Behind the Headlines

  • Deadly Debt and Zombie Schools

    September 20, 2010
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    In response to:

    "Some say bypassing a higher education is smarter than paying for a degree"
    Washington PostSeptember 10, 2010

    Is college overrated? That’s what the Washington Post asks in this feature article.

    The angle in this story is purely financial, considering whether the return on the college investment in terms of jobs and salaries justify the consequence of its increasingly steep expense. One hedge-fund manager articulates the basic angle of the piece: “You’ve been fooled into thinking there’s no other way for my kid to get a job . . . or learn critical thinking or make social connections.” College is flatly overrated, a bad investment decision, he says. The fact is reported that hundreds of billions of dollars of national student loan debt has now overtaken American credit card debt. And that consequently college is making “less sense for more families,” according to economist Richard Vedder.

    They are absolutely right. However, the article would be stronger had it considered one additional point on the new educational variation of Milton Friedman’s “iron triangle”: More and more students are going into staggering and crippling amounts of debt, costs are skyrocketing as college bureaucracies bulge, and—most importantly—students are learning less and less about the things that really matter in the real world. The last is what has preoccupied ISI and its several studies measuring the actual value-added of four years of expensive, debt-producing education in terms of what students actually learn about our nation’s core constitutional principles, history, economic arrangements, and place in the international arena. Students failed every test. Seniors often knew less than freshmen (introducing a concept called “negative learning”). Prestigious national institutions did no better, and in many cases worse, than lesser-known regional schools. (http://www.americancivicliteracy.org/)

    These results point to a national scandal—or tragedy, really. Failing to teach core knowledge, an education that prepares one for life, while charging outrageous tuitions and fostering a generation of debt-ridden graduates who will have trouble finding jobs, be unable to purchase houses, have to defer marriage plans and put off having children—all will take a tremendous toll on our country in the years ahead. As the hedge-fund manager above notes: there may be better ways to foster critical thinking skills and gain the kind of education for life that college, for the most part, no longer transmits. An entrepreneurial spirit remains central to the American character, and there is every reason to hope that the current triangle of cost, debt, and negative learning will be broken. Until then, more pieces like this one in the Post will question the worth of college given its hefty price tag . . . and hopefully given the paltry and politicized content of the curriculum, too.

    Oh, it is worth noting, apropos the “is college really worth it?” question, that in the same edition as this article, the Washington Post also ran a front-page story in its Metro Section about a new course at the University of Baltimore dedicated to exploring zombies in pop culture. Does anyone think that both rising debt loads and the raising of the undead in college coursework aren’t scary?

    The views and opinions expressed in Behind the Headlines content do not necessarily represent those of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

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