Book Review - Is College Worth It?

William (Bill) Bennett was Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan and apparently is now a talk-show host (though I’ve never heard his program, nor even heard mention of it outside this book).

Current accumulated American college tuition loan debt exceeds one trillion dollars, and continues to grow. More than half of all students are in debt from college, with an average—average—debt of $23,000. Horror stories of graduates—or non-graduates—with $50,000, $100,000, even $200,000 of debt and no employment prospects in the field of study are quite common, with very limited hope of paying off that debt in 10, 20 or even 30 years. And this debt cannot be disposed of by bankruptcy. The situation for those who seek or secure graduate degrees is even worse.

Part of this massive avalanche of indebtedness is due to aggressive and less-than-fully-disclosing college recruiting (in both private and public not-for-profit, as well as for-profit schools) that encourages and enables students to secure easy-to-get government loans. A second cause is the fact that the government is the primary lender (creating money to loan out of thin air), rather than banks and other lending institutions, as it was in the past. Banks have a self-interest motive to investigate “ability to repay” factors before making loans, while government bureaucrats have no such motive, and hence are more open to saddling a borrower with unpayable debt (this latter, my observation, not the authors’).

Bennet and his co-author address the whole culture of steeply-escalating college tuition costs (driven primarily by the promise of ever-increasing government student loan levels), the all-too-frequent enormous debts easily and willingly (but naively) accumulated by students (many who never finish a degree), and the shattered expectations of those who bought into the myth that a college degree guarantees a good paying job. It is asserted—rightly—that on a cost-effective, return-on-investment basis, far too many students pay high prices for marginally or entirely worthless degrees, often at second-rate and/or over-priced schools.

Indeed, many students shouldn’t go to college at all—trade schools (auto mechanics, electrician, HVAC, etc.) are shorter, cheaper, and get you to the job market much soon, with greater assurance of gainful employment in one’s field. An on-the-job apprenticeship is also economically a better option in many cases.

The degree areas with best ROI (return on investment) are those in STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—which happen also to be those that are academically the most demanding, which have no appeal to the modern “party til you drop” mentality of many college students. Degrees in fine arts and social “sciences”—anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, English, philosophy, religion, etc.—are those least likely to repay the investment in tuition, especially if one attends a high-priced private school.

The authors do an inadequate job of exploring options for paying college tuition costs, without going into debt. ROTC and/or military service, with college tuition provided as a job benefit were scarcely mentioned or not mentioned at all. Likewise saving in advance, or going part time, or going a semester, working a semester, etc. were not emphasized.

The authors also failed to emphasize that if a person merely wants knowledge for knowledge’s sake and not for professional employment purposes, it is far cheaper and a much more efficient use of time to simply devote oneself to reading about one’s chosen field of interest. Of course, some fields require a college degree (or two)—nursing, pharmacology, medicine, law, engineering, teaching in government schools (though education degrees—probably the single most common degree—have not in the least guaranteed high quality among government school teachers; requiring an education degree seems more a ploy pushed by teachers’ unions to restrict the supply of available teachers so that compensation levels can be artificially elevated).

And then there is the question of whether a degree from the “better” schools is worth the high cost. A degree from the top engineering schools (Cal Tech, MIT, Colorado School of Mines, Harvey Mudd) and top Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) in most cases does carry a “premium” in the job market—in getting hired, and in compensation—over other less notable schools. The authors give a list of the 100 best education bargains.

American higher education, in large major, has “lost its way” in the modern era, with an abandonment in part or in whole of the study of Western civilization and the classic works of that heritage. Instead, women’s studies, gay studies, black studies, rap music—areas with zero job prospects and a heavy emphasis on generating resentment—crowd the course offerings, while American history (not required at all for 90% of college degrees!) and Shakespeare, to say nothing of Latin and Greek, and much more are ignored or dropped altogether.

