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Are college degrees overrated?

On Monday, NPR’s Talk of the Nation chatted with career coach Marty Nemko, who recently published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that the bachelor’s degree is one of America’s most oversold products. He stops short of calling the marketing of undergraduate degrees to those who are unqualified for university work a scam. But after twenty years in academe, I surely would go that far.

Nemko points to the vast numbers of college graduates who end up in jobs they could have had with a high-school diploma, and then goes on to cite figures showing that only 23 percent of high-school students who take the ACT are prepared to perform at the college level in English, math, reading, and science. That just about accords with my experience. As I’ve explained in earlier posts, I organize students into groups, each of which is led by a classmate who, in the absence of grade inflation, would genuinely be an A student. Any given class of thirty students will have at most six who really do perform at the A level: that’s 20 percent. The rest are folks who tell me that Wisconsin is a Rocky Mountain state and World War I occurred in the nineteenth century, and who turn in papers with their own names misspelled.

According to Nemko, of the four-year college students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high-school classes, two thirds had not managed to finish the bachelor’s degree after eight and a half years! Meanwhile, however, universities merrily collect these kids’ tuition, running them deeper and deeper into debt as the young people continue a fruitless pursuit.

And fruitless, he suggests, is le mot juste. The claim that workers with college degrees earn more over their lifetimes is, he says, “misleading”:

You could lock the collegebound in a closet for four years, and they’d still go on to earn more than the pool of non-collegebound—they’re brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.

While that is not 100 percent so—thank goodness, we still do have some social and economic mobility in this country—the truth is that class matters. Students who do well in school often are those whose parents were well educated and have provided their kids with a fistful of educational, social, and economic advantages. Not least of those is Dad’s old college chums now in a position to hire Junior. The uphill climb for a first-generation college student is a lot steeper than it is for a kid whose parents have graduate or professional degrees.

He adds that as increasing numbers of decently paying jobs are sent off-shore or converted to part-time, the pool of good opportunities drops. So, many college graduates are forced to take blue-collar work, driving trucks and waiting tables.

Then there’s the question of whether college students get what they pay for. It’s a big question, since many university graduates start their working lives with five- and six-figure student loan debt. Graduates surveyed in recent studies are understandably dissatisfied with the quality of instruction in environments where an average of 28 percent of their courses are taught in classes of thirty or fewer.

But did they learn anything?

Apparently not much. A 2006 study underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that 50 percent of tested college seniors could not follow the argument in a newspaper editorial or compare credit-card offers. Folks. That’s half of them! Twenty percent had such weak math skills that they could not estimate whether their car had enough fuel to get to the gas station.

Think it can’t get worse? Think again, says Nemko:

Unbelievably, according to the Spellings Report, which was released in 2006 by a federal commission that examined the future of American higher education, things are getting even worse: “Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined. . . . According to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, for instance, the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade. . . . Employers report repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplaces.”

What to do?

Nemko suggests that colleges should be held to the same standards as, say, tire manufacturers: at the least, they should be required to provide applicants full data on their performance in areas such as graduation rates; average costs for every year, broken out by race and gender; and employment data for graduates. He also suggests that a high-school graduate in the bottom half of his or her class consider more profitable alternatives, such as associate-degree programs at community colleges, apprenticeships, the military, and on-the-job training with a successful small-business owner.

The national campaign to enroll every body that’s still breathing in four-year bachelor’s degree programs is a rip-off. It rips off the young men and women who are unprepared to succeed in universities, and it rips off the ones who are prepared, by siphoning resources away from them. Not everyone needs a four-year degree. In fact, some people are likely to find more success by using those four years in vocational training and on-the-job learning.

3 Comments left on iWeb site


I think that a degree isn’t necessary, per se, and you can certainly have success, even great success, without one.

That said, I don’t think Nemko is right if he says that many of the jobs could have been landed without the degree.Degrees are actually required for more jobs above a certain pay grade than not, especially in corporateland, and having one certainly gives you the edge when all other things are equal.That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other industries where great success can come without that degree.

To me the issue isn’t how many people are going for degrees, the issue is the commitment of each individual student to learning and getting what they’re there for in a university setting. Many kids go for the social aspects instead of the educational aspects, and view it as a way to delay having to take responsibility for their own lives.

That’s why I agree with Nemko’s suggestions.College isn’t for everyone, and parents IMO should look at who their child really is and what they are really capable of and committed to.Otherwise it’s just a waste of time and money, and it dilutes the quality of education for those that are really committed.

And the lackluster way these uncommitted grads approach their jobs has far-reaching effects and dilutes the quality of life for us all.

Wednesday, May 14, 200810:47 AM


I’m not an American, or going to university in America, but I’ve seen the relative worthlessness of bachelor’s degrees all around me. I’m not sure if it’s so much more of a scam than a high school education was back in the past, though. You know, when only the rich or the scholarship kids went to uni?

