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College is too expensive; but is it necessary?
May 21, 2008 4:07 PM   Subscribe

The Atlantic: Is college necessary? Fascinating article on a growing concern. Does college really generate a good ROI?
posted by SeizeTheDay (83 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
The paradox of college: it's only a practical investment if you don't go in treating it like a practical investment.

I'm a big fan of a true liberal-arts education with lots of electives outside the major (mine only actually had nine required courses within the department, and actively encouraged dabbling in other things as you went), and a big believer that treating college as a job-training factory is a recipe for disaster.

I also largely agree with the idea that going to college shouldn't be a requirement and shouldn't be expected of everyone; while I would dearly love to live in a generally well-educated society (and I have some downright old-fashioned views about what that means), I don't see a pressing need for people to spend four or more productive years of their lives and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a degree which, these days, doesn't generally advance that aim in the slightest. Most college/university "educations" today pale in comparison to what you can get for free in your spare time with a library card.
posted by ubernostrum at 4:21 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I stand by my college education as having been incredibly helpful to my career and life, but I also hate that it's seen as a requirement for everyone.
posted by flaterik at 4:32 PM on May 21, 2008


She sure loves her commas. It's pretty obvious that there are people who are not prepared for college. The question to play with is whether or not Mrs L could learn (or could have learned) to write coherently with a little better instruction up the line. Are there people who will never be prepared for rigorous thinking? What's the return curve look like?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:37 PM on May 21, 2008


How I envy professors in other disciplines! How appealing seems the straightforwardness of their task! These are the properties of a cell membrane, kid. Memorize ’em, and be ready to spit ’em back at me. The biology teacher also enjoys the psychic ease of grading multiple-choice tests. Answers are right or wrong.

This author seems to know about as much about science as the students she complains about know about writing. If all science teachers needed to do was hand out multiple choice tests then she may as well have given Mrs. L that C-.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 4:38 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


College is useless. For the autodidacts it merely distracts from their real education. For the general population it merely distracts from their Facebooking and im'ing. There is a class of people - the worker drones - that you see getting engineering degrees, for whom it perhaps makes sense.

Some people say 'the real education in college takes place outside the classroom'. Ok? So why even go to the classroom? Its not like the choice is social isolation or college education.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 4:44 PM on May 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


There is a class of people - the worker drones - that you see getting engineering degrees, for whom it perhaps makes sense.

I am a human being, not a drone. Though I will accept 'meat popsicle' as a substitute.

Software engineering is as much of an art as a science, but I believe the education is necessary for the vast majority. I can tell a self taught programmer nine times out of ten, and it's almost never positive. Some people can teach themselves and come out well, but they're few and far between.

As for the learning outside the classroom, it's a combination of networking and shared experience of learning.

I think it is true that the best thing college can teach you is how to learn, and in my case how to deal with stress and seeming overwhelming workloads. But what I learned along the way to learning how to learn has also been very valuable. Then again the number of college educated programmers I interview that don't know a semaphore from a hole in the ground is depressingly large, so clearly not everyone is absorbing it

Of course I went to a private engineering college with 700 students, so my experience is vastly different than that of a large public school student. I also think the majority of people at those schools are there because they and/or their parents feel like they have to be.
posted by flaterik at 4:52 PM on May 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


There's an article in the New York Times today that demonstrates explicitly the value of a college education. Women are getting more of them than men-- and are climbing economically whilst men stagnate.

Obviously, there will be self-selection here as those who cannot do the work will have dropped out. nonetheless, there are clearly many who could succeed at college who aren't going these days-- whether because of economics or other factors.

So, while I understand this person's frustration, the problem isn't that college education isn't valuable or isn't for everyone-- it's that our society is failing to educate and care for our kids before they get there.

Sure, there are almost certainly some people who are not intelligent enough to succeed at college-- but I don't think that's what's going on here. That woman's lack of internet skills are not a failure of her mind-- they are a failure of her earlier education.
posted by Maias at 5:01 PM on May 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


I disagree with the idea that college is useless. I dropped out and have never suffered for it, but the year and a half that I was in school was full of valuable experiences for me. That said, maybe the equivalent value would be found in sending your kids to a camp where they will eat nothing but pizza and pop tarts and challenge their minds with brain exercises such as "Which Shower Is The Hot One?" and "How Can I Pretend I Actually Read the Chapter Or Even Own the Book?"
posted by katillathehun at 5:02 PM on May 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


College is a class barrier. It separates the lower classes from the upper ones.

If Mrs. L had been able to go to college when she was just out of high school, and had her parents been able to afford tutoring, and if she'd had the social pressure on her to succeed at a young age, you can just bet she'd have had that prestigious degree at age 24. The students that Professor X is describing didn't have that kind of a shot at college early on, and have been paying for it ever since.

Sure, there are some people who'll just never get how to write a paper. But working thirty years in jobs where you've never been asked to write more than a sentence or two will drive the paper-writing urge right out of you, and it's a tough thing to get back. Especially when you know, for certain, that once you've gotten through this late-in-life degree, no-one will ever ask you to write a paper again.

A college degree these days takes enough intelligence to operate the cash register at McDonalds, plus the ability to take four years off from making money, and a big pile of cash. Once you've proven you have those resources, congratulations! You get to have a decent job.

I'm in my forties, and I'm finally finishing up my BA in whatever the hell I can afford, and it's taught me nothing except that you can have a Ph. D. and be astoundingly, earthshatteringly stupid. But this pathetic set of meaningless exercises in impressing academics is going to do my career more good than fifteen years' worth of experience plus all the references in the world. So I'm giving up my education for years, and I'm sitting in classes instead and regurgitating pedantry in a variety of refined forms, and producing nothing that's of use to anyone.

We've allowed our educational system to decline to the point where education is the last of its priorities. The question isn't whether college is necessary; it's obviously necessary, as they are the only source for the degrees that give people better shots at life. The question is, are classes necessary? The way things are run now, it'd be a lot more honest to have a drive-up window where degree candidates could simply write a check and be handed their ticket out of the lower classes.
posted by MrVisible at 5:06 PM on May 21, 2008 [13 favorites]


College is not useless. But that writer's class appears to be pretty useless for most of the students. It's partly not Professor X's fault: as an adjunct he or she may not actually get to control the syllabus, and has little voice in departmental matters, much less university policies. But at the same time, I don't get any sense from this piece that Professor X is exactly being a great advocate for the students -- writing any memos or having any meetings with the chair, asking for a new remedial class for students who need more help, or requesting a new syllabus, or anything.

In many ways, the author is displaying the passivity that he or she found frustrating in Mrs L, and is being almost as ineffective. Even the most lowly of adjuncts should have the moral courage to speak up when something seems wrong.
posted by Forktine at 5:11 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


man, I learned so many things in college classes that I never would've learned on my own. I hope the question isn't only whether or not going to college helps you make more money. Maybe some people are self disciplined enough to teach themselves anything but I sure as hell am not. Good teachers have so much to offer on top of what's contained in textbooks.

plus, going to college is the sweet spot for maximum freedom and minimum responsibility :-)

seriously, we should value education like some other countries do and provide higher education to our citizens for as close to zero cost as we can.
posted by sineater at 5:15 PM on May 21, 2008


College is useless unless you need to learn something technical which requires access to a lot of specialized equipment or knowledge that you can't get from the internet.
posted by autodidact at 5:15 PM on May 21, 2008


University was almost a complete waste of time for me, academically (although my grades were just fine). Well, my undergrad, anyway; my graduate degree was something I studied purely to improve my job prospects (and it worked, eventually). Aside from the critical thinking skills arts majors always cite to justify their degrees, I can't think of much of use I picked up while in class...although this probably says more about me than it does about university, because formal education and I were never a good fit from about grade four onwards.

But that's only half the story. Socially speaking, I met virtually all of my best friends to this day (and, indirectly, my wife), grew immeasurably as a person, experienced all sorts of new things (both good and bad)...and I wouldn't trade any of that for all the tea in China.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:16 PM on May 21, 2008


There's a much better article about this subject: America's Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor's Degree, and an NPR story about the article.

