Service of College

May 12th, 2011

Categories: Back to Basics, Books, Cheating, College, Education, Inflation

To promote the children’s book winners of the 2011 Christopher Awards, I was looking for mommy bloggers who cover books on an electronic database. Of 570 mothers who post about issues relating to children, families and parenting, there were 14 identified with books. This analysis is unscientific. It could mean that bloggers didn’t check off “books” or respond in any way to the list collector’s query for details. Still, there were generous numbers of bloggers associated with new products, arts and crafts and other suitable subjects.

Nevertheless, my mind jumped to two articles I read last week: Caleb Crain’s New York Times book review, “Lost in the Meritocracy,” about Professor X’s “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” and Daniel B. Smith’s New York Magazine article, “The University Has No Clothes.”

Before I continue, I remind you that I am a volunteer director of a mentoring program for graduate students, for years have been a mentor to college and grad students and as a foundation board member I direct development for programs and scholarships for college and grad students in the communications  industry.

Back to the articles. Crain wrote that Professor X makes a range of points but a salient one was “What grade does one give a college student who progresses from a 6th-to a 10th-grade level?” Crain notes: “Professor X can be caustic about the euphemism and somewhat willed optimism that sometimes befog discussion of how to teach unprepared students. To relieve his and his students’ unhappiness, he proposes that employers stop demanding unnecessary degrees: a laudable suggestion, unlikely to be realized until the degree glut has dried up.”

And then there’s the cost. Wrote Crain: “In 1940, there were 1.5 million college students in America; in 2006, there were 20.5 million. In X’s opinion, a glut of degrees has led to a spurious inflation of the credentials required for many jobs. Tuitions are rising, and two-thirds of college graduates now leave school with debt, owing on average about $24,000. A four-year degree is said to increase wages about $450,000 over the course of a lifetime, but X doubts the real value of degrees further down on the hierarchy of prestige.”

In his New York Magazine article, Smith focuses on two college-educated successful men leading what he calls the “anti-college crusade.” According to Smith, James Altucher, father of two girls, a finance writer and venture capitalist thinks “higher education is nothing less than an institutionalized scam-college graduates hire only college graduates, creating a closed system that permits schools to charge exorbitant ­prices and forces students to take on crippling debt.” Smith quotes Altucher:  “‘The cost of college in the past 30 years has gone up tenfold. Health care has only gone up sixfold, and inflation has only gone up threefold. Not only is it a scam, but the college presidents know it. That’s why they keep raising tuition.'”

The second anti-college crusader in Smith’s article, Peter Thiel, was the first Facebook angel and a PayPal founder. Smith wrote that he “contends that American colleges have transformed from rigorous scholarly communities into corporate-minded youth resorts, where some presidents command salaries of more than $1 million and competition centers on outdoing one another in acquiring high-end amenities (duplex-apartment dormitories, $70 million gyms).” Thiel thinks that middle class parents consider a college education as an insurance policy that ensures that their children remain in the middle class.

According to Smith, Altucher said his goal was to reduce demand and therefore tuition cost. Theil’s mission was similar, backed by a fellowship he’s funding in a program he’s calling 20 Under 20. The winners get both $100,000 each and mentorships with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. They must also stay out of college for two years.

Do you think that the pictures painted by Professor X, Altucher and Theil are dire, bleak and wrong or spot-on? Should employers require college degrees for most jobs? Do you see a connection between the exorbitant cost of college, countless students unprepared for university-level work, crippling debt resulting from four years of college and most mommy bloggers covering every topic under the sun but books?

10 Responses to “Service of College”

  1. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    It’s not so much a college education that’s come under fire, I think; it’s the traditional liberal arts education—which ostensibly prepares the graduate for nothing. Industry in the U.S. (or what’s left of it) is really searching for technocrats, and because so many young people (even college grads) lack technical savvy, employers find themselves frequently searching offshore for talent.

    What’s sad is that liberal arts is a cultural enrichment curriculum, one that in many ways can be life (or lifestyle) changing. But to get ahead in the business and professional worlds, young people need to bring a host of technical and scientific skills to the table along with their diplomas (and an appreciation for the classics). The number of jobless in the U.S. hovers around 9 million today, but there are a great many jobs that go unfilled because so many applicants are unqualified to fill them.

    By the time students enter the collegiate realm, their interests, talents and scholastic skills are pretty much formulated—which means that the prep schools and high schools must become as dogged about determining their students’ career tracks as testing their reading and problem-solving abilities. College should be taking young people to the next step in their journey toward a career objective, not merely hopeful they’ll find step one; in other words, college-bound kids should know themselves pretty thoroughly nowadays. And the niche that has existed for the Benjamin Braddocks who emerge from college clueless should shrink exponentially. There’s no room for them and no time for them to gradually evolve; we live in a highly competitive and completely global world.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What you write, combined with the cost of a college education, translates into “Most people can’t afford one,” especially when it comes to liberal arts.

    What will happen to standards when the public balks at the price tag–as it must given the stagnant economic situation—and the colleges, fighting for bodies to fill the chairs, increasingly lower them?

    Are these the students that Professor X teaches and writes about in his book, the ones who enter college with a 6th grade education that he moves up four grades? What happens to them when they hit the job market after 16 years of education at the level [one hopes] of a high school grad? And what happens to their employers and our place in the global marketplace?

    And who wants to pay between $20,000 and $60,000/year to have their child learn at a place where many of the students are so far behind?

    Quelle mess.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    There are two concepts here: 1) The necessity of a college education & 2) The cost.