Nemko’s right, class does matter, and I’m pretty sure that it’s really one of the few constants in this whole education-employment system. If you’ve got parents that went to uni, you’ll get a decently paying job. If not…be prepared to struggle. And as for the upper class, it’s unthinkable that you could NOT have at least a bachelor’s degree from somewhere (the quality of the degree…well…it only really matters that you can say you went to university).

Here (in the Caribbean) if you don’t have some kind of degree, you’re simply not going to get an ‘acceptable’ middle-class job. Sure, you can be a tailor, or a carpenter, or a maid or whatever without a degree, but you’ll never be higher up than a bank teller, really. Many more people go to university now than ever before.

However…since everyone has one…bachelor’s degrees aren’t worth much any more. University graduates are jobless because lower-end degrees won’t get you the pay you want…but you’re not going to go into a trade or some such ‘menial’ labour because you went to uni, darn it!

It’s definitely true that many people are getting ripped off by the system and preconceived notions of status in relation to a certain type of education. Really, there SHOULD be some attempt to expose high school graduates to the various options open to them, and to emphasize that an excellent mechanic will be more successful than a pass-degree BA Literature grad will be. However, people in general aren’t stupid. They figure things out sooner or later. Many people drop out, work for a few years, and when they settle down, do their degrees successfully. And I know many people that only started to shine in uni…moving from simply passing in high school to really maturing and buckling down (and being really successful) in uni. There ARE positives to the huge increase in enrollment in the university/college system; more people have more opportunities, and a greater chance of realising their full potential.

Friday, May 16, 200801:35 AM


It’s true that for certain kinds of jobs, a bachelor’s degree is key. It’s also true that an undergraduate degree in the liberal arts enriches your life immeasurably, in ways that far surpass the financial cost of obtaining the degree. And a bachelor’s degree in an academic subject prepares you for graduate study in professional programs such as the law, business, journalism, and education; in that sense, the bachelor’s degree does eventually pay for itself monetarily.

However, when you’re actually in the trenches, you come to appreciate Nemko’s estimate that 40 percent of students who are sucked into the university system are not prepared for university-level work.

Persuading those kids that they need a bachelor’s degree to have a decent life is probably a scam. When they finish the four-year degree, too many of them end up in low-skill, low-wage jobs that DO NOT REQUIRE A COLLEGE DEGREE. I have a nephew, for example, who got a bachelor’s degree in construction (don’t ask!) some years ago and to this day drives a delivery truck for a paint company. He could have driven the delivery truck with his high-school diploma and got a four-year leg up in experience and wage increases.

Advertise for a $28,000/year secretarial position and you’ll get a slew of applications from people with bachelor’s and even master’s degrees. You don’t need a college degree to push papers and answer the telephone. Give me a break! Why have these people wasted their time and gone into debt up to their schnozzes if jobs like this are what they have to look forward to?

I argue that for many young people, there are alternatives that may serve them better than marking time for four years in a bachelor’s degree program. For example, a two-year program at a community college could very well land you in a job that will earn lots better than the $28,000 secretarial position—or at least no less. Many trades are well paid, and you can’t off-shore a plumbing or an electrical job. A paid apprenticeship could prepare a young man or woman for a decently paying job—and possibly prepare the person to own a business—without leaving him or her in five-figure debt.

I also argue that filling up our universities with students who are academically unprepared dilutes the quality of the degree for every student. When faculty have to deal with gigantic classes, 40% of whose members cannot keep up with the work, attention that should be given to those students who belong there is diverted and wasted. We would not be sending college graduates into the workplace with subminimal skills if we were not having to grant degrees to people who come to us with subminimal skills.

Should we flunk out every freshman who arrives in our classes with subminimal skills? What? Send away 40% of our little cash cows? Not and keep our teaching jobs!

By and large, as a college instructor you are ill-advised, indeed, to fail students whose skills and performance do not come up to par. Promotion and tenure depend largely on semester-end student evaluations—if you give these students an honest assessment of their performance, they blow you out of the water. If you fail them, they and their parents show up at the dean’s office. If they are members of minority groups and you are not, you’re likely to be accused of discriminatory practices. If their politics are conservative and yours are liberal—or vice-versa—you may be accused of vindictive behavior.

The system as it is currently set up is designed to churn huge numbers of students through to the bachelor’s degree. Because some 40% those students are unprepared and stay unprepared throughout their four-year experience, a large proportion of those degrees are fraudulent. It is a system that cheats the students and cheats employers. And because it defrauds strong students as well as weak ones by diverting resources away from the truly qualified, over time it weakens our country’s economy.

Monday, May 19, 200809:59 AM