I find that I'm increasingly differentiating between a college degree and a college education. I know plenty of people with no college degree who are highly skilled and intelligent, and I see plenty idiotic people who essentially bought their way through college. It's a commodity now, and people are treating it as such.

A college degree does serve to keep your resume from being immediately thrown in the trash, though. I find that kind of dumb, because although plenty of people are smart and capable, they may not have had the financial resources to go out and get a degree. But because it requires some intelligence to be able to see it in others (and because that's not really quantifiable), we depend too much on "metrics" to help us determine how smart or capable a potential employee might be. But of course Malcolm Gladwell has come along and confirmed that the metrics we use to hire people aren't nearly as good as we think they are.

So a college degree doesn't necessarily make you smart and it's not necessarily proof that you're smart, but it's good enough to convince hiring managers. Whether or not that's worth the money you'll have to spend to get it is a judgment that you should make before you start writing the checks.
posted by stefanie at 5:17 PM on May 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


I graduated at the worst conceivable time for a computer science major: August, 2001. For years after graduation I bitterly asserted that college had been a waste of time. Then one day my degree helped me get a job that I love more than anything in the world. I would do it all again, twice, and for twice the tuition.

MrVisible writes "A college degree these days takes enough intelligence to operate the cash register at McDonalds, plus the ability to take four years off from making money, and a big pile of cash."

I worked, at minimum, 30 hours per week for all 5 years of college. I only got modest assistance from family for the first two years when I was completing prerequisites in community college. I financed (and am close to paying off) university on my own.

I'm not saying that things are as fair as possible in the US, but as far as being a class barrier it's a pretty porous barricade.
posted by mullingitover at 5:21 PM on May 21, 2008


Yes, college is useless. Let's let everyone skip it except for those that give a shit. I'm sure everyone involved will be happier.

College is useless unless you need to learn something technical which requires access to a lot of specialized equipment or knowledge that you can't get from the internet.

My sarcasm meter is failing here. "Learning about something technical which requires a lot of specialized equipment" - yeah, we don't need much more of that. Or do we?
posted by GuyZero at 5:27 PM on May 21, 2008


Good luck trying to push through the idea that college shouldn't be mandatory for a good job. The U.S. post-secondary system is big business and very well-entrenched indeed in the class structure as a whole. The colleges make certain that society views a degree as a career (and in some circles social) necessity, that "you gots no future without letters after your name."

It's common for corporations to filter resumes by degrees. I have eight spots for developers and a hundred resumes on my desk. Oooh, look, only twenty of the hundred have degrees! I'll just rubbish the eighty without a sheepskin and work from there, not realizing that I just created a shortlist with eight candidates that have degrees in Art History and I also cleverly pitched two self-learners into the bin, and they're the best coders of the lot.

Degrees are needed for some fields, mind. Medical doctors, scientists, engineers, all those fields that require lots of concentrated learning and structured thinking. But that business analyst position? I could hire a B.Com I suppose, but I think I'd rather take someone who learned about a given industry sector by working within it, and who has demonstrated a real talent for spotting good deals from bad ones. Or an I.T. manager who grew up learning the ins and outs of the Motorola 68000 on his own, instead of some guy who hasn't worked a day but has a Masters in Information Science.
posted by illiad at 5:35 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


this is topic dear to my heart.

i used to talk students out of staying in college during my teaching years. college is good experience but it is not worth it if your parents have to take a second mortagage on thieir house, work double shifts while you take out student loans and work two jobs.

coming out with more than 10K in debt doesn't make sense these days; especially if your degree is just in liberal arts.

wages have declined by 20% and college grads make significantly less now than what i made when i got out of college 20 years ago.

seriously. if it is going to indenture you to a student loan company, college is not worth it at all.

go to a community college, learn an actual trade and take the next four years as a paid internship. THEN go to college.

and that's all.

:)
posted by liza at 5:35 PM on May 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Like most things in our society, colleges appeal to the fat part of the (intellectual) bell curve. Too smart and you're bored senseless. Too dumb and you're left feeling inadequate. Colleges are breeding grounds of intellectual mediocrity.

I gave college a shot back in the 80s. I applied to the college I wanted to go to, no other backup selections, because I knew my ACT or SAT score would get me in, which it did. But once in my classes, I found that the rest of the students were significantly behind me and they rapidly fell further behind. While students in one of my classes were trying to figure out how to get a string to print to a screen using Pascal, I pirated a copy of Turbo Pascal 4.0 and wrote my own 3D mathematical modeling program. While the other were working on understanding procedures and functions, I wrote a prime-cracker that used an algorithm I named 'The Shifting Sieve of Eratosthenes'. That was my programming class, but history, advanced composition, it was all the same. I felt like I was paying ginormous amounts of money to *slow down* my learning to match the pace of the dumbest person in my class.

If your goal is *education*, then college isn't really necessary, and often, college is an actual hindance. Once I aborted my college experiment (after going about ten grand in the hole on tuition), the speed of my learning picked up dramatically. I have zero regrets about quitting college and learning everything I wanted to learn and at a helluva lot faster pace than I was ;earning in classrooms.

I haven't worked for someone else since the late 80s. If your goal is to slide into a cubicle and do cubicle work until you retire, then yeah, you're going to need a degree. If your goal is to work for yourself and be (*cough*) 'The Decider', then while education is extremely important, a degree is more or less meaningless and a waste of resources.

And again, if you're not in the fat part of the bell curve, you're apt to have problems of one kind or another with college, regardless of what your goals are.
posted by jamstigator at 5:44 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Too smart and you're bored senseless.

Or you went to the wrong college.
posted by flaterik at 5:50 PM on May 21, 2008 [9 favorites]


I was bemoaning this a couple months ago. I'd have been better off with a two-year associates' degree in programming than a BS in Management Information Systems, because while the practical learning has been helpful, the expensive piece of paper (and all the classes in finance and accounting and such) haven't gotten me anything.
posted by Foosnark at 5:53 PM on May 21, 2008


My problem was parents who insisted on two things:

1. You MUST ATTEND UNIVERSITY
2. You MUST GET A BUSINESS DEGREE

Needless to say I ended up moving to L.A. with a stripper in the middle of university, and getting involved in the porn business.

/no shit.
posted by autodidact at 6:03 PM on May 21, 2008


Rather, "When I was in the middle of university, I moved to L.A...." sorry I get neurotic about bad parsing. The stripper was not in the middle of university, although she was just finishing film school (Ryerson).
posted by autodidact at 6:04 PM on May 21, 2008


College is useless ... Some people say 'the real education in college takes place outside the classroom'. Ok? So why even go to the classroom? Its not like the choice is social isolation or college education.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 4:44 PM

College is useless unless you need to learn something technical which requires access to a lot of specialized equipment or knowledge that you can't get from the internet.

posted by autodidact at 5:15 PM

Yes, college is useless.
posted by GuyZero at 5:27 PM

One of the best things I learned in college: not everyone is just like me, with identical desires, abilities, or perceptions. Just because I hated something, or was bad at it, or didn't enjoy or get anything out of the experience does not automatically make it worthless for everyone.
posted by rtha at 6:09 PM on May 21, 2008 [11 favorites]


My degree did get me a very good job that I loved but as a learning experience it was about 3/4 useless. Out of the 130 credits that I needed for a BS in Computer Science, only 26 of them were actually computer science or relevant math. I don't even remember half of the other classes that I took, you just learning enough to pass the tests and forgot it immediately.
posted by octothorpe at 6:12 PM on May 21, 2008


College is useless unless you need to learn something technical which requires access to a lot of specialized equipment or knowledge that you can't get from the internet.
posted by autodidact at 8:15 PM on May 21 [+] [!]
Eponysterical! Anyone who claims to have read Hamlet and understood it on their own is full of crap. But the problem is that he doesn't know he's full of crap because he isn't even aware of all the layers that he can't even recognize.

