June 1, 2010

Skip college?

Go to college but take a more career-oriented major? Or...
Consider Stephen Law, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, who started his working life delivering mail for the British postal service, began reading works of philosophy in his spare time, decided that he’d like to know more, and went on to study the discipline at City University, in London, and at Oxford University....  Indeed, if even a professionally oriented college degree is no longer a guarantee of easily found employment, an argument might be made in favor of a student’s pursuing an education that is less, rather than more, pragmatic. (More theology, less accounting.) That way, regardless of each graduate’s ultimate path, all might be qualified to be carriers of arts and letters, of which the nation can never have too many.


c3 said...

That path requires a certain level of "goal-direction", in short supply with twenty-somethings

Pastafarian said...

Way, way too many people go to college. More than 50% of the population goes to college. The economy does not need that many accountants and attorneys.

We need bricklayers, and machinists, and truck drivers.

This is part of the reason that American manufacturing isn't competitive -- I have to pay a premium to find someone to run a screw machine, because people willing and qualified to do it are so scarce. And many of my machinists have several (useless) years of college to pay for.

And this is one reason that college these days is what high school was 100 years ago, in terms of depth of material. Someone graduating with a college degree today has roughly the equivalent education as someone who graduated from high school 100 years ago.

lyssalovelyredhead said...

I'm all for people going to school for subjects that they are interested in but don't mean much, as long as everyone, including the student, understands that this is just a hobby, not necessarily a means to a profession. (A good comparison might be my blogging and writing articles- it's just something I do on the side, and don't make any real money at.) In other words, I don't want to pay for it or be forced to care about it.

Wouldn't it be great if, instead of college, a lot of young folks went into a short (say, 1 year) business development course, where they would use the money that they would have spent on college to start and manage a business of their own? How much greater that would be for society than a bunch of over-educated english majors who are only qualified to tend bar?

- Lyssa

lyssalovelyredhead said...

My idea above would be in addition to having more vocational schools, like Pastafarian said. Not everyone could do the entrepreneurship (I don't think I could), but I'm certain there are a lot of students who could and are being held back by the expectation that they sit through a few hundred hours of Freshman Comp and Philosophy 101 first.

dick said...


Great idea. Univ of Cincinnati has had a program somewhat like that for years - the Work Study program. You work in your chosen field while you are studying for it and when you graduate you are set to do whatever you need in that field.

I think we also need, as Pastafarian says, to put a premium on people who can DO things. You can make a very satisfying living working with your hands at something you are actually good at. Far better to do that than to become a bad programmer or lawyer or engineer. I had a guy working for me who was a lousy programmer but very interested in watches and jewelry. When we had a business slowdown he was cut and got a job working in the watch trade. He is happy as can be, making just about as much and doing what he loves to do and is good at. He is not alone.

Reminds me of Churchill and his bricklaying. He claimed it really settled his mind.

Joe said...

My local university has a certificate program in bookkeeping. It's pretty much identical to an associates degree in accounting, but without all the general education courses. It can be done in half the time for half the cost and is just as useful on a practical level. This is the future.

(Two things that amaze me in computer science programs are 1) the number of nonsense theory classes that have no application whatsoever beyond university and 2) the lack of practical courses on team work--I'm not talking kumbaya/feel good crap, but learning how to estimate projects, assign tasks, follow up on tasks and coordinate with other engineers.

In other words, even something as practical as a major in Computer Science is largely a waste of time and money in practical terms.)

hawkeyedjb said...

@lyssa - as an over-educated English major, I would like to note that my degree did not qualify me to tend bar. For that, I would need to go to bartender school or find someone willing to apprentice me. So I ended up as a clerk in a hardware store (which paid my tuition to business school).

lyssalovelyredhead said...

dick said: I had a guy working for me who was a lousy programmer but very interested in watches and jewelry.

When I was in high school (90's), there were basically 2 classes of kids- the college prep and the vocational. The voc was completely looked down upon, and the college preps like me were the elite. No "smart" kid would have dared look at the voc program.

Looking back, I see how sorry a system that was. I'm sure a lot of kids who could have been great plumbers or auto mechanics or whatever were pressured to stick with a go nowhere, spend your most productive years in school and graduate with no skills but debt up to your eyeballs when they could have been doing something they might have enjoyed more and would always be in demand.

