Phi Beta Cons

College: Useless and Necessary?

Conservative critics of higher ed tend to agree that too many people are going to college. Where they disagree, though, is why the people who shouldn’t be going are going. Do lots of jobs use the B.A. as a screening device, even though many B.A.’s don’t mean anything; or, are kids just going because they’re told to, and getting no career or income boost out of it? If the former is true, a kid who’s not qualified for college should still try to go (so long as he can graduate), because even though he won’t learn much, he’ll get a valuable credential — it’s the system that needs to change, not the behavior of individual students. If the latter is true, he’ll waste years of his life, only to end up in the same job — the system should stop encouraging kids to do this, but in the meantime, the kids should stop doing it for their own good.

A while back, I linked to an analysis showing that when you look at two kids with low IQs, if one goes to college and the other doesn’t, the one who goes will usually make more money. This seems to indicate that the B.A. does provide a leg up. However, as George pointed out at the time (I can’t seem to find the post), two kids with the same IQ can be different in other ways; one might be more diligent.

John Derbyshire provides a disappointing experience from a reader who dropped out of school and worked in the public sector for a little bit:

It was only when I decided I wanted to work in the private sector that I realized I had to go back to school to finish my degree. No one would even INTERVIEW me for a writing job without a “BA” behind my name — despite my lengthy and wide-ranging career cred. It took me three years at part-time to finish the degree (worked a full-time job and paid as I went — no loans), after which I landed a job as a copywriter at a major direct merchant.
At the end of my collegiate experience, I was no better writer than when I went in — but had spent several thousand dollars to tack the “letters” behind my name.

If this guy’s experience is anything like common, not only does college provide a leg up, it’s often necessary even for people who shouldn’t need a leg up, because they already have experience in the field.

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