Quote of the Day: A College Degree

 

“In the end, a college degree is either valuable or it isn’t. If it’s valuable, it will pay for itself. If it’s not valuable, no one should pay for it. Either way, there’s no reason for the government to be involved in higher education. The more involved it does get, the worse the problem becomes.” — Antony Davies

If one could graph the decline of the institutes of higher education in this country, it would follow a curve inverse to the level of government involvement in academia. I am not talking about the 19th-century land grant schools created by the Morell Act. Yes, state and federal governments established colleges and funded them over the next 100 years, but it was a period of benign neglect. The government pretty well let the institutions run themselves.

Those schools were also subject to market forces. If they produced an inferior product, customers (students) found another school to attend. (Or skipped college. Many highly successful people led productive careers absent a university degree, including intellectuals like H. L. Mencken.) Even the GI Bill did not change universities. It just made a higher education available to millions who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to attend. It increased the pool of consumers, but not the high-quality product offered.

The change started with Sputnik in 1957 and went fully into the weird with the 1971 Supreme Court’s Griggs v. Duke Power Co. decision.  The former created the illusion the West had fallen behind the Soviet Union in science and technology. The solution was for the federal government to Do Something about it. That something involved fostering what is now called STEM education and funding scientific research.

The problem? It decoupled science from the market and made it the handmaiden of the federal government. A federal government run by bureaucrats and politicians. The results were predictable: a thousand Trofim Lysenkos bloomed throughout academia in the 1960s and early 1970s. These were individuals whose real skills lay not in their ability to do research but to please their government paymasters: who were politicians and bureaucrats, not scientists. The Golden Rule, in this case, is “he that has the gold makes the rules.”

At the time, these Lysenkos were still low in the academic hierarchy, so the system still worked well through the 1960s and early 1970s (when I began my college education in 1973). Their influence would continue to grow, however, and throughout the 197os and 1980s, scientific crackpottery began to infect our universities. (Remember the hole in the ozone? The new ice age? Acid rain? All the stuff that was supposed to kill us by 2000 and didn’t? Scientific crackpottery.)

Then in 1971, Griggs compounded the problem. The Supreme Court barred the use of competency tests by businesses but permitted the substitution of academic degrees as job qualifications. That made a baccalaureate virtually a requirement for a worthwhile job. It also disconnected the degree from the marketplace. The value of the degree mattered less than its possession. A BS or BA — even one that provided no worthwhile skills — became the ticket to the good life.

It is a whole lot easier to provide a worthless education than a worthwhile one. The next 50 years saw a proliferation of junk “studies” degrees and a general dilution of academic standards throughout academia. There have been holdouts, most notably in engineering and medicine. Reality intervenes with bridges, buildings, and surgeries. Woke doesn’t keep the bridge standing or the patient alive. Even these are beginning to get corrupted, however, and soon fealty to the Woke mantra will be the key to getting the required degree to practice in these fields. Bridges and buildings will collapse and people will die, but that’s a small price to pay for academic conformity.

Another outcome of Griggs was to divorce the price of an education from its value. Tuitions began to rise. Relentlessly. When I got my BS in engineering in 1979, I recaptured the entire cost of that education — tuition, books, housing, fees — by the salary I earned in the first nine months as an engineer. When my middle son got his BS in civil engineering in 2011, it took him three years’ salary to recapture that cost, four times as much. Without that ticket, you have no career. The degree has become the equivalent of something specifically barred in the Constitution: a patent of nobility.

Is there a way out? I doubt it. To do so would require making education a competitive market again, as it was in the first half of the 20th century. The first step would be to overturn Griggs, now well past its usefulness. The next would be to get government, especially the federal government, out of funding general research and financing student loans.

It is not going to happen, at least not with a soft landing. As Stein’s Law states: What cannot go on forever will not go on forever. Stein’s Law does not state that when it stops, the process will be painless.

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  1. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Yes.

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The point-contact transistor was invented in 1947.

    The first transistor radio hit the market in 1952.

    The first integrated circuit was developed in 1957.

    We were behind no one.

    • #2
  3. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Percival (View Comment):

    The point-contact transistor was invented in 1947.

    The first transistor radio hit the market in 1952.

    The first integrated circuit was developed in 1957.

    We were behind no one.

    Which is why  I called it an illusion.

    • #3
  4. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Excellent article. I would add another factor: the middle class wanting to ape their social ‘betters’ at taxpayer expense. The class aspect is deeply ingrained – ‘the first person in my family to go to college’ is the modern American equivalent of moving from serf to freeman (with a historical echo of social mobility via the Church and being a useful bureaucrat for the nobility).

    • #4
  5. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    genferei (View Comment):
    I would add another factor: the middle class wanting to ape their social ‘betters’ at taxpayer expense. The class aspect is deeply ingrained – ‘the first person in my family to go to college’ is the modern American equivalent of moving from serf to freeman (with a historical echo of social mobility via the Church and being a useful bureaucrat for the nobility).

    I would modify your observation n two ways. I would suggest that working class is a better fit than middle class. I would also omit “at taxpayer expense.” 

    One of my grandfathers was an immigrant from Greece, from a peasant background. One of the first things he did upon coming to America was get a college education. This was back in the 1920s, and he paid his own way. At one point he could not afford both tuition and housing, so he skipped housing, sleeping in the street. (According to family legend the Ann Arbor cops would pick him up at night for “vagrancy” on winter days, letting him out in the morning so he could attend classes – after feeding him a hot breakfast It was the only way they could do it because he would not accept charity. They arranged to get him a job at a local fraternity as a dishwasher in exchange for lodging and meals.)

    Similarly virtually all of my parents’ generation, the first-born generation of Greeks who had come to this country between 1910 and 1930, all went to college on their own dime. (Except for the veterans, who had GI bill.) With the exception of my grandfather, their parents had not gone to college. They all felt college was worth the investment. 