If your goal is to work for yourself and be (*cough*) 'The Decider', then while education is extremely important, a degree is more or less meaningless and a waste of resources.

You don't need a college degree to take out a business loan and run a small restaurant or deli. You can even make a large amount of money doing that. Some people might even do pretty well in technical fields working for themselves doing IT consulting. If all you want to do is make money, there's no reason you have to spend a lot of time and money on college. However, if there's something specific you want to do with your life, then education is a ticket to doing that because that gives you the freedom to be 'The Decider'.
posted by deanc at 6:13 PM on May 21, 2008


Eponysterical! Anyone who claims to have read Hamlet and understood it on their own is full of crap. But the problem is that he doesn't know he's full of crap because he isn't even aware of all the layers that he can't even recognize.

Have fun being so fucking pedantic that you truly believe what you just said. I'd love to see your bookshelves. Do you own anything other than textbooks and assigned reading material?

There are numerous different approaches to fully learning and appreciating Shakespeare without taking an English course at college. For instance, you could read the plays, watch the plays, and then read some books about the plays and discuss them with other people who have also done so. Eventually, you'll probably end up with an even better understanding of Hamlet than someone like you who thinks the only way to learn is to pay money to do what I just described.

That's just the most conventional way... what about someone who actually acts in Shakespeare? They're going to have a lot of detailed discussion about the many layers of meaning.
posted by autodidact at 6:21 PM on May 21, 2008


Autodidact, do you want to turn down the jerk a little? You've got your knob set on 11.

Some people, like me, learn quite well even when mostly on their own - but need some form of motivation to do so. For me college served as an excellent motivation, especially when I was working with friends. Having an interesting project as an end goal also serves as sufficient motivation, but those aren't always available or feasible (sure, I mostly taught myself to weld, but it was years after I WANTED to, because a suitable project wasn't around).

I have tons and tons of books that weren't assigned material, but I do find it hard to concentrate on non-fiction, even non-fiction that I'm interested in, if I'm doing so in a vacuum.

I don't think anyone here is arguing that college is worthless for everyone, but it's equally ridiculous to assert that it is so for everyone.
posted by flaterik at 6:27 PM on May 21, 2008


I don't think anyone here is arguing that college is worthless for everyone, but it's equally ridiculous to assert that it is so for everyone.

It was clearly worthless to my proofreading abilities:

*ahem*

I don't think anyone here is arguing that college is worthless for no one, but it's equally ridiculous to assert that it is so for everyone.
posted by flaterik at 6:35 PM on May 21, 2008


Sorry, I guess you can see from my name I feel strongly about this issue. I did feel like he was calling me full of shit and implying that I'd never learn about certain levels of Shakespeare unless I took a college course. That idea sincerely offends me. I was actually more annoyed by the second part of deanc's statement, about how you need a college degree to be "the decider." So, so narrow-minded.

I have no college degree but my job requires me to work constantly with people who have degrees but no actual clue how to do their job. I'm usually making a lot more money than these people, unless I'm dealing directly with a V.P. These are mostly marketing and business grads, whose education seems to consist of how to take notes and generally bog things down in bureaucracy.
posted by autodidact at 6:39 PM on May 21, 2008


Just because I hated something, or was bad at it, or didn't enjoy or get anything out of the experience does not automatically make it worthless for everyone.

I loved university and rocked the house at it (OK, I failed fiber optics. Damn triple-integrals!). Also, my dad worked for a company that had tuition for dependents as a benefit. So I graduated with no debt. Am I fucking fabulous or what?

But if I tell everyone and their dog that college is a waste of time it weeds out the people who aren't serious and maintains the value of my degree by preventing it from dilution. It's like the recent magazine article about Zappo's - after a month they offer employees $1000 to quit. Those who take it weren't serious about working there anyway.

So college is useless. It is expensive. You will hate it many days. It will waste 3-10 years of your life. It will get you out of bed at 8 AM. You may well be dragged semi-willingly into alcoholism or smoking. You will be judged harshly by people who do not care about you. So you better be goddamn sure you want to sign up for it and not just be doing it because you can't think of anything better because you'll be wasting the time of your teachers and classmates, wasting your money and denying a spot to some poor, smart kid who really needs a chance. I say: if you don't want to go to school, don't go.

maybe I should go to that libertarian conference...
posted by GuyZero at 6:42 PM on May 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh and by "my job".. I am self-employed. I am in the process of hiring people right now. I am the decider.
posted by autodidact at 6:43 PM on May 21, 2008


I did feel like he was calling me full of shit and implying that I'd never learn about certain levels of Shakespeare unless I took a college course. That idea sincerely offends me.

I think the feeling of offense was flowing both ways - personally I was feeling a bit offended at being told that I should've been able to learn everything I know on my own, when I know I couldn't've. Similarly, I was hearing that an incredibly worthwhile part of my life was worthless.

I totally agree with the sentiment that a college degree implies nothing about the bearer of that degree. People graduated from the same program as me that I would never, ever, hire. But for some of us, it was an absolutely necessary part of learning.

(post grad in computer science on the other hand does seem to be devoid of worth ;))
posted by flaterik at 6:47 PM on May 21, 2008


I know everyone is all "Who wants a steady boring job working in a cube?" But for many immigrants college is their ticked to white-collar middle class stability. They need that degree to get a job at IBM or a bank or some accounting firm so they can send their siblings to university, so their parents can retire from cleaning hotel rooms, running the corner store 24/7, so they can send money back home to their grandparents. Thats what I learned in university. That not everyone is as lucky as I am to have the leisure to learn whatever they want and do as badly or well as they care to.
posted by captaincrouton at 6:55 PM on May 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


That piece of paper not only says that you have managed to beg/borrow/steal/are lucky enough to afford college, but also that you have taken the time to complete a 4ish year project of self "betterment." At least thats what many people who hire at large stable companies seem to think.
posted by captaincrouton at 6:58 PM on May 21, 2008


autodidact, I'll skip over the hilarity of someone questioning the content of my bookshelves. I'm well aware that people outside my field know a hell of a lot more about their field than I could learn as an amateur. You can think you can know something, and then you can realize the degree to which you're just scratching the surface. If you want to learn a skill, a programming language, or a few mathematical concepts, buy a textbook and read it and do some exercises on your own. It's not that hard. But in college you get to be surrounded by specialists and you can get an idea of just how deep the rabbit hole is. There's plenty of non-technical specialized knowledge and experience that's just as useful to get from direct experience in a classroom as technical specialized knowledge.

And I'll be the first to say that college isn't necessarily for everyone, and if you look at it as an extension of high school, it will be borderline useless to you. However, it's fairly presumptuous of you to blithely assume that you can teach yourself everything without the intense, focused interaction you get from a classroom and a teacher, merely because it's not technical. In fact, you're probably slightly worse off because you are barely even aware of what you don't know, unless, I suppose, you have cultivated a lot of social friendships with people who are specialists in a field you're trying to learn about. I don't have many friends who are Byzantine historians who can criticize my thinking when composing a researched argument, do you? Not to mention lending me the book that was otherwise only available from a specialized library. :)
I was actually more annoyed by the second part of deanc's statement, about how you need a college degree to be "the decider." So, so narrow-minded.
If, perhaps, you're fortunate enough that what you've decided you want to do doesn't require a degree. If you've "decided" you want to make money or run some kind of business, a degree isn't required for that. But if you want some more control over your own destiny and formal education buys you something you really want, then it's invaluable. At a certain point in my education, I realized that if I couldn't finish, I'd be successful at any number of things that I'd fall into. But formal education was my ticket to doing what I wanted to do, not something that I'd merely be successful at.
posted by deanc at 6:59 PM on May 21, 2008


College is useless and a waste of time but I found a way to beat the system: got the degrees needed and got job teaching at one of these waste places. See? It got me a job.
posted by Postroad at 7:03 PM on May 21, 2008


Yeah, I probably would have got more out of University if I hadn't looked at it as an extension of high school. You're right about that. To be honest, I'm only a few credits shy of a BA, and I've been thinking about completing a degree in CompSci, which wouldn't require much extra work. I do recognize that there are things other people can teach me. So as per usual I have overspoken my case just a bit.
posted by autodidact at 7:05 PM on May 21, 2008


Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth, or slinks through slimy seas has a brain! Back where I come from we have universities - seats of great learning - where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts, and with no more brains than you have. But - they have one thing you haven't got - a diploma! ("Wizard of Oz," 1939)

As with anything in life, college is as useful for any individual as they make it.

