Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why Go to College?

The more I think about college, the less important it seems. I did take a lot of various intro classes, and engaged in standard late-night discussions that are supposedly the essence of a modern liberal education, but really most of my learning happened outside my college experience. That is, I learned most of my math, statistics, history and computer knowledge before or after college, and interpersonal skills outside of the structured social functions of my fraternity (AEPi--Sigma Chapter). Sure, I picked up some things in college, but think about it--it was probably the time in my life when I had the most leisure time, because I wasn't learning as much as other periods in my life.

Now that college can easily cost $40k/year, it's reasonable to really look at the benefits more skeptically, as no one presumes that merely being a college grad entitles one to success.

I suggest you go to Academic Earth and see some of their courses. I think what can be taught--physics, math, etc--is taught well, but hardly worth $40k/year. These subjects are straitforward enough to allow a cheaper option that gives you the same result. And for the things that really can't be taught--who knows the right answer?--such as history, political science, and philosophy, it seems like top shelf professors are caricatures of leftist-PC propoganda.

Listening to Yale historians talk about the Civil War and Reconstruction or European History or UCLA professor talk about African American studies, you would get the impression that human civilization has been a sequence of disasters, one horrible injustice following another.

The Kling and Schultz book From Poverty to Prosperity, is much needed here. If a Martian looked at the change in society from 1500 to 2000, I think the growth in wealth, liberty, and art, would be the singular effect. For a young person at a top school today, you will have to learn that on your own time, or in an economic history course (many colleges don't have these, unfortunately). Rather, like the Marxist critique of capitalism, you will learn about all the injustice and inefficiency, and then naively assume that some utopian alternative is eminently feasible if we could only get the cabal of oppressors to stop manipulating the system.


Anonymous said...

College is a prepaid social network of people of similar intellectual capacity. It makes sense to pay $40,000 a year to go to a top caliber university where you are likely to meet and interact with people who will contribute to your life in the future. Those who didn't go to schools in which they developed a useful social network were sold a smoke and mirrors marketing campaign.

Robert Johnson said...

I learned a lot in college, but I could have learned it on my own. In fact, I've done much more learning on my own since.

But,getting my degree (in engineering) gave me instant credibility with employers far above what I had without that degree. In fact, it probably gave me too much credibility, because my engineering education was too theoretical and not practical enough. I actually wasn't very well prepared to be useful in the workplace.

So, will our society begin to recognize other kinds of signalling? In the future will people be able to self-educate and still gain credibility with employers? Will firms that specialize in testing and qualification, rather than education, replace colleges?

Eddy Elfenbein said...

The best way to help young people afford college is by giving them access to tons of government-sponsored credit. I really can't see a downside here.

Michael Stack said...

"as no one presumes that merely being a college grad entitles one to success. "

You need to get out more! :)

I think there are a lot of people who believe that having a college education (particularly an education from an ivy league school) entitles them to a Good Job and associated success.

azmyth said...

Two words: Robin Hanson.

I learned a fair bit of math in college that I never would have learned otherwise. Time and time again, the highest paying jobs are mathmatics related: engineering, physics, computer science, statistics, etc. The rest might be fluff, but majoring in math or hard science proves you are up to the challenge of doing mathy things.

Anonymous said...

A college education is not totally worthless, but that is mostly due to the low quality and standard in the k-12 education. Most people will be ill prepare to work and compete in today’s world with only a high school diploma. Nevertheless, the 4 year liberal arts programs we have are very expensive and inefficient in what they are able to deliver. Unfortunately, much like the misguided promotion of home ownership, a lot of young people have dig themselves into a financial hole by buying into this false dream.
In my opinion, the core education, minus the fluff, can be delivered for less money over a shorter period of time. Of course, like the great text book scheme, there is a whole industry built around our current way of doing things and they will resist every attempt to cut off the gravy train.