Higher Ed – My Answers

Just mailed off my answers to Friday’s questions.  Here they are.  Now going to take a peek at everyone else’s.

1.      What is your opinion of the value of college in today’s society?

College covers a wide variety of types of education. With that in mind, I see several common types of value, but they will vary from student to student:

-Professional training.  In fields such as health care, engineering, accounting, and so forth, as well as smaller but still important fields such as the theoretical sciences, social sciences, and the like, there’s a lot to be learned.  College provides a place to learn it.

-Learning how to think.  Whether through a rigorous liberal arts program, or through the study of the sciences, or honestly any subject studied in depth, something college can do, but doesn’t always, is give the student training in how to study, how to research a question, how to think about a topic in a mature and thoughtful way, and ideally, how to act on the findings.

-Signaling to employers.  This to me is the most common reason students today attend college, and an unfortunately necessary one, but one which I think is wasteful.  Completing a college degree tells employers, “I can do the work”.  Getting a high school diploma was once this signal.  Getting an 8th grade diploma was once this signal.  Now we find people getting masters degrees, and employers requiring them, just to signal who stands out from the crowd as college becomes watered-down as well.  I don’t think this is a good trend.

-As I mentioned on the phone, I think sadly, one purpose of our state and community colleges is to provide a high school education.  In SC the quality of high schools varies tremendously.  As a result, many students who finish high school with decent grades have not yet received a high school education.  They come to college and are given courses in algebra, basic writing skills, and supplemental tutoring for their other courses, to make up for what they did not learn, and should have, in high school.  This reality is shameful for our public schools, but of course I am glad that there is some means that students who persevere through their lousy high school can in the end get the education they deserve.


2.      Do you believe in the theory that everyone should have a college education?

No.  I think college is being used for the average student as a substitute for a good 8th grade education.  Read through a copy of the McGuffy Reader Book 6.  It’s a school reading book series published in 1879, once widely used throughout the US in pre-high-school education.  The selections are what students now read in college. I do think that this kind of education — a well-rounded liberal arts education — combined with professional training either in secondary schools, or trade schools, or college, or on-the-job, I do think this is necessary for nearly everyone.  But it’s a pathetic state of affairs when what used to pass for 8th grade is now being taught at University.

I think that teens who resist being forced to sit still, and to “learn” virtually nothing for years, when they are at the peak of their energy level, and ready to prove themselves and learn on the job, I think these teens are feeling a normal, healthy impulse.  It’s normal to want to *do* something, not just sit around.  It’s silly to water down school and then wonder why kids drop out.  It’s a travesty that there are no good options for young people who want to go right into the working world, whether before or after high school, and come back to higher education later in life.  I think for many young people, some real-life work experience first would add value to their education when they are ready to resume their studies in a more serious way.

I think also the emphasis on official certifications (“getting the piece of paper”) versus real learning is embarrassing.  How can it be more valuable to be forced to learn something for a test, than to go out and learn it on your own, out a pure desire to gather the knowledge?  Silly.

3.      According to Louis Menand, author of “Live and Learn”, there are three theories of why people attend college. The first theory is that college is an intelligent test meaning people go to college to prove they are smart. The second theory people go to college is for the social benefits since college should theoretically be getting people ready to enter society. The third theory is that college is job training. How does this align with you own theory of the purpose of college? Do you believe in these some values?

Per my answer in #1, I somewhat agree with this.  I’d like to talk, though, about the “getting people ready to enter society”.  College does try to do this to you.  As a simple fact, the professors and staff do try to impart their values on their students, and are often successful. (And wish you well in the process — they are trying to do you a service). And this is a concern to me, because we can see that some widely-held values in our society are in fact quite harmful.  But let me clarify: The problem here isn’t that students learn the values of their professors; it’s that our culture is warped to a point that the values being taught are simply wrong.  In those schools where students are taught to live well and think clearly, college can be an immense help.