For me? College was of tremendous use. I studied things I never would have thought to study, read things I never would have willingly read and was exposed to people and ideas that I never would have even knew existed.

YMMV
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:18 PM on May 21, 2008


I'm not against being self-taught. After all, once you leave school (and even before), most of the stuff you learn is self-taught. I just don't like the idea that college is only useful for specialized technical knowledge.

Is there more opportunity or less opportunity for people to go into business for themselves, these days? Certainly, the option of owning a general retail store is pretty much out, given the dominance of Wal-Mart and other large chains. As far as other opportunities to be self employed, have these improved or gotten worse? It's a heckuva lot easier to make it without a degree when you're self-employed and a lot harder to make it if your only option is being a white collar employee for the corporation that drove all of the independent self-employed operators out of business.
posted by deanc at 7:23 PM on May 21, 2008


I am the decider.

Using Bushisms to assert your intelligence is a risky endeavor.
posted by dirigibleman at 7:24 PM on May 21, 2008


My youngest son didn't want to go to college after high school and enlisted in Navy. He felt not prepared for college ( average high school student and terrific athlete) and didn't want to set himself up for failure. Funny how 4 years can change a attitude and his anxious exuberance to start the university was a surprise for his mother and me.

Being curious what changed his attitude. Asked him why the change of heart. He looked sheepishly at the old man and stated" Dad, you cannot believe some of the dolts I had to take orders from with college degrees in the Navy.

So I'll take the article for what it worth. Never attending college, or written a college paper doesn't put me or the persons in the article in a class of underachievers or uneducated. Experience is probably the cake and education is probably the icing. The frosty top doesn't aways reveal what underneath the pretty facade.
posted by brickman at 7:32 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


College is not a car or a plasma TV. You don't pay for the packaged product, but for the opportunity. What opportunity? That's up to you to figure out. And you get out of this opportunity as much as you put into it.

Having said this, the guy that wrote that article needs to pull his head out of his ass. People in his class are not doing well because they don't give a damn about some bullshit requirement Intro to English class, not because they are stupid. He says he's not at a prestigious, competitive university, and he realizes that the people that attend it are not very competitive (for whatever reason). Well, how hard is it to connect the dots? They don't care about a 4.0 GPA, they don't give a shit why the caged bird sings, so yes, they probably are not going to be too enthusiastic about writing a 3-point paper on it. Surprise!
The students are just as apathetic in the Intro to Biology lab, for the same exact reason. The dude needs to get out of his basement and socialize with colleagues from other departments more.
posted by c13 at 7:33 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


In our society, which keeps children sheltered for so long and then (arguably) magically expects them to blossom into adults, college is a preparation for real life. Well, at least it was for me.

While I came away with academic learning from my college experiences, the peripheral exposures are what really made it for me. I went to smallish institutions; my classmates were often fairly varied in age, and classes were small, engaging and hands-on. This exposed me to a wide scope of views while compelling me to learn how to articulate my thoughts on the fly.

Better, though, colleges are a hotbed of creativity and hipsters. I learned about indie comix, great music, different approaches to life and relationships...

Oh, and I had to really learn how to take care of myself. Time management. Pay rent. Pay insurance. Keep house. Feed and occasionally dress myself. Roommate relationships.

On the other hand, some of my most successful and/or fulfilled friends never even graduated high school.
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 7:34 PM on May 21, 2008


I can tell a self taught programmer nine times out of ten, and it's almost never positive.

Confirmation bias, anyone?
posted by gimonca at 7:35 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Professor X's pedagogy is trapped in 1979. I wonder if that has something to do with his/her student's boredom.
posted by mecran01 at 7:36 PM on May 21, 2008


I learned a lot in college. I suppose it would have been possible to get through without learning anything, but why on earth would I have wanted to do that?
posted by kyrademon at 7:39 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Confirmation bias, anyone?

No kidding. The best coders of which I've ever had the privilege of working were self-taught. Guys like Dave "Zoid" Kirsch. He could code at 70wpm. My best typing speed is only about 55 wpm.
posted by illiad at 7:40 PM on May 21, 2008



College is useless. For the autodidacts it merely distracts from their real education. For the general population it merely distracts from their Facebooking and im'ing. There is a class of people - the worker drones - that you see getting engineering degrees, for whom it perhaps makes sense.


You clearly feel pretty good about yourself. Guess autodidact school doesn't leave a lot of room for socialization, which is where I suppose most people pick up their empathy skills and learn not to use wild and ignorant generalizations. Enjoy the Gulch, my friend.

My personal pithy retort of choice is something along the lines of : The University system is so wrong-headed that something like the top dozen oldest institutional bodies in continuous operation are universities. An oddball stat, I suppose.

Anyway, if you want to wildly generalize anything about college, it isn't that a college degree is *useless*, but rather that there has been too much emphasis on *everyone* needing to get them. Costs go way up (for everyone), standards go way down (for everyone) - and so everyone suffers: system, graduate, and society. As everything, individual experiences vary, but the problem isn't college or the college experience - it's the idea that everyone should be funneled into it at all costs. The fact that (depending on the state), anywhere from 30 to 75 percent of those who start college don't finish. 45% for the US on average.*

College provides focus. More importantly, it provides access to experts in a variety of fields. Check out all the books about physics and biology you want. That might have been good enough for newton (it wasn't, college graduate!) or Aristotle (wait, he studied at Plato's Academy), but the access to human expertise, even passively, is a far more enriching and educational experience than the library can ever hope to emulate, I'm afraid.

* if they're not done within 6 years - most probable cause: dropping out.
posted by absalom at 7:44 PM on May 21, 2008


(Crap, I meant to link to this on the * above!)
posted by absalom at 7:45 PM on May 21, 2008


I'm with mecran01. This professor, who is a middling writer, sounds like a terrible writing teacher. "The textbook says. . . " Well, scrap the textbook. Don't cheerlead or cajole - actually teach them to write. The fact that the professor is reflective enough to realize something is seriously wrong when most kids are failing, but does not have the guts to do something about it - change the curriculum, teaching method, something - well, that's a lot of what is wrong with education.
posted by mai at 8:03 PM on May 21, 2008


Confirmation bias, anyone?

No kidding. The best coders of which I've ever had the privilege of working were self-taught. Guys like Dave "Zoid" Kirsch. He could code at 70wpm. My best typing speed is only about 55 wpm.


Confirmation bias, anyone?

I agree with those who say college is what you make of it. I know plenty of people who are clearly in college for the degree, rather than to learn. These are the people who are fine with getting a decent-paying job right out of school, and never thinking about what they learned again.

I also know relatively few people who use college for the things it offers: (sometimes) excellent instruction from (sometimes) experts, availability of special equipment (go ahead, build your own sophisticated chemistry lab or supersonic wind tunnel, self-important autodidacts), and the chance to meet like-minded people. Is it any coincidence that universities tend to breed entrepreneurship and innovation? It seems woefully naive to me to believe that anything worth learning can be self-taught.

The other thing I've noticed as an engineering student (potential arrogance follows), is that even the upper-division humanities and social science classes I've taken have been incredibly easy. I'm talking about 300-level classes where showing up to class 80% of the time, and being able to articulate a fallacious, ill-informed opinion reasonably well guarantee an A. Maybe it's just that I'm conflating grades with learning, but if those types of classes are really that easy, no wonder college is worthless.
posted by !Jim at 8:07 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I feel like you all are in a parallel universe. I feel like the vast majority of entry level jobs require at least some sort of college degree, even if the requirement is just "any B.A.".