And college has become a haven for “remedial” courses in math, English, history (only 12% of high school graduates are deemed to have an adequate gasp of US history!) and more, due to the broad general failure of government school education in grades K-12. Twenty percent of all college freshman—60% in community colleges—are required to take remedial courses, covering things they should have learned in high school. The authors rightly say that no one who needs a remedial course in these areas has any business even going to college.

One growing phenomenon discussed is the rise of internet courses and degrees, where the high costs of college infrastructure—land, buildings, parking lots, stadia and sports programs—as well as the inconveniences of re-locating to campus, don’t exist. World-wide access to education through the internet is a wave of the present, and future. Education in such a case does become what the student makes of it.

The authors fail to address a matter of first principles, namely, whether the US government—already in debt $18 trillion more or less, and adding to this $400 billion per year and more—has any business at all (to say nothing of Constitutional authority) loaning money to people for any reason, college costs or otherwise. I affirm that the entire situation would improve if the government got entirely out of the tuition loan business.

And then there are the domineering extreme leftist politics and amoral atmosphere of the typical college campus today to consider before sending junior off to State U. or Private College, USA.

Bennett and Wilezol will give parents and students who are planning on or considering college in the near future, as well as those who counsel people about education plans, much to think about here. Worth reading, simply because it might save you making a $50,000 mistake.

Quotes from Is College Worth It?

(All quotes taken from pp. vii-ix)

“Two thirds of people who go to four-year colleges right out of high school should do something else.”

“A character in Good Will Hunting was right: ‘In fifty years…you’re going to come up with the fact that … you dropped one hundred and fifty grand on [an] … education that you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!.’ 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.”

“If you don’t know why you’re going to college or if you’re going mainly because most everyone you know goes, don’t go, or at least wait and better assess the merits of going.”

“Half of all college graduates in 2010-2011 were unemployed or dramatically under-employed.”

In today’s colleges, much of what is taught in the humanities and social sciences is nonsense (or nonsense on stilts), politically tendentious, and worth little in the marketplace and for the enrichment of your mind or soul.”

“If all of K-12 education in the United States were as good as the best of K-12 education in the United States, America’s high school graduates would be better educated than most of today’s college graduates.” (Absolutely true.)

“College costs and prices rise and will continue to rise far above the rate of inflation (as has been the case for decades) because (a) many colleges are greedy, (b) families will pay anything to get their kids into some colleges, and (c) the federal government endlessly subsidizes these increases.”

“Whether the standard of excellence for higher education is cultivating the mind and the soul or maximizing financial return on investment, most of higher education fails most students.”

Douglas K. Kutilek Bio


Doug Kutilek is the editor of www.kjvonly.org, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.

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Larry Nelson's picture

 

I've read this book---twice.  I first read it several months ago, and I just finished reading it for a second time late last week.  (It caught my eye again on my last library visit.)

Both times through it, I found myself asking how Christian colleges measure up to Bennett's points of analysis.  (In only a few general instances does he even mention or address "religious schools.")

From an economic and public policy perspective, Bennett presents a fine case.  Higher education fails in many ways to fulfill its lofty goals.  Student indebtedness is a teetering house of cards.  Tuition costs have been rising at alarming rates.  Higher "education" is often more aptly "indoctrination."   Students themselves often arrive at college woefully unprepared. 

Nevertheless, I urge Christians to not see this simply through the default lens of "Us vs. Them."  Bennett's points often skewer both Christian colleges and secular colleges alike, without distinction.    

First, consider his lengthy analysis of "Return on Investment" (ROI).  Essentially, it is a net measurement of how much financial remuneration a college degree produces.  When that is used as a determining factor in the value of a college degree, many Christian college degrees are clearly deficient.  (This merely recognizes the realities of the typical career paths involved.) 