(Full disclosure, I'm a lawyer, so I know over-educated!)

hawkeyedjb: good point!

- Lyssa

Hagar said...

Notice all the exhortations to stay in school and go to college?

They never say anything about courses to study and what you might want to use them for, and never-ever that you might still have to work hard just to survive and work even harder in order to succeed. It's just "go to college and good things will happen to you for the rest of your life."
This is fraudulent advertising, and it is a pity that so many young people fall for it and graduate with a useless degree and a crushing burden of debt.

edutcher said...

A teacher once told me, "You don't go to college to learn how to make a living. You go to college to learn how to live." I always thought that was good advice. Pasta is right about the number of people in college and too many schools are little more than vocational training for the professions. Law schools (ahem), f'rinstance; in the old days, you learned by doing, clerking at a firm.

The old idea of the university is more what college should be - a place where you can think and learn about some of the more important things in life.

That said, I've come across a couple of old servicemen who always said, if torn between college and the military, go to school first and then enlist. A lot of things can get in the path of that degree,

bagoh20 said...

Education is one of the few things that has risen sharply in cost while becoming generally less useful and less rare. It has been on a downward value-to-cost curve for some time now. Of course, that's only from the student's point of view. Administration and faculty are on a reverse curve. This is driven by propaganda, mythology, and government subsidy and is quite normal, although doomed.

Hagar said...

It used to be that you enlisted, served your time, and got the G.I. Bill to help put you through college (it pretty much paid for tuition and (used) textbooks, keeping body and soul together was your problem), so that you would emerge free of debt and good to go.
The time in the service taught you a few things about real life that you did not know from high school, and since you had already paid the price, you would try hard to get value for the money.

bagoh20 said...

"...You go to college to learn how to live."

I think you start learning how to live after you get out of school. For many, college is extended adolescence.

jimbino said...

The problem is not that the vast majority of Americans major in wishy-washy subjects and avoid all science, math, engineering and economics. The problem is that these are the about only types we elect to high office and appoint to the highest court, like Roberts (English), Stevens (English Lit), Scalia (History), Souter (Philosophy), Thomas (English), Alito (Public and International Affairs), Sotomayor (History) and Kagan (History). Even the Econ degrees of Kennedy and Breyer involved no courses in advanced math, though Breyer is the only one who has distinguished himself (in high school) in scientific thinking.

edutcher said...

bagoh20 said...

"...You go to college to learn how to live."

I think you start learning how to live after you get out of school. For many, college is extended adolescence.

That, I believe, is part of the problem.

Paul Snively said...

"That way, regardless of each graduate’s ultimate path, all might be qualified to be carriers of arts and letters, of which the nation can never have too many."

That kind of economic claptrap thinking is what leads to this.

howzerdo said...

This reminds me of the attitude during my high school ('78) and undergraduate days ('82). We were told there was no opportunity, we would never get a job, so we may as well major in whatever we wanted without worrying about how we'd eventually apply it. We were going to college for the "love of learning," and the sole economic factor was a time out from the job market. I majored in US history, my husband majored in sociology. We didn't have anything more than a vague idea what we would do with our degrees.

I went to graduate school in the '90s and have been teaching college students for 10 years. During both decades, students were different in motivation than us tail-end baby boomers, but in my classes recently I detect a slight change from job market planning to the love of learning justification. In terms of how the economy "feels," I am having late '70s deja vu myself, so I don't find this surprising.

I confess, it is making my classes more fun. Because the atmosphere reminds me a bit of my own college days? I'm not sure, it is also possible I am hitting my stride after 10 years. However, I don't think it will become as pervasive as it was back in the day, because higher education is a lot more expensive now.

Be said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Be said...

Did well enough on the ASVABs to be bothered by recruiters, but decided instead, based on mad money for summer courses offered due my PSAT scores, to go Bowling for College Dollars. Knew I wanted to do something vaguely related to mathematics (loved it, loved chemistry - balancing equations was *so* peaceful. Also, worked summers and holidays at the engineering firm my mom worked at), but didn't want to stay in my home town which actually offered to *pay* me to go to school there. Ended up in Boston at a pretty decent second-tiered school for Pennies on the Dollar, tuition-wise. During the time I was there, learned a lot of wonderful, wonderful things that have actually improved my inner life greatly; ended up, though, with a relatively useless to society dual fine arts/liberal arts degree.