I’ll also observe that in preparing to enter the adult world, long hours spent goofing off with other teenagers is . . . maybe not the most effective method?  That what we end up with is not young people who learn to act like grown-ups, but rather grown-ups who go on to spend their whole life acting like children.  They think they’re being grown-up, because they’re still doing what they learned to do in college.

(This is nothing new, by the way.  From the very invention of the university, students were notorious for plaguing the townspeople with their binge drinking and other misbehavior. Maybe it’s time to reconsider how we do student housing?)


4.      Growing up was your value of a college education influenced in any way? If so was it family? Teachers? Or some other form?

In our family, the expectation was that we’d go to college.  Normal as drinking water or decorating a Christmas tree.  Just what you do.  Not a question, just a way of life.


5.      In recent years the availability of a college education has changed and become more accessible to more people. For example there are online Universities, certain states offer scholarships to many high school graduates, and there is government funding to minorities. Do you agree or disagree with this?

I think it is good to make college more accessible, to not have it be the province of the wealthy, as it once was.  I don’t always care for the particulars of every way this happens — for example, I don’t like scholarship programs that pressure students into attending college before they are ready for it..  I am strongly in favor of education that is universally available at modest cost, throughout the lifetime of the citizen.

6.      What will you teach your own kids about the value of a college education? What influences this?

I’m encouraging my kids to discern their vocation: What does God want me to do with my life?  College is something that will either fit in with that, or not.  I think of my kids as being “college material”, because yes, they’re smart, inquisitive, talented . . . everything points towards “should go to college”.  But ultimately I don’t want them to just follow a set path.  I want them to follow *their* path, whatever that is.   I thinks it’s dangerous to approach life by doing what you’re “supposed to do” because that’s what “everyone does” or “it’s the thing to do”.  Rather contrary to the point of a university, don’t you think?  To accept something as true without testing it?  Without probing and asking, “Is this really right?”.  There’s no sense sending a kid to learn critical thinking, if you only came up with that decision due to a failure in critical thinking. :-).

13 thoughts on “Higher Ed – My Answers

  1. I very much like your point #6. Since I started my postsecondary education series, a number of people have asked me if I really mean to encourage my kids to skip college :). It isn’t so much that — if I guessed, I would guess that they would want to go. But I don’t want them to go because it’s just the default assumption that this is what you do.

    1. When my niece and I were discussing it on the phone, it was very hard for me to shake the feeling that “of course they’ll go”. Not going to college is powerfully counter-cultural for me, utterly foreign to how I was raised.

      (My parents, btw, were the first generation to go to college. But their families of origin are silly-smart, hardworking, successful post-immigration middle-class people; to be born after WWII is to be a person who ought to go to college. Not to go is a sign something has gone wrong.)

      But the debt+unemployment equation may be sobering enough to talk me out of college-as-default-mode, if my principles are not enough to sustain me. It’s a totally different world, economically, from even 20 years ago.

  2. Adding: Whenever the topic of religious vocations comes up, I *always* advise the young person to discern early and take a stab at seminary/religious life before college. For the practical reason that if you run up the school debt pursuing some other interest, the vocation could be delayed a decade or more while you work to pay it off.

  3. That is a really good point.

    But like I said over at my place, I am beginning to think debt is a no-no wherever you go…

  4. I’m inclined to agree on the debt. With an exception for very modest loans (something that could be paid back with any McJob in one year or less, if you’re living on mom’s couch in desperation, but working your 30 hours a week), and moderate loans for professional degrees in high-demand fields, again looking at a comfortable payback time of 2-3 years max. But beyond that, nope. Not a good idea.

    –> In theory I’m good with the 5-year loan-forgiveness programs for education and health care that some states offer, but in practice, I’d want to be 100% sure the needed job was available.

