As families celebrate graduation around the country, former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett asks if this is really cause to celebrate. He and coauthor David Wilezol discuss their book Is College Worth It?: A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “Students pay $100,000 or more for what they could get for almost nothing. With new technology and online breakthroughs, you could get a better education in a coffee shop or your parents’ basement than you will get at most colleges.” What does it say about the state of higher education — and of technology — that a former secretary of education would recommend parents’ basements over college?
WILLIAM J. BENNETT: I think it speaks to how the higher-ed system has become concerned with preserving its own interests over students’. Higher ed is very inefficient in terms of costs, but even worse, it’s not equipping students to be thinkers and moral beings or workers. The online education company Udacity has just announced that it will partner with Georgia Tech to offer a master’s degree program entirely online for only $7,000. (Full disclosure: I am an adviser to Udacity.) What if those kinds of bargains start coming to undergraduates en masse? Technology has the ability to deliver more of the product for cheaper, and that will put pressure on schools to rethink how things are done.
LOPEZ: How do you figure that “two-thirds of people who go to four-year colleges right out of high school should do something else”?
WILEZOL: Well in the first place, almost 50 percent of students who start at four-year colleges don’t graduate within six years. After that point, your chances of graduating plummet. So there are plenty of people enrolling in college who are spending their money or taking out loans who will never get a degree. Secondly, there are lots of people in college who don’t know why they are there or who are there for the wrong reasons. It would be more beneficial for some students to start at community college or take a year off from school and work rather than jump right into school. There’s also another great educational institution out there that will definitely build character: the U.S. military.
BENNETT: We aren’t saying in the book that nobody should go to college. For a lot of kids, college is a great choice. We just want to emphasize that this is a decision that requires a lot of careful consideration about whether you are prepared to meet the academic requirements of college, and which schools and majors will provide a good return on your investment, financial or otherwise. Not everybody is Harvard or Stanford material — places it is worthwhile to go to even if you have to borrow some. But there are plenty of great, unheralded schools out there like Grove City College, St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania, the Colorado School of Mines, or Northern Virginia Community College, that can help get you where you want to be.