    1) College is not for everyone, despite myths to the contrary and the soccer moms whose main career, it would seem, is that of boasting that her child made it into a better school than yours. The world is full of lucrative and enjoyable trades which do not require a degree, if income is used as an argument. Other factors are also ignored while perpetuating the myth, such as happiness and quality of life, to name a few. Sadly, the soccer mom group and associated sheep keep blatting, and they show no signs of letting up.

    2) Nearly everyone complains about the escalating cost of a solid education. The approximately $50,000.00 ++ yearly cost at a “good school” is beyond most peoples reach. State schools have reached the 5 figure mark. There are scholarships to help those seen as the most talented, along with others in low income groups.

    The picture may not be as bleak as it seems, since hair raising costs may winnow out all but the most determined and qualified, thus upping the quality of the student body and hence the school itself. It’s called survival of the fittest. Nature, once again, as shown how well she can call the shots.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Nature will determine who gets the scholarships–the fittest will as you note. Interfering with nature are those with the billfolds fat enough to pay full-freight. Their children will get in to cover salaries and overhead. If a department director doesn’t fill a minimum number of seats, the department is closed and he/she is out of work. There go the standards again.

    And as you note, college is not for everyone. I have long wished that I had skills that weren’t offered where I went such as carpentry or plumbing [I’m afraid of electricity].

  5. Carolyn Gatto Said:

    Anyone who finds this subject important will want to read the thought-provoking article on entitled “How to Get a Real Education.” First graf: “I understand why the top students in America study physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature. The kids in this brainy group are the future professors, scientists, thinkers and engineers who will propel civilization forward. But why do we make B students sit through these same classes? That’s like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money. Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach B students something useful, like entrepreneurship?” Well, yes. I’m beginning to think so. A lot of the jobs we lost in the economic downturn will never come back. Today’s students need to be prepared to forge their own business path, rather than hope to score an increasingly-elusive corporate position. Link to entire article:

  6. Jeremiah Said:

    I write this from the perspective of someone who has served as a trustee of a private college for over twenty years and is now emeritus.

    I think Merv has caught the essence of what college should be all about. Colleges should be places where a student, hungry to learn, acquires knowledge, not about how to make money or to satisfy a social ambition, but to become an educated, civilized human being. Colleges should also exude a culture of rigorous self-discipline to weed out weaker or disinterested students and self-help to permit those genuinely eager to learn.

    A few years ago, I went to a funeral at Annapolis and took advantage of being there to visit St. John’s College where you are given four years to absorb the contents of 100 books, but what books they were! I had only read 22 of them, and I have probably read 3,000 books over a lifetime, many, of course, several times. Whether St. John’s succeeds in its mission, I don’t know, but what it sets out to do is what Merv was talking about.

    I attended a great university with a vast endowment, which has grown yet vaster over the years. In my four years at the place, I spent perhaps all of two hours in the company of administrators, excluding social functions. About five years ago I sat next to the wife of the master of one college in the university at a dinner party there. She told me with pride about how she and her husband had spent all Saturday night getting the captain of the football team and four of his teammates out of jail. I asked her, “What did you do that for?” She did not speak to me the rest of the evening. Incidentally, the football team at this university is an irrelevancy and probably hasn’t been on national TV in 50 years.

    Later I did post graduate work at a French university. The fees were minimal. No one counseled you. No one knew or cared whether you went to class or not, but if you wanted to learn, you could. It was up to you.

    The number of faculty members at the school I am a trustee of has remained relatively constant over the years as has the size of the student body, but its administrative staff has grown five fold.

    My mother never went to college, but she did graduate from law school and became a member of an East Coast Bar. You don’t need college to succeed.

    My solution to the problem:

    Students wanting to acquire job skills, from carpentry, to medicine, to flying airplanes, to atomic physics, to preaching should attend vocational schools.

    Students wishing to become civilized should attend college, and expect to be dismissed if they don’t work hard enough or aren’t smart enough to succeed. They can learn how to do a job later.

    Get the government with all its social engineering schemes out of education, and let colleges fire their administrators and focus on teaching.

    If that happened, I’ll bet you could cut tuitions by at least half.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    There might be late bloomers or students from subpar high schools who would miss out discovering that they have talents that would normally have placed them in the brainiac group.

    This sounds like the system they had in France–don’t know if they still do. Young children were placed in vocational schools or slated for a baccalaureate based on test scores. It was a good deal for some but not for those who don’t test well or mature late.

    Perhaps there is no perfect system.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    According to your solution, anyone who needs to work for a living can’t get a liberal arts degree.

    I don’t know about you, but at 17 I had no clue what I wanted to do or be and I clearly recall those who knew they wanted to teach, be a nurse or doctor because there were so few of them.

    While I have met amazing young women through a scholarship program I’ve participated in who knew precisely what they wanted to do from a young age, have accumulated so many internships their resumes as high school seniors outshown many 10 years their senior, I think they are exceptional. For your system to work, education at the high school level would have to change.

    Asking most students what they want to be at 16 or 17 is like asking anyone who has never eaten a piece of kiwi fruit or a strawberry to decide which they’d prefer for dessert.

  9. Jeremiah Said:


    At 17, you are usually not sure what you want to do. I suggest at least five years of military service or manual labor before anyone tackles becoming an educated human being.


  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    While 17 is young to know what you want to “do when you grow up,” I think that college helps eliminate some of the options even if it doesn’t send a person off in viable directions.

    So while I like the idea of military service or manual labor–my wallet would be so much fatter if I knew how to repair a zillion things–I wonder if three years might be better than five and only if the public coffers can afford to pay all these people! It would solve the unemployment mess for young people for a while, anyway.

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