  5. To play devil’s advocate:

    Why would it necessarily be the length of the loans rather than the monthly amount that would be the bid concern here? Student loans are typically made for anywhere from 10-20 year terms, with the tendency being towards the longer end. That is certainly a long time. (MrsDarwin and I are just paying off the last of her student loans 11 years and counting after graduation, and that’s with significant overpayment over the years.) So, yes, it’s a long term commitment to have those loans out there for 10+ years. However, if the monthly amount is fairly low (we were dealing with ~250/mo when all the loans were still in force, about the amount of a modest car loan payment) I don’t think that’s necessarily an unrealistic amount, even for people who end up floundering for a while. (After all, a lot of the same people won’t be hugely hesitant to take out a loan for a car, and that’s a rapidly depreciating asset.)

    Is the argument that debt is just so bad that one shouldn’t take out loans that will tie up a few hundred of your monthly expenses for any reason, or is it that a college education is particularly not worth it in terms of incurring long term expense (as compared to the other things people typically take out loans for: car, home etc.)

  6. Well, I do think it’s generally not a good practice to take out loans for cars or other goods. If someone decided that a school loan that they *could* pay off in 5 years of extreme frugality, instead they wanted to spread over ten or twenty years so they could enjoy more luxuries now . . . I’d think they were making a bad financial decision. I’m unable to see how it benefits someone to be encouraged to spend money they don’t have, in order to obtain things they don’t need.

    Whereas if we must habitually spend money we don’t have in order to obtain things we do need, something has gone very, very wrong.

    (On debt in general: I’m okay with that first mortgage that is essentially a rent-to-own situation in lieu of paying rent on an apartment. And yes, I 100% understand the temptation to buy a bigger place with a little mortgage, and fight it regularly. Not so sure I’ll hold off against the temptation indefinitely. Knowing what to do is different from doing it.)

  7. I can’t speak for Jennifer, but I agree that it isn’t the length of the loans that matter in principle. If you would rather have a lower payment for longer (meaning you pay more interest), fine; if you would rather have a higher payment for a shorter time (meaning you pay less interest), fine, do it that way. The size of the payment relative to your ability to pay is really what matters, in a pure money sense.

    However, I think there’s a number of problems here that go beyond a purely economic calculation.

    First of all, there’s the psychological weight of loans. One of the reasons personal-finance guru Dave Ramsey is so popular among many debt-strapped people, while remaining a head-scratcher to others, is that some of his advice is contrary to the advice that, if followed, would yield the best *economic* outcome. IIRC, he doesn’t advise paying off the highest-interest debt first (which “makes the most sense” economically), he advises paying off the smallest debt first in order to get rid of it so it isn’t hanging over your head any more. This turns out to help a lot of people. How they *feel* about their loans matters. And I think people *feel* bad about loans that last a long time.

    Second, consider the large number of people who wind up doing something that is largely unrelated to their field of study, or who wish they’d done something else, or who put in a few years and drop out, or who look back with clear eyes and realize that the extra money they spent on private school wasn’t worth it. There are so many of them, and they have to write that check every month for something that they feel didn’t serve them. I think it must be something like buying a house, and then really wanting and needing to move, and being unable to sell it, and unable to afford to move unless you sell the house, and here you are paying a mortgage check every month for a house you hate and being unable to move because you’re stuck with that house — every month paying more than half your income for something you don’t want. I think that this must be pretty demoralizing, and it goes on for a long time. Wrapped up in that student loan payment every month are all your regrets — it’s a reminder that you can’t put behind you for a long, long time.

    Third, the universities are totally complicit in persuading people to take out loans that do.not.make.economic.sense.anyway. That’s one of the reasons why people have to tread very carefully when it comes to loans, and in my opinion, retain some suspicion and bias against them. There are a number of people along the way that are actually out to get them. What on earth is the explanation for these people who graduate and are shocked to discover the size of their payment?

  8. I would agree that someone like Dave Ramsey is good on the psychology of debt, and there are some areas of debt that are almost always a bad idea (credit card balances being used for anything other than an emergency line of credit, for example).

