Are too many people going to college?

In The American, There's an interesting article by Charles Murray, about whether or not too many people are going to college.

Amongst the many valid points in the article is this one:

And so we return to the question: Should all of those who have the academic ability to absorb a college-level liberal education get one? If our young woman is at the 80th percentile of linguistic ability, should she be pushed to do so? She has enough intellectual capacity, if she puts her mind to it and works exceptionally hard.

The answer is no. If she wants to, fine. But she probably won’t, and there’s no way to force her. Try to force her (for example, by setting up a demanding core curriculum), and she will transfer to another school, because she is in college for vocational training. She wants to write computer code. Start a business. Get a job in television. She uses college to take vocational courses that pertain to her career interests. A large proportion of people who are theoretically able to absorb a liberal education have no interest in doing so.

This is a subject rather close to my heart. My parents were professors and teachers; my brother's getting his Ph.D. in philosophy; and my sister and I went to grad school. I was admitted to a very selective private university on a full scholarship, worked at the university after graduation, and went to grad school there for free as well. I've made my career within the field of university marketing and design; currently I work at a large public university in California. (We'll call the small university Wossamatta U., and my current university Saltmine U.) It's fair to say academia has been my life.

For 11 years at Wossamatta U, I worked on the admissions publications that get sent out to prospective students, designing them, and writing the copy. So the question, 'Why is a liberal arts education important? And why should I pay over $80,000 for it when I could go to a state school for $15,000?' is one I'm pretty familiar with.

A classical liberal arts education is not for everyone. This is the highest order of blasphemy from a guidance counselor's point of view -- after all, it's their job to encourage high school students to go into fields where they'll succeed and have, one hopes, fulfilling careers that pay well. This usually means a college degree of one sort or another -- but it should not mean a bachelors degree in a liberal art from a four-year university. There are, at least in California, a few different tiers of public schools: community colleges for the AA and some vocational certifications, as well as the casual student; the Cal State universities, with lower entrance requirements; the vocational polytechnic Cal States, where you can get a degree in animal husbandry, hotel management, etc.; and then the University of California system at the top, where you can feel free to get a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, or go to med school, or law school. There's a place for everyone, and it's hard to find a career in which someone couldn't benefit from classes from at least one of those institutions. (The dreadful state of fine art education is a topic for another time.) All of them are relatively low-cost for state residents, and it's possible to work and put yourself through school there. (Not easy, but possible.) And then there are the private universities (and art schools): some are selective, some not as much. None of them are cheap, but they offer an experience you will get nowhere else; and an alumni network after graduation.

So there's room for everyone and most interests -- but where are high school students encouraged to go? The UCs and private schools, for two reasons. First, they carry the cachet of prestige. Second, no one wants to admit that we're not all possessed of equal intellectual ability. There's been so much emphasis on every child being equal and just like everyone else (but also a special and unique snowflake), that it's absolute heresy to sit a kid down and say, 'Look; you're pulling a C average. You love working with your hands and you got As in your shop classes. Have you thought about being a mechanic?' Instead, the kid gets encouraged to go get a mechanical engineering degree. So they take the placement exams, and start applying to colleges.

While aiming high is nice and all… it's often a fantastic way to set someone up to fail.

The more academically rigorous a school, the more stringent its admissions criteria will be, as well as more holistic. This is not to keep out the great unwashed, but because the school wants its students to succeed -- and to not lose its ranking. The percentage of freshmen that stay past their first semester, and the percentage that eventually matriculate, are two significant variables in the algorithm that's used to rank universities; i.e., if 90% of the freshmen never graduate, the ranking plummets. That said, the universities need money. Even state schools don't draw much of their funds from the state, but rather, grants, endowments, student fees and tuition; at Saltmine U., only ~17% of the operating budget comes from the state. (Surprisingly enough, a student's tuition generally only covers 30% of the total cost of educating them.) Still, admitting more students is a fast way to get more revenue… so the trick for an admissions department is finding that sweet spot between a student's academic performance, and how many students need to be admitted that year to keep the doors open and lights on. As much as I'd like to say that there's never any stretching of the academic standards… well.

But even then, you're still admitting people who performed in the top 30% of their class, as opposed to the top 20 or 10%. At a UC, or private university, that's often the difference of a couple dozen points on the SAT, or let's say a 3.3 GPA instead of a 4.0 -- not exactly slouches. However, these are most likely not the people who were born academics, whose hearts thrill to the thought of an afternoon spent reading Harold Bloom's literary criticism, or weekends in the chemistry lab. No, they'd rather be learning something more immediately practical. They've got the ability, but not the desire.

And who can blame them? Often, if they do have the desire, it's beaten out of them by listless and jaded lecturers, who're trying to cobble together a living teaching at three or four colleges in the area; or by professors more focused on research than providing an engaging classroom experience; or more concerned with departmental politics or their tenure track than whether or not every student is learning and performing well. It's more common at public schools, but it can and does happen at some private ones. And unless they are people who love academia so much that they'll persevere through all those obstacles, they'll either grudgingly muddle through, or they leave. About 30% of all incoming freshmen leave by the end of their first semester. Roughly 50% of them drop out after the first year; if they can make it past the first year, they'll most likely graduate -- about only 60% of an incoming freshman class will be intact at matriculation.* Why? They're in the wrong place. And there's nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

These are folks who'd be much, much happier at a different kind of college, or out of it entirely. There's such a stigma against any other kind of education, though, that it's not going to change anytime soon. If the US educational system were more like, say, Germany's system, where children are assessed and put into different educational tracks much earlier, it would work more smoothly. But who's going to be the asshole who stands up and says, 'Hey, you know what? We're not all equally smart!' No one. We've ended up with a system where only about 10% of the total population successfully graduates from a 4-year university, yet that diploma's a crucial key to many careers. Yeah, that's an awesome plan.

So let's say we've narrowed it down, and you're one of the people who do truly need a bachelors' degree for your career: why would you even spend over $80,000 on a classical liberal arts education at a private university in the first place?

Because at no other time in your life will you have the chance to devote yourself completely to learning. Because it's a serious investment in your future, if you're in the right place. Because this is your chance to pursue your dream in a supportive environment with the resources you need. Because you're going to learn how to think critically, a skill sorely lacking in most people. Because you're able to become culturally literate. Because you're not going to be just a number. Because there actually is a substantial difference in the quality of instruction between tiers of schools. Because college is a time to make friends, form relationships, and make connections that are lifelong. In short, you're laying the foundation for the rest of your life -- to many, that's worth the price of a few cars.**

Horribly elitist, I know. You're paying, in short, for the environment and experience you can't get from a community college or Cal State -- and these days, it's even tough to get it at a UC. That environment and experience grant massive benefits, if you take advantage of them.

I'd love to see the education system reformed to fix this, but I'm not holding my breath.

*These figures are completely pulled from my memory, and as such, should be considered wild-assed guesses.
**Speaking of price, it very rarely costs that full amount. Usually 70-80% of a private school's students will be receiving some amount of financial aid. But most people just take out loans and figure there's no other option -- so many scholarships and grants go unclaimed, it's depressing.

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