Is college a big waste of time and money? It depends

Interesting article: Everything Wrong with College

And that’s how you end up with doctors being forced to endure 14 years of schooling. Hard to open a little family practice and provide cheap care when you’re 160 thousand dollars in debt.

It’s become pretty fashionable these days , both for the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ to bash college. For the ‘left’, college burdens students with too much debt; for the ‘right’, there is too much political indoctrination and brainwashing. Both sides have valid points. My take is: although the higher-ed system is broken, the alternatives often aren’t much better. Due to economic factors, becoming an entrepreneur has never been harder, and a degree, despite the debt and indoctrination, may still be the past path out of poverty.

Doctors get into a lot of debt–but they make a lot of money and have long careers, which makes it worthwhile in the end. Often, the debt can be paid in small installments. The problem is when someone gets into $150k debt to major in liberal arts and instead of making $400k a year, makes only $40k a year. Doctors don’t need to open a private practice; hospitals recruit them .

Even $30k for a college degree may seem like a a lot, but it’s about the same price as a new car, and unlike a car it doesn’t lose half its value after you drive it off the lot, and college grads still have better job prospects than dropouts, yet no one is protesting car ownership. Considering that since 2008, especially, inflation-adjusted wages for non-graduates have stagnated behind graduates, a college degree is also a good hedge against stagnant inflation-adjusted wages. And graduates in STEM (especially computer science, math, physics, and finance) do well. So it’s not all bad.

I think the tuition ‘crisis’ and bubble is exaggerated–the debt is real, but often the figures cited are incorrect (some sources cite $200k/debt per student, when the actual figure is closer to $20-30k). Also, after adjusting for generous scholarships, federal aid, deferments, and other programs, the rate of growth of tuition as measured by the amount actually paid by the student (not the sticker price) is much closer to inflation.

A common argument is that college self-selects for high-IQ, thus people who graduate succeed because they are smart, not because of the degree. This is some truth to this, from Much Needed IQ Realism in the Anti and Pro College Movements:

Being qualified to get into an elite school signifies high-intelligence; such high intelligence carries benefits throughout life regardless if one actually attends the school. Those in the top 1% of IQ, such as Bill Gates, James Altucher and Steve Jobs, for example, have the capacity to excel regardless if they chose to go to college or not. Ultimately, we believe that independent of higher education, IQ is the ultimate determinant of success or failure, especially in the post-2008 economy.

Success may have more to do with IQ than the degree itself, but all else being equal, someone with a degree will be hired over one who doesn’t. For some jobs, human resource departments will automatically filter out resumes that don’t list degrees. A common argument is that skipping college allows one to ‘build experience’ during those four years. But the problem is, even for internships, due to the competitiveness of the labor market, non-grads will still be competing with grads for non-paid positions–yes, that’s how bad things have gotten, and degree holders still have an edge, all else being equal. Even if the job for a degree holder pays poorly, some employment is better than none, and this is factored into the lifetime earnings of grads vs. non-grads. I don’t think the opportunity cost is that high considering the degree only takes 3-4 years to attain and the potential payoff lasts for decades.

But, yes, in an ideal world there would be no need for young people to go thousands of dollars into debt and allot four years of their most productive years for a piece of paper that signals to employers ‘baseline competence’, which is why this blog for years has recommended replacing costly, time-consuming college diplomas with simple IQ-like tests. But a certain political party is opposed to this, citing, as usual, ‘racism’ and ‘discrimination’ because some groups score higher than others on these tests, but I guess the left’s ‘logic’ is that it’s better for everyone to suffer equally with crushing student loan debt than to have to admit reality that not everyone is not equal.