    However, at a rational economic level, there’s Morgan Freeman’s point that debt is simply income pulled forward had a lot of merit. (Meaning over the course of your life you would borrow more in the years you are young and don’t make much and pay those debts off when you’re older and have realized your earning potential.) People in the 18-22 range necessarily don’t have a lot of savings, and a college education is one of the larger spending items one is going to have in the course of one’s life. Clearly, it’s better if you can pay for the whole thing with scholarships and work, or if you’re lucky enough to have family savings to cover it, and one should think about whether the payment one is getting into is something one is likely to be able to pay. (People who go and taking out six figure student loans clearly aren’t thinking about the fact that the payments will be as large as housing payment and will not provide a roof over their heads.) And there’s a lot of good research underlining that borrowing at interest is often a significantly more efficient means of “savings” than saving up. That’s why third world microloans have proved to be fairly helpful in many cases. Essentially what that means is: Most people will succeed in paying off a 20k debt with interest much faster than they will successfully save 20k, even with interest to help them. The psychology of paying off a debt is different from the psychology of saving, and when you’re saving the money is sitting there so if some need comes along you’re more likely to spend it on something other than the purpose of the savings, whereas with a debt the money is already spent so you clearly can’t be tempted to spend some of it elsewhere.

    It also doesn’t make sense to take out loans to buy a college education when you don’t actually want one.

    So while it’s certainly the case that one should think seriously before taking on debt and about how much debt one is taking on, I’m concerned that absolutely deciding not to use debt as a tool to pay for college would end up pricing a lot of people out of the college market who would genuinely benefit from college.

  9. “one should think about whether the payment one is getting into is something one is likely to be able to pay. (People who go and taking out six figure student loans clearly aren’t thinking about the fact that the payments will be as large as housing payment and will not provide a roof over their heads.”

    This is the kind of thing I am talking about. Debt you can pay off is a lot different from debt you can pay off.

    But even if the student judges it “likely” that the debt is payable, I wonder if they have considered the “what if it turns out I can’t easily pay it?” The unexpected happens: the economy crashes, or the industry tanks, and the lucrative job never materializes (look at the situation for recent law school grads right now!) or they wind up dropping out and never acquiring the credential they counted on, or they don’t get accepted to the major they counted on, or they become unable to work for some reason, or they have their first baby and decide they want to stay home and parent full time. Or, as one of my commenters mentioned, they discern a call to religious life..

    I am sure you are thinking about this when you are talking about “considering the ability to pay,” but I don’t think many people ever ask themselves “but what if my situation changes?” They mostly go off what they *expect* to happen. You have to take risks in life, it’s true, but you have to price yourself accordingly. You better believe the banks have the risk of the college students’ defaulting built into the price of the loan. Do the students have that same risk built into the size of loan they are willing to take out?

  10. You guys are pretty much covering this for me. Well said. :-).

    Darwin, one of the reasons I’m resistant to debt (not all college debt, as I’ve said — just much of it), is the thinking behind it. What I’m seeing is a culture that is wealthier than any in history, but in which we “need” so many things we’re always in debt. And it doesn’t make us happy, and it doesn’t make us free. I’ve watched students rack up huge bills they cannot pay, and I’ve watched it over and over again.

    RANT-O-RAMA: Honestly? I am furious at our Catholic colleges charging exorbitant tuition for degrees that don’t lead to paying work, and then we faithful being asked to pay off the loans of those who want to enter religious life. It’s ludicrous. Really? You have to have that liberal arts education that bad? No, call me working class. You don’t need it that bad. Go to the library if you wanna read the classics. People who can’t balance a checkbook should be in 8th grade, not college.

    I do agree, D., that being forced by the creditors to “save” for something you’ve already purchased (or by the IRS to “save” your withholding each year) is easier than just saving the money for a long-term goal. I think your own personal experience is a good counter-example to my rant. Then again, you didn’t languish insisting “using your degree”, you went out and found paying work. This does not bother me. Not at all. But you are not average. I’ll amend my opinion to say, “If you’ve got your head on straight like Darwin, do whatever you want. Otherwise, keep those loans to a minimum.”

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