On the other hand, I have more than one friend who bypassed that requirement just by lying.
posted by the jam at 8:09 PM on May 21, 2008


People, back in the day there was this guy named Horace Mann. The notion he promoted for us in the United States was free, universal public education.

There was a time when a high school diploma, honestly earned in a public school, was enough to start an American in a successful life. We have thrown that ideal in the garbage, and now we tell people to leave their homes and relocate, spend tens of thousands of dollars, go horribly into debt, and deal with corrupt leaden university bureaucracies in order to get the education we used to get by birthright.

Half the problem is U.S. colleges and the unnatural hold they have on society. The other half of the problem is the sorry, sorry state of our public high schools. State legislatures need to cut money to state-run colleges hard and deep, and reassign that money to school districts. And frankly, having proper graduation standards in high schools wouldn't hurt either.

In the meantime, we need a federal law to prevent companies from requiring a degree unless there are very specific, demonstrated skills involved. If it can be shown that competent people can do the job without the degree, requiring the degree should be illegal. That one courageous action would shoot the legs out of the bloated market in diplomas, and suck the air out of hyperinflated tuitions.

We sit around and worry about the future of other American values. Is freedom of speech in danger? Can we guarantee justice for all? But our ideal of public education--Horace Mann's ideal, something that the United States used to do well--that enterprise has already collapsed on us and no-one is willing to admit it. It's a stinking shame.
posted by gimonca at 8:09 PM on May 21, 2008 [6 favorites]


This professor, who is a middling writer, sounds like a terrible writing teacher.

He wants to teach a college lecture-style class, but what he's teaching is a composition class: of the sort where the students should be churning something out every week and receiving detailed feedback on their grammar, language, and style. He might feel it's beneath him, because this is high-school-level stuff, but it's what the students need. It's easy to mock the college students who can't even approach college work, and it's not that hard to give all the students an assignment with some perfunctory instructions and fail them when they can't do it. However, as an adjunct at a community college, he has the sort of position where he's supposed to deal with turning them into competent writers. It's the sort of thing that normally gets farmed out to grad students at the university level, but he should learn to adjust to the position in which he's found himself.

Not that the students have an excuse, but he needs to learn to play with the hand he's been dealt rather than pretend he has a different job and complain that the students aren't giving him an opportunity to have the job he wanted.
posted by deanc at 8:14 PM on May 21, 2008


We struggled a lot with this issue in Planning and Budgeting at UW. Being a mere decision-support specialist, I made no decisions, but I always argued that we should either: 1) provide a warranty or 2) charge a small percentage of one's future earnings, collectible over time. Neither idea ever found much traction.
posted by owhydididoit at 8:23 PM on May 21, 2008


charge a small percentage of one's future earnings, collectible over time.

Didn't some universities experiment with some variation of this? Something like, instead of loans, you promised to pay something like 10 or 20% of your income for some number of years post-graduation. (I'm sure I'm not making this up, but couldn't find a citation in a brief search.)
posted by Forktine at 8:26 PM on May 21, 2008


Speaking as someone who hasn't read the article, and doesn't intend to, I feel qualified to answer the question thusly: Maybe.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:07 PM on May 21, 2008


In the meantime, we need a federal law to prevent companies from requiring a degree unless there are very specific, demonstrated skills involved. If it can be shown that competent people can do the job without the degree, requiring the degree should be illegal.

Are you completely out of your mind? Employers shouldn't discriminate due to class-based animus, but it would be ludicrous to institute federally-mandated job qualification standards.

Anyway, if there are so many identifiable, non-college educated, competent people out there, why aren't savvy employers picking them up and splitting the difference in saved education expenses? And if they are, what's the problem?
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 9:41 PM on May 21, 2008


You apparently didn't read the original article, nor have you considered the statement you quote back. Read the material, then try again.

If your thrust is that businesses should never be regulated because they'll always act rationally and in the interests of society as a whole, well, let me know what color the sky is in your area.
posted by gimonca at 10:27 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I loved college. I got a lot out of it--more than I could have gotten on my own, even by reading and studying the exact same material, because classroom discussion and professorial insight brought out facets and ideas I couldn't have achieved otherwise. Some people here didn't like college, or didn't get a lot out of it, and could have learned everything they need for their career / life by reading and studying all by themselves.

Making generalizations like "college is a waste of time" or "college is a hellish drudgery one has to go through to get a job, and nothing more" isn't going to convince anyone of anything. Your personal experience does not a definition of the college experience make.
posted by tzikeh at 10:38 PM on May 21, 2008


I've often wondered if the 50 or 100 thousand used to pay for some schools might not be put to far better use. To get a business off the ground...Pay for a house...In my case, I know I wouldn't be where I am without my BA, but I look at other friends and family and the case is a lot less clear...
posted by beingdaddy at 11:20 PM on May 21, 2008


Michael: Uh, Darryl will hire some kids for the warehouse. We don’t have to worry about internships with them because they definitely ain’t goin’ to college.
Darryl: What college did you go to Mike?
Michael: Let’s go!
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 12:42 AM on May 22, 2008


I attended a large private university in the US decades ago, beginning several years after I graduated High school. I began there because they offered a healthy scholarship and loans, but eventually the costs rose and I couldn't afford it. An administrative glitch held up my housing loan and I wound up attending classes and maintaining a 3.5 in an accelaerated social sciences program while living rough in the bushes and heating grates behind the law school junior year. Hunger and cold eventually made me take a semester off, came back and got a job at the university and proceeded to take courses as an employee. Got involved in my union at the school, which pissed of the admin, and they "lost" my transcripts. As an employee I continued to take courses - my profs promised to help in my administrative difficulties - until ten years later I gave up and left with a lot of graduate level studies under my belt, two theses, and no degree. Not even a BA.

Several other friends of mine are in very similar situations. The lack of a degree really looms up as you get older and are looking for some job security.

For some jobs, I did well without the degree. I've taught at European universities, worked as a journalist and editor, freelance writer, musician, IT worker. I still write and lecture in my field. I've chaired panels for international academic conferences. I've been an advisor for several Fullbright researchers. But I myself am not eligible for research grants - the lack of degree pops up. I have been turned down for an NGO job to which I had been recommended and for which I did qualify (requirements included fluent English, conversational Romani, one western European language, two east European languages... kind of specific) because of the lack of a degree. Some monolingual grad student got the job.

When I am back in the US, the lack of a degree definately lames my employment prospects. I sympathize with the adult students mentioned in the article: the value and meaning of college credits has been simultaneously devalued and made compulsory, all to the detriment of the spirit of education.
posted by zaelic at 2:11 AM on May 22, 2008 [4 favorites]


If anyone following this thread is interested in a field where doing counts, investment banking is it. In spite of the fields snobby reputation I personally know folks that either don't have a degree, or a degree in finance and do just fine, because they deliver.

And that reputation problem? Well, while there are most definitely white shoe firms in investment banking, we really only see that exclusivity in specific parts of the organisation - mostly client facing, where personal elements / dynamics largely drive results.

On the other hand, if you're a hot shot trader who can rather consistently identify market opportunities and generate alpha you're gonna be in demand, no matter how inadequate your education (or repulsive your personal appearance, I can say this having worked in investment banking for about two decades) might be. Same thing goes for most jobs across the enterprise - for example, there are lots of coders working in banking who are degreeless - but they deliver.

Anyone who asserts that investment banking isn't almost a pure meritocracy has never actually worked in the field. Maybe read a few news articles or seen a couple of movies and formed an opinion, but never actually been employed in the business. Sure, you'll get the usual political bs that arises in any situation where humans regularly interact, form or social bonds, but in investment banking results count far, far more than "where did you go to school?". Because we're talking about money. And money talks.

But a degree leading to a job in a cube? That's hardly been my experience.

(full disclosure: Undergraduate Math & Computer Science, MSc Quantitative Finance, have done primary research in finance and I'm currently completing an Executive MBA)

I've certainly spent my time in cubes and in offices, but also a fair amount of time on trading floors and even working outside of banks. I started my career in New York, lots of trips to Europe on business culminated with me relocating here in 1997 and I fully intend to never live in The United States again.

