself on a false promotion of diversity, opportunity, and excellence. But with one class alone, Thrun has provided a level of diversity, opportunity, and academic rigor not seen before.” Now there’s a gauntlet thrown down to the higher education establishment.

Valuable as the book is, I have to register my disappointment that the authors did not explain why the standard “college earnings premium” argument is badly misleading. They give the Bureau of Labor Statistics data that the median salary for workers with BA degrees was $1,053 per week in 2011, compared to the median salary for a high school graduate of only $638 per week.

College advocates regularly point to those data as proving just how valuable it is to graduate. I wish that the authors had immediately told their readers that those figures look back to include people who went to college decades ago (when academic standards were higher and the labor force had fewer college graduates) and therefore tell us nothing about the earnings prospects for people who are about to enter the labor force, with or without a degree. It’s fallacious to conclude from those statistics that anyone who gets a college degree today can expect an earnings boost of more than $400 per week.

America has a great many young people like Sarah Danaher—people with enough intelligence and drive to succeed without spending a lot of time and money taking college classes. I congratulate Bill Bennett and David Wilezol for producing a very readable book that will help students to figure out whether college is worth it.