Sustaining that life, though, netted me a helluva lot of work background in accounting, IT and statistics (nothing with a school seal, though). How to reconcile, how to marry all this?

Have some ideas, but don't know that they're even practical. Had such promise when I started out; feel so old now.

Eric said...

The old idea of the university is more what college should be - a place where you can think and learn about some of the more important things in life.

Maybe so. But the old universities were mostly attended by the scions of wealthy families and people smart enough to get a scholarship based on intellectual ability. Even with the GI Bill the government was paying the bills. The whole "go in hock up to my eyeballs" thing is relatively new.

If you're going to graduate with $200,000 in debt you better have a really marketable degree if you ever want to get out from under all that red ink. These kids have sold themselves into slavery.

Be said...

This just showed up on yahoo about a half minute ago:


Wow. All that comes to mind is that Underpants Gnome thing from South Park.

(Also - is this another "under the bus" preview?)

Eric said...

Regarding the article Be linked:

She recently received a raise and now makes $22 an hour working for a photographer. It's the highest salary she's earned since graduating with an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women's studies.

She went $100k in debt for a degree in religious and women's studies with no thought to how she would pay the money back. I guess she can get a good view of the oppression of women from her back as she sells herself to pay off this debt.

Student loan debt is the worst kind of debt to accumulate, since it's almost impossible to discharge in a bankruptcy.

Largo said...


What percentage of your CS courses do you consider having been a waste time (for practical programming). Do you mean just stuff like formal grammar, halting problem and the like? Or do you include complexity theory? Compiler theory>

I sympathize to some degree, but I've found the distinction between theoretical to be less stark than when I was in school. Meaning that some of the more "theoretical" courses (not all, to be sure), have ended up more practical to me than some of the "practical" courses.

I say this not to dispute your point, but to learn more of your experience. It's a topic that interests me.

Largo said...

@Joe (further):

For what it's worth, although I rather like theory for theory's sake, I like to teach high school IT as an industrial art, a kind of shop class, although this goes against the trend of it being taught as an academic subject.

With some basic programming experience under the belt, courses (or mini courses) on topics like regular expressions, or avoiding deadlocks in parallel processing (to compare the benefits of multi-threading vs queues, eg) would be practical, interesting, and whatever theory is appropriate can be drawn out as needed. On the one hand, programmers should know that regular expressions cannot handle nested data. On the other hand, a full course in automata theory is not required to explain this.

Lynne said...

I don't think the problem is entirely young people getting degrees in "soft" subjects. I think a lot of employers are equally to blame for automatically putting resumes with those "soft" degrees on the top of the application pile.
Why should a four-year degree in comparative religious studies be an advantage in applying for, say, a job as an administrative assistant?
But it is. Forget motivation and actual practical skills; if you've got the sheepskin (no matter what the sheepskin says)you jump ahead in line.
There's equal dysfunction on all sides of the equation.
It's a broken system.
The current deep economic downturn might be what is required to correct it.
Some thoughts here.

Be said...

Lynne: I've seen that totally at work in Boston. Given that here, Education is a major Money Maker and employers ask for the BA for the minimum wage. In order to keep myself competitive in this environment, I worked at upping skills in areas that the "girls" considered insulting: in college - sewing - undercutting the tailors in sewing buttons, hemming, little stuff like that. It supplemented the outside work I had to do. After college, when I saw that I had to be able to do a min of 40 wpm to get a decent-paying job, signed up at temp agencies to do receptionist work. Given that most places would tell me to "bring a book," I'd bring my learn-to-type manual and work with that (only after I'd exhausted all the Office Managers for work) on the office computers or typewriters.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

Given the level of competition here for sh#t jobs and amazingly
inflated cost of living, I don't think I'll ever do anything more than break even. I'm 13 years older than the girl profiled in the NYT article. Still have fight in me yet, but can only keep up with the younger, prettier things with a higher sense of entitlement in a killer competitive market for so long.