Since living in Europe I've worked all over the continent, of course. But my career path has also led me to spending extensive periods of time working in Africa (mostly in the Sub Saharan regions but lots of time in Cairo as well), The Middle East, and parts of Asia. I've spent lots of time working in remote parts of the world, and have been in politically unstable countries. While a lot of this work has been solo, I've also worked as a part of multicultural / multilingual teams.

So I hardly think a degree of any type relegates one to toiling in a cube farm any more than lack of a degree implies you're gonna scrub toilets all your adult life. Unless that is what one wants, which is fine by the way.

I think it was Harry Truman (can't cite source so please correct if I'm wrong) who said "Never look down on anyone for doing an honest days work".

Some folks in the United States today seem just a bit too status conscious sometimes. And having a degree is just part of that problem.

Interesting article - thanks for posting.
posted by Mutant at 3:07 AM on May 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


I learned lots in undergraduate because I did a real degree (math) at a real school (georgia tech). I did zero work in high school so I feel quite fortunate to have grown up in a state where university was (1) free, (2) very good, and (c) had lax admissions standards. I know how those perks were paid for : I had less fun in school because many tech friends were stressed and/or failed out. But you know what, even this wasn't nearly challenging enough, anyone good at math substituted numerous graduate courses for undergraduate ones. I imagine this holds for virtually all large state schools. People & schools are not the same, you can't generalize.

Now I'll happily discuss how small liberal arts collages are ripping off students, but the truth is these collages are selling something that students want : social & academic security, i.e. you & your friends don't fail out. Car companies are ripping off consumers when they sell an SUV too, but it's what the consumer wants.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:29 AM on May 22, 2008


I studied history and classics at a small lib arts school. Do I use the 'knowledge' I learned there in my work? Not at all. But my undergrad education taught me how to think critically, express myself clearly, and analyze data. I probably would have done just fine without the degree, but for me it was 100% worth it. I'm still paying off my loans, of course, but that's fine.

I do wonder whether aa 'pre-professional' degree at certain schools offers the same benefits. Maybe I'm a snob, but for me the benefit was in the traditional liberal arts approach where the classes were small and you were expected to perform. I'm not sure if students who go through a marketing degree with classes of 100+ people are really getting that much out of the experience. Then again, probably those who are strongly motivated probably do, and those who want to party and IM probably don't.
posted by miss tea at 4:30 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Going significantly beyond the recommendations in the Spellings report, I believe that colleges should be required to prominently report the following data on their Web sites and in recruitment materials:

I love this. The people it's supposed to reach would have no idea what it's saying.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:30 AM on May 22, 2008


I felt sorry for Mrs. L. I also felt that Professor X is somewhat of an idiot. If the course is so difficult that people can't pass it, there's something wrong with the curriculum. Not to dumb it down, but the methods (or the teacher) must be lacking in some very fundamental way.

I get really sick of teachers laying the burden of "getting it" on their students. Also, there are other methods of researching besides using the internet. I didn't have the internet when I was in school and I managed to get good grades.

The article left me with a bad taste in my mouth. If I were that cop and got called to this guy's house, I'd take my sweet time in getting there after taking this course.

My dad did his Ph.D. work in education at Loyola. He's been both an English teacher and an administrator. I pretty much got an English education by osmosis (even tho' my grammar skills have devolved in past years, sorry, Dad). He's all for degrees if it will help someone get ahead, but even he realizes college is not for everyone. And he doesn't look down on people who don't have one.

It's the aura of superiority that some people with degrees have that is off-putting to me, not their choice of career or their paycheck. It's a big business, yes, schools have to make money, I guess. If a college education were free, or even cheaper than it is now, I'd be in school because I like school. But I don't think the cost would give me a return on my investment unless it were an engineering degree or something similar. Hubby has an M.B.A. student loan, and my goal is to get it paid off before either one of us is takin' a dirt nap.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:10 AM on May 22, 2008


There's no one type of college education, which is why this discussion is splayed all over the sidewalk.

People who are interested in a professional field which requires the degree as a credential, and uses the curriculum to convey important knowledge about the field without which you can't be successful, should certainly go to college. Engineers, doctors, teachers, psychologists and so on make a smart decision when deciding to go to college. They won't be able to reach those goals (with their income levels, status and job conditions) without the credential.

People who want a traditional liberal arts education, which I certainly did and am glad every day that I got, should also certainly go to college - a liberal arts college. Those people should not necessarily believe that their time in college, in a non-professionally-tracked major, will improve their eventual earnings or occupational choices. The function of a liberal arts degree is to develop a person's awareness of major topics in the history of human thought, teach them to engage in questioning and argument and critical thinking, and all in all, become a more literate person with knowledge that spans many disciplines. It is possible to use what you experienced by taking a liberal arts degree to build a lucrative career, but it depends much more on the type of person you are and the use to which you put your educatin than an any value actually inherent in the diploma. I wouldn't have my job without my college degree, but I didn't get the job because of my college degree.

People who want a technical education might or might not want to go to college, depending on the availabilty of programs specific to their interests. Some jobs in healthcare, IT, the trades, law enforcement, finance, and education might best prepare people through technical training programs of a few months to a couple of years long, either on the job or in targeted institutions.

I think the problem area is the middle one. People hear that a requirement for success is just "going to college" without ever being led to deeply consider what college is for. If you don't want a liberal arts education, and go to a liberal arts college without specific goals for your own education and what you want to do with it, you probably will be disappointed and feel like you didn't get much out of it. If you go to a state university, you can certainly choose between professional, liberal, and technical educational tracks, but you're still within a 4-year college structure. If you haven't got a clear idea about what you want your education to do, again, you're likely to be disappointed. Meanwhile, people in that same institution who have enrolled in a track they've chosen for either ROI or personal development are probably having a very good experience.

In some cases college provides an ROI; not all. I think there is a fairly low level of understanding about what college is for among parents, students, and guidance counselors, and they tend to make college decisions on fairly blurry ideas about how going to college is the key to a professional career. It can be. But the student always needs to be in the driver's seat, knowing the available choices and something about their outcomes, and having expectations appropriate to the type of education they are choosing. If you take four years of indifferent coursework in unrelated classes with a major in something like English, and graduate, it's absolutely true that you might find it's not translating into a lot of high-end job offers. Of course not. On the other hand, if you're passionate about literature and take four years of challenging coursework in a focused but well-rounded array of courses, building up your relationships with professors and working in the writing center and editing the student magazine, you may very well find that your experience gives you exactly what you need to get started on a career path in media, education, PR, with a large head start over others.

Like everything, you get out of college what you put into it and what you go in looking for. If your goals don't require college at all, and you don't want a liberal education for its own sake, there really is no reason to go. It's not necessary to go to college to live a good life, make decent money, or become learned. As someone from a working-class background who managed to become the first college graduate in my family, who busted ass, worked, got scholarships, attended community college and then a small liberal arts college, and has built on that education and been grateful for it ever since, I think its value was priceless. But I don't think that everyone needs to go, and there are definitely a whole lot of people in college just taking up space because they didn't have any better ideas.
posted by Miko at 7:34 AM on May 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


Barring certain serious requirements for credentials (Engineering/Medicine/Etc.), how about we just stipulate that motivated people do better in any circumstances and get more out of whichever mode of education or non-education they choose than unmotivated people, and go have a beer or something?
posted by chimaera at 10:13 AM on May 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


College is useless: every skill I've developed has come through my own determination. I consider my years in 'higher' education to be a complete waste. When I spawn (if ever) I'll tell my fry to learn a simple trade, mentor with an expert, and learn for the sake of bettering themselves.
posted by MChristian at 10:59 AM on May 22, 2008


Confirmation bias, anyone?

No kidding. The best coders of which I've ever had the privilege of working were self-taught. Guys like Dave "Zoid" Kirsch. He could code at 70wpm. My best typing speed is only about 55 wpm.


