Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cal State Students Ask Whether Higher Education is a Right

And we say "Hell no!"

What do we want? Six-figure debt and no marketable skills! When do we want it? Now!

All kidding aside, we read this LA Times story with some amusement. Apparently, students and faculty at all 23 Cal State campuses were out in force yesterday, protesting the tuition hikes and cuts to education spending that Gov. Brown is floating as solutions to the state's budget mess. As it stands now, the Cal States stand to lose $500 million and see tuition increase by 10%. It sounded like quite a party, including skits, speakers, a gospel choir, and at least one New-Orleans-style funeral march. The protests' goal for the time being is to increase public awareness. As Long Beach State freshman Joe Sanders puts it, "These cuts are going to affect me for a long time. Between the tuition, the costs of student housing and textbooks, I can barely afford to be here. And I'm especially worried about what's going to happen next year and whether I'll be able to get all my classes."

For us, this begs a few questions. One, obviously, is whether paying for the population's schooling is a job best performed by the government, but we'll let that one go for the moment. The question these protests made us ask is: why is a college education considered sacred enough to merit protests like this?

We may be a bit outside the mainstream, but we tend to look at education in purely instrumental terms. If your dream career requires the sort of specialized training that only lifelong expertise can offer, then yes, college is probably part of your path. Beyond that, we don't really see what it has to offer. For the vast majority of us who aren't going to be spinal surgeons or string theorists, there are basically three arguments for going to college: it's a wonderful social experience no one should miss out on; it's a critical element of anyone's intellectual development; and you can't have a career anymore without a college degree.

The first argument doesn't make much sense to us. And not because it isn't true; we thoroughly enjoyed our college days, and are still close with many of the friends we met there. It's just that we'd say the same about high school, and about graduate school, and about most every job we've had since school ended. And insofar as we were always short on money back then, we honestly enjoy ourselves more on a day-to-day basis now than we ever did in college. So we can't say it makes much sense to us to take on thousands in debt for an experience we've been paid to enjoy for a while now. We also don't see any merit to the second argument either. Whether you get anything intellectually out of college is largely a product of what you put into it; but does it make a difference whether you do that in college or not? If expanding the reach of your knowledge is what you care about, you don't need college to do it. You can access the free materials that MIT has made available through their OpenCourseWare initiative, and you can browse through an endless amount of political and economic philosophy courtesy the Ludwig von Mises Institute. And given everything we know about grade inflation and how little time most college students actually spend in class, can you really argue that a college degree is better than Will Hunting's $1.50 in late charges at the public library?

Given how expensive college is these days, should these be $5 bills?
The last argument, of course, is a little tougher. Do you need a college degree to get a job these days? Well, if your endpoint is corporate America, then yes. (And we say that as denizens of corporate America who know exactly how credential-conscious it can be.) On the other hand, it's also true that your need for a degree is probably limited by your courage and imagination; if you're willing to leverage what you know to start your own business, or put in your dues working for small businessmen who know their way around a dollar, you may find that your work ethic and intelligence matter more than the letters after your name. And insofar as corporate America is becoming less and less secure as a source of reliable income, we applaud anyone who evaluates this alternate option. We love Peter Thiel's initiative to encourage young Americans to start businesses rather than go to college. And truthfully, if we could do it all over again, we probably would've learned a trade like electrical or auto maintenance instead of going to college, and spent 5 years or so earning money before considering the pursuit of a college degree in something like engineering. But we're not here to talk about the past. The point is that too many young Californians are in debt way past their eyeballs trying to earn degrees that may or may not offer them a smooth path to prosperity and happiness; if they want more certainty for their money, they should probably start trying something else.


  1. KunsthausmannApr 15, 2011 01:12 PM
    "WHAT WOULD ROBIN HOOD DO?", asks one of the protestors with a sign.

    I think the answer is this: Robin Hood would risk his own neck by doing his own dirty work of robbing others in order to obtain enough wealth for his tuition, books, and fees. Granted, I only assume that Robin Hood would go to college at all. It would seem that he has a profession already. Of course, he might like to get on the government payroll, instead, and that would require a college degree.

    Still, even Robin Hood as he is in folklore is worthy of greater respect than those childish thugs who prefer to use the law as a mask and to get someone else, i.e. a cop, to risk his neck carrying out their robberies.

    "And we say that [one needs a college degree to work in corporate America] as denizens of corporate America who know exactly how credential-conscious it can be"

    I, too, am familiar with this problem, though I no longer work in that troublesome environment. What needs to happen is to make the college degree a black mark on one's record such that Big U. becomes radioactive. This ought not to be too difficult given the shallowness, antirationalism, and antilogicism of the great majority of all college grads that I have known. And of course, such people tend to be smug, too, esp. if they are doctors or lawyers, just as the pedigreed being tends to be.
  2. GSLApr 15, 2011 04:57 PM
    What needs to happen is to make the college degree a black mark on one's record such that Big U. becomes radioactive.

    I wouldn't go that far, but I think that process is underway. The argument that everyone needs a college degree to get a job has a flip side: if everyone has a college degree, how does any job applicant stand out? But faced with nearly limitless (government-subsidized) demand from the public for degrees, it's almost impossible for the school to avoid becoming a diploma mill. And it shows: I've worked with people with doctorates from Harvard who had no idea what they were doing. But the future likely belongs to entrepreneurs, rather than kids with degrees but no useful skills or knowledge of how the world works. If you're producing something that others value, no one will care about your degree.