    My brothers and I all paid our own way through college assisted by my parents. Same with my kids. My college education was worth it – probably the last generation of which that was generally true. Since my sons are all engineers, the same applies to their education. They are worried about the value of the college education their children will receive 15-20 years hence, however. They had to be careful in their class choices to get a meaningful education, especially the youngest.

    • #5
  6. Chuck Thatcher
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    Despite the commendable efforts of  Mike Rowe there is a widespread assumption, at least in the working class and for sure in the nobility that a body is going to college. It isn’t universal, however.

    • #6
  7. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald
    @Jose

    Seawriter: The change started with Sputnik in 1957 and went fully into the weird with the 1971 Supreme Court Griggs vs. Duke Power Co. decision.  The former created the illusion the West had  fallen behind the Soviet Union in science and technology. The solution was for the Federal government to Do Something about it.  That something involved fostering what is now called STEM education and funding scientific research.

    An interesting example is a high school installing it’s own planetarium.  A Boise ID high school installed a planetarium (1970s?) to prepare students for the space race.  I don’t know how productive that has been but it’s rather impressive.

    (Edited location)

    • #7
  8. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    genferei (View Comment):
    I would add another factor: the middle class wanting to ape their social ‘betters’ at taxpayer expense. The class aspect is deeply ingrained – ‘the first person in my family to go to college’ is the modern American equivalent of moving from serf to freeman (with a historical echo of social mobility via the Church and being a useful bureaucrat for the nobility).

    I would modify your observation n two ways. I would suggest that working class is a better fit than middle class. I would also omit “at taxpayer expense.”

    I meant “another factor that makes changing the status quo so difficult”. If the middle class wants something, it gets it. If the working class wants something – jobs, safe communities, traditional morality – well, screw them.

     

    • #8
  9. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    Excellent article and excellent comments. 

    This guy is very controversial, but there is a long interview of the guy that runs the renegade history site. It was done by Nick Gillespie of reason magazine. They need to somehow wipe out the accreditation system for the bottom half of colleges or maybe the bottom 2/3. It’s just a racket like trade licensing. Most people should just get higher education alacarte and then either you get a job from it or not. Personally, I think some of this is about being a good citizen, but you would have to deal with that separately. Having said that, there are a ton of smart people that think education is nothing but about the ROI created in your W-2. They think you are really stupid if you don’t think like that, too. 

    • #9
  10. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    RufusRJones (View Comment):
    Personally, I think some of this is about being a good citizen, but you would have to deal with that separately. Having said that, there are a ton of smart people that think education is nothing but about the ROI created in your W-2. They think you are really stupid if you don’t think like that, too.

    I believe getting a well-rounded education is part of being a good citizen. However, I no longer think it possible to get a well-rounded education at most American universities and colleges. (I am using American in its catholic sense, as this is true in both the US and Canada. Look at the way Jordan Peterson was treated in Canada.) It’s less about engendering Western values (as it was in the 1970s when I attended college) than Marxist polemics all the time. I don’t think it has been that way for the last decade at a minimum and in some schools (including my alma mater, University of Michigan) for the last 20-30 years.

    Once that happens the only thing left is the ROI created in your W-2. So the folks that think that way may just be reflecting the current state of academia.

    Prior to the last half of the 20th century a college education was just another tool in one’s intellectual and career toolbox. Many highly-successful people, Like Menken, Albert Lasker, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harlan Sanders lacked one. And some big successes of the last half of the 20th century (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs) attended, but never finished their college educations.

    • #10
  11. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    This country is wasting so much financial and human capital because they won’t have a conversation that is just like this. 

     

    • #11
  12. ToryWarWriter Reagan
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    I have a pretty good mid ranged job without a BA.  Looking back on things, the most worthwhile thing I ever got to help my career was a drivers license.  

    A willingness to work and show up on time are more important than BA’s.  Most of the people I know who have BA’s irl make far less than me.  

    • #12
  13. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Excellent and he’s right, there is no fix, at least if we leave Washington in charge of so much and closing in on everything else.  We must recognize the fix.  It’s the same one we had with Great Britain and should be easier than fighting the Brits.   The Democrat run states are going to die but they won’t change.  Washington is the problem and not only will it not change it will get more grasping and totalitarian.   Leave, take the constitution with us and pieces of states that want to join.  We may not recognize the problem until the next election is stolen.  If they can’t steal that many votes, we can begin the fix.  If not we must separate.  Washington is the problem.  Leave it.  Don’t give it a penny.  It’s it’s own rotten thing.  

    • #13
  14. Raxxalan Member
    Raxxalan
    @Raxxalan

    Seawriter: It is not going to happen, at least not with a soft landing. As Stein’s Law states: What cannot go on forever will not go on forever. Stein’s Law does not state that when it stops, the process will be painless.

    We use to believe that we were accelerating toward a cliff, and that the Republicans wanted to go a bit slower.  I actually think it is more like a brick wall.  There is going to be no moment of freefall.  It is just going to be twisted wreckage and dead bodies all over the landscape.

    • #14
  15. Raxxalan Member
    Raxxalan
    @Raxxalan

    ToryWarWriter (View Comment):

    I have a pretty good mid ranged job without a BA. Looking back on things, the most worthwhile thing I ever got to help my career was a drivers license.

    A willingness to work and show up on time are more important than BA’s. Most of the people I know who have BA’s irl make far less than me.

    I have a BBA and I can truthfully say all it did was get me my first job, as a credential.   When I hire now a days I am much more interested in job experience than academic credentials.  The only thing a degree shows, for my profession, is an ability to apply oneself to a course of action.  It isn’t a very good proxy for how well you will do at the job.

    • #15
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