I do not think ALL self taught coders are bad.

They tend to either be horrible, or far better than me. It's sadly weighted heavily towards the former.

Why is everyone in this thread making absolute judgements and assuming everyone else is? You'll note that I clearly did not say "never positive", I said "almost never positive". Sheesh.
posted by flaterik at 11:02 AM on May 22, 2008


College is useless. For the autodidacts it merely distracts from their real education. For the general population it merely distracts from their Facebooking and im'ing. There is a class of people - the worker drones - that you see getting engineering degrees, for whom it perhaps makes sense.

Wow. Good to know that the time I've spent being immersed in subjects I probably wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity to study was only a distraction from Facebook and IM. Could it be possible that the things I've studied in the classroom might prompt me to want to learn more about the world in my own time? Could a good liberal arts education act as a springboard to become more of a, dare I say it, autodidact in the areas that genuinely interest me? I'd say that 90% of the actual material learned in college is inapplicable to the workplace, unless you're going into academia yourself. On the other hand, college can teach good thinking skills, can help you become more organized, make you better at researching all sorts of things (which is very useful in my job, as it turns out), and can beef up your rhetorical chops (especially if you're studying philosophy or political science). Moreover, I've had the opportunity to learn more about the world around me - was choosing to take an astronomy course a wasted effort, merely distracting from my "real education?" I don't think that being a self-motivated and self-taught learner means you have to be totally self-contained. Being able to pursue academic interests under the watchful eye of a professor who might actually know what they're talking about might very well be more valuable than sealing oneself up in a room with the Classics and trying to figure them out. Sure, the American higher education system is fucked up. There is a serious class divide in education, and that's a big problem. The "general population" is content to avoid "real education" because the primary and secondary school systems in this country do very little to encourage lifelong learners. The solution is not, however, to dismiss college outright.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 11:31 AM on May 22, 2008


They tend to either be horrible, or far better than me. It's sadly weighted heavily towards the former.

I agree. I think it's an outgrowth of the fact that only ~ 10% of developers are actually really good. Training makes the other 90% acceptable to good. But if you lack both talent and training... well, those people are not good. They are bad. Bad developers.

This isn't really all that controversial - you could say the same thing for writers, photographers, astrophysicists, athletes, carpenters, whatever. There are a few people who excel with or without formal training. Everyone else generally needs a little learninatin'.
posted by GuyZero at 11:32 AM on May 22, 2008


MrVisible: We've allowed our educational system to decline to the point where education is the last of its priorities.

Well, yeah, more on this in a sec.

Forktine: In many ways, the author is displaying the passivity that he or she found frustrating in Mrs L, and is being almost as ineffective. Even the most lowly of adjuncts should have the moral courage to speak up when something seems wrong.

Ever known any adjuncts in the kind of position Professor X holds, Forktine? They've generally got influence in their departments roughly lower than the departmental secretary and roughly higher than the janitor... particularly at liberal arts schools. There are a million and one other recent grads with the same degree gunning for those jobs, and generally it's not like they can just pick up and take a better-paying gig programming at a private company or [insert your non-liberal-arts job choice here].

People, back in the day there was this guy named Horace Mann. The notion he promoted for us in the United States was free, universal public education.

And said free, universal public education is in the crapper because we've lost focus on what school's all about. Not too long after Mann's time came the transformation of the American educational system from a highly individualistic, goal-oriented one to a I Know, Let's Make Some Mindless Drones For The Factory one. See The Underground History of American Education. School has become less about learning, and encouraging people to learn on their own and more about "learn only what will be on the test, and if you know what's good for you, try to get some kind of degree, no matter what you want to do."

Marie Mon Dieu: I felt sorry for Mrs. L. I also felt that Professor X is somewhat of an idiot. If the course is so difficult that people can't pass it, there's something wrong with the curriculum. Not to dumb it down, but the methods (or the teacher) must be lacking in some very fundamental way.

The section about Mrs. L that really got me when I was reading this article earlier in the week was her stalwart determination to NOT FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. Asked to write a particular kind of paper, whose goals and format were described to the class, she reverts to the kind of stuff she probably wrote in high school. Hell, I bet if he'd let her write about her first choice, abortion, she might have even dug up one of her high school papers, tacked on a few paragraphs and called it a day.

He strenuously urged her to get help with her research skills -- she ignored him. Long story short? SHE WASN'T PAYING ATTENTION. Perhaps this is the biggest problem of all -- quite a bit of academic success relies on paying attention, following directions, and if you decide you know better than the teacher about something, putting forth the extra work to show why your way is better. She did none of this. She ignored directions, ignored his attempts to help her and turned in any old thing. I don't feel bad for her at all. When I was a graduate assistant in the history department, grading things for a similarly-mandated-for-all-students Western Civ class, I got plenty of hilarious essay answers on tests. One line that stands out, 11 years later: "The Spartans were complete nutjobs."

Well? They kinda were.

Being a vicious grader, I'd have torn that kid apart had he not then continued to explain in his essay WHY the Spartans were nutjobs, and in what way, and how that came to be. Ok, ok, his grasp of academic language was spotty at best, but come on -- he followed through and gave a reasonable explanation. A for effort, you know? I don't feel sorry for Mrs. L because she seemed more obsessed with "having finally written a college paper" than actually writing a college-level paper.

Marie Mon Dieu, again: I get really sick of teachers laying the burden of "getting it" on their students.

Well, who else are they going to lay it on? They already know the material! I get what you're saying overall, and I don't think we should look down on anyone just because they don't have a degree, but even the very, very best of teachers are going to have a hard time presenting upper-level material to people who just aren't ready for it. It would've been like handing my Russian 101 class a copy of Pravda and saying "ok, you know the letters -- have this translated for me by tomorrow."
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:07 PM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Colleges are expensive partially because there is little incentive to hold costs down. What's that? Jimmy can't afford college? We'd better establish an incredibly generous loan program. What? Tuition went up 6% last year? We'd better increase the loan caps. All this does is feed the monster and encourage colleges to waste more money.

And since many of these loans are made possible using my tax dollars, I expect to see less important departments and programs get the axe. I expect to see down to the last cent accounting for facilities improvements and expenditures and clear justifications for those outlays. I expect a highly visible, sustained, and well-coordinated alumni, community, and corporate fundraising/marketing effort. I expect a detailed plan for achieving cost efficiencies and a focus on the school's best departments. I expect to see any employee who can't hump the gear to be thrown out on the street. All this before a request for a single additional dollar hits the legislature's calendar. Otherwise, they don't deserve a dime because they just aren't trying.
posted by pandanom at 12:56 PM on May 22, 2008


And it's not necessary, either, for many people. Community colleges and improved high schools provide enough education for many jobs. It's just that we have let the higher education guild convince us that we need the degree to do anything in life.
posted by pandanom at 12:59 PM on May 22, 2008


And since many of these loans are made possible using my tax dollars, I expect to see less important departments and programs get the axe. I expect to see down to the last cent accounting for facilities improvements and expenditures and clear justifications for those outlays. I expect a highly visible, sustained, and well-coordinated alumni, community, and corporate fundraising/marketing effort. I expect a detailed plan for achieving cost efficiencies and a focus on the school's best departments. I expect to see any employee who can't hump the gear to be thrown out on the street. All this before a request for a single additional dollar hits the legislature's calendar.

Congratulations!

Many of your productive faculty have left for places where they can do more research and less accounting. Many of your best teachers have left for places where they can spend more time teaching and less time doing fundraising. Many of your best faculty by whatever measure you care to think of have left for places where the facilities aren't all busted-ass and old and the school doesn't have to jump through a million hoops to renovate a lab.

Congratulations!

You went to replace them, and you can't. You certainly can't make new senior hires, because those are very expensive and why the fuck would anyone want to come there?

You can't even replace them with good quality new PhDs, because you have turned your school into the stultifying, gross, environment that only people who cannot find any other employment will accept a position at.

Congratulations!

All this accounting has to be done by someone. Some of it will end up being done by the faculty themselves instead of teaching or research. But their work needs to be checked, so we also need a new layer of deans and their assistants to take hard, squinty looks at facilities improvement, and at cost efficiencies, and so on.

So, congratulations all around. With one clever move, you've managed to drive away the people who were doing good work (leaving you with...), rendered yourself incapable of making good hires, and added a vastly expensive layer of administration that does nothing but oversee the cost-cutting concerns you want. Less teaching getting done, less research getting done, and more expense!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:55 PM on May 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


College is useless:

Jesus frak can we dispense with that idiotic, lazy-as-shit statement already? If what you mean is college was useless for you, then say it. The fact that so many here are willing to trash a system that didn't work for them without considering the fact that it works for a whole lot of other people is almost too dumb for words. You, college-hating people, are not special snowflakes just because of your awesome powers of self-learning. Those awesome powers don't make you a better person (just like needing or loving the classroom doesn't); those awesome powers do not automatically make you a better educated person (just like college doesn't).

But from what I've read in this thread, those awesome powers do confer the ability to make sweeping generalizations, and likewise immunize you against seeing that something may have worth even if you personally found it worthless.
posted by rtha at 2:11 PM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ever known any adjuncts in the kind of position Professor X holds, Forktine? They've generally got influence in their departments roughly lower than the departmental secretary and roughly higher than the janitor... particularly at liberal arts schools. There are a million and one other recent grads with the same degree gunning for those jobs, and generally it's not like they can just pick up and take a better-paying gig programming at a private company or [insert your non-liberal-arts job choice here].

I've been that adjunct. And honestly, even the lowliest adjunct still has agency, can still write memos and go to meetings and try to do their damnedest to do best by the students. Sometimes that effort goes nowhere and you get squashed like the bug you are. But not always, by any means. From the department's point of view, they want to plug a bunch of students into your class, and have most of them come out the other end more or less ready to go on and take the next class in the sequence. If 2/3 are failing the class, things aren't working.

Professor X has this weird, passive belief that as long as no one is commenting on the failure rate, everyone is happy. More likely, no one is paying any great attention, but were they to pay attention, they would be much happier if that failure rate dropped to 1/3. No matter what, a lot of those students are going to fail, because they sound really unmotivated. But even given that, Professor X is doing an impressively crappy job of teaching a class.
posted by Forktine at 2:30 PM on May 22, 2008


Fair enough, Forktine. And agreed, even the lowliest adjunct still has agency, but we don't know where Professor X is teaching, and what's happened to those who have spoken up in the past...it's outside the overall scope of the article. Rather than write an article for the Atlantic, I suspect most adjuncts in this position would have already tried to write those memos, etc -- for all we know, Professor X has, too.

Let's assume that Professor X is actually trying his damnedest, and that the students he's ending up with really DO lack the skills necessary to succeed. As he said:

Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

Learning how to write a coherent sentence is not exactly college-level material. Not even entry level. Is it fair for these students to be taking the place of someone who can? I think that's a valid question, alongside "why can't they write one?" -- can you really expect someone who's supposed to be teaching an entry/freshman level class to do remedial work with every single student?

At what point should the students be taking responsibility for themselves? When I went off to college, I'll tell you, I am not a math person. Never have been, never will be. So I sat down with my advisor and figured out what classes I could take to meet my requirements (such as logic) that wouldn't have me flunking out two weeks in.

No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass.

And here's where I say it's an advising failure / failure of the student to seek help, too. Colleges almost uniformly assign one an advisor -- why aren't they doing more to steer adult students such as Mrs. L to help, whether it's a remedial computing class or whatever? Isn't that sort of their job -- more so than it is Professor X's to make the class easier for students who aren't ready for it?

Adult education, nontraditional education, education for returning students—whatever you want to call it—is a substantial profit center for many colleges. Like factory owners, school administrators are delighted with this idea of mounting a second shift of learning in their classrooms, in the evenings...

Ah, there's the rub.

The colleges, the advisors... seems they don't care about these nontraditional students as long as they get paid. And cynical though it may be, I suspect they would pat Professor X on the back -- at least in private -- for getting these people to take a class two or three times if needed, and for keeping them from annoying Tenured Professor Y, who teaches the upper-level classes, at least until they're ready.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 5:01 PM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


"man, I learned so many things in college classes that I never would've learned on my own. ... plus, going to college is the sweet spot for maximum freedom and minimum responsibility :-) ... seriously, we should value education like some other countries do and provide higher education to our citizens for as close to zero cost as we can."

I'm glad to know you had a wonderful time at camp and would recommend your experiences to others.


"Socially speaking, I met virtually all of my best friends to this day [at college]"


I just hope you're not still best friends to this day because none of you have grown intellectually/morally/spiritually. Most of my old friends from college are still friends because they haven't grown in any of those ways.


"In our society, which keeps children sheltered for so long and then (arguably) magically expects them to blossom into adults, college is a preparation for real life. Well, at least it was for me."


Thank you for that string of unqualified conjectures.


Professor X's pedagogy is trapped in 1979. I wonder if that has something to do with his/her student's boredom.

Ah, the technical writing instructor weighs in. With a typo.


Well, scrap the textbook. Don't cheerlead or cajole - actually teach them to write.

Thank you, sixth-grade teacher. Why don't you teach them to write? The thing is, you haven't provided any evidence in your respective one-paragraph comment that shows us why you're qualified to judge him. Whether it's a college instructor's job to teach their students how to do things, rather than honing existent ability, is debatable. What's not debatable is that you just read this guy's piece—which wasn't meant to be an exegesis on "how I, Professor X, personally teach my students"—and from that concluded out of hand that this guy's teaching methods and approach to the curriculum are clearly not up to snuff. I don't see anything clear about it.


He wants to teach a college lecture-style class, but what he's teaching is a composition class: of the sort where the students should be churning something out every week and receiving detailed feedback on their grammar, language, and style. ... he has the sort of position where he's supposed to deal with turning them into competent writers.


I'm pretty sure, deanc, that he never said anything specific about wanting to teach a "college lecture-style class." I'm pretty sure he said or implied at least once in his piece that he does provide detailed feedback on their grammar, language and style in their submitted classwork. My guess would be, as he alludes to in the piece, that many of his students are incapable of making use of that feedback.

I'm also pretty sure that he's not merely an adjunct at a community college, but rather at both a community college and a small private university. His piece is an amalgamation of his experiences at both. While he could feasibly petition the higher-ups at his respective places of employment for the inclusion of remedial courses in his field of instruction, there may be bureaucracy in place that prevents that from happening. He may also fear that if he approaches the bureaucracy with what he feels are real concerns, he'll get just the response he's receiving from you: "Work harder. Try harder. Spend more one-on-one time with each of your students. And now we're going to scrutinize your every move, too, because you complained."

I do agree, though, that it's hypocritical to complain about standards and then refuse to flay yourself alive in the name of those standards. He should give them bastards what fer, eh? Damn the consequences! Never mind food to eat, a place to sleep or that myth known as job security. There's learnin' to be had and haughty admins to be told what fer!


I learned lots in undergraduate because I did a real degree (math) at a real school (georgia tech). ... Now I'll happily discuss how small liberal arts collages are ripping off students, but the truth is these collages are selling something that students want : social & academic security, i.e. you & your friends don't fail out.


Ah. So you got a real degree from a real college ... but you still can't spell college. Excellent.


If the course is so difficult that people can't pass it, there's something wrong with the curriculum. Not to dumb it down, but the methods (or the teacher) must be lacking in some very fundamental way.

Wow, ace. Why don't you teach the course?


And honestly, even the lowliest adjunct still has agency, can still write memos and go to meetings and try to do their damnedest to do best by the students.


When, exactly, does our lowly double adjunct have time to do this? He's working two jobs because one doesn't pay enough to keep him afloat.

In other words, amen bitter-girl.com and Miko.
posted by limeonaire at 10:13 AM on May 24, 2008


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