For example, I readily see online that Christian schools such as FBBC, MBU, and BJU have total annual costs in the $21K to $25K range (tuition, room & board, mandatory fees, books).  I also readily can see that public universities in those school's states can cost less.  (In each case private or public, scholarships and/or grants might reduce costs of course.)   Let's compare FBBC (Ankeny, IA) with the University of Iowa (Iowa City, IA): FBBC's total annual cost is over $24.5K; the University of Iowa's is just over $19K.  Which school's degrees result in a higher average salary?  I don't have data to offer, but I'm assuming UI's.  (Unless many ministry positions are suddenly paying higher salaries than I think they do...)

My point is that ROI is not a determining factor in why Christian students attend Bible/Christian colleges, nor I contend should it be. 

Second, let's avoid dismissing remedial education as being an issue that pertains to secular colleges, but not to Christian colleges.  If anyone believes that to be true, they are simply ignoring facts.

At many secular colleges, remedial classes are either nonexistent or are virtually nonexistent.  Nobody attending Harvard, Yale, or Princeton is taking a remedial class.  That goes for dozens of other top-tier schools.  At flagship public universities, this is also true.  Take the University of Minnesota (which is about 5 minutes away from me as I type).  For Fall 2015, the U received over 45,000 applications for about 5,500 freshman slots.  Admitted students, on average, scored a 28 Composite (90th percentile) on the ACT exam.  The cold, hard fact is that students who might need remedial classes are not usually admitted to the U.

So where is all of the remedial teaching occurring in higher education?  In less selective colleges with more-or-less open enrollment policies.  (Which is why community colleges and lesser-competitive college and universities provide the majority of it.)

How is this applicable to some Christian colleges?  The truth is that many have open (or nearly open) enrollment policies in terms of prospective student's academic achievement & aptitude.   The average ACT or SAT scores of their incoming freshman, and the high percentage of applicants accepted, often reflect this.  Yet how is it that one doesn't see "remedial" courses in many of their catalogs?  I say this with unease: I have seen some courses at Christian and Bible colleges that are "stealth" remedial courses, in that the coursework is clearly at a sub-college level.  (I first experienced this in the the early 1980's, when a friend was showing me one of his Bible college's freshman English final exams.  It consisted almost entirely of very simplistic multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.)

My point is that Christians should be cognizant of the fact that remedial education can take place in Christian colleges too---it just might not be labeled as such.         

Bert Perry's picture

This is timely, as my oldest daughter is not taking college courses to fill out her high school experience and get a head start.  One thing I've done for her is, per Larry's comment, to forbid her from taking remedial courses--if we didn't get it done at home, we can work on it more.  Those entry exams are your friend, so don't waste 25 to 75 grand a year on high school English or pre-calculus mathematics.  You can do that at the community college, but don't do it at a four year school.  It's simply bad stewardship.

 Next thing I've done is to write out a list of courses I'd like her to have no matter what--all too often we go for the "liberal arts" and forget that arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music are part of them.  Hence modern day arithmetic (calculus), chemistry, physics, and biology are key--you can go into anything with good basic background there.  You're not educated if you can't figure out how to balance your check book or figure out the implications of a short yellow light--yes, that last bit is part of 1st semester physics.

If she's got that (and as I review that myself really), then my major criterion is that the name of her degree should not have the word "studies" in it.   I speak somewhat tongue in cheek here, but I've rarely seen a degree with that word in it that's worth the paper it's printed on.  (e.g. ethnic studies, queer studies, etc..)  Real degrees don't need to tell the world that the person actually studied to get it; that should be obvious from the character of the recipient.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I think part of the equation we should consider is today's parents and schools need to prepare kids for careers that don't exist yet. How many jobs are out there that weren't even imagined 10 years ago? What vocations are today's 10 year olds going to be considering a decade from now because of new technologies and preferred ways of living?

There was a time when you could train for a specific job by acquiring specific skill sets. This is no longer as true as it once was - kids need us to teach them how to be self-motivated, independent, and adaptive learners so they can move at the speed of life.

Joeb's picture

I have four kids that are two years apart but only three have gone to college.  Three went to private colleges.  I'm not a fan of private colleges now, because of the State schools  and community colleges academics are so much better than they used to be.   Two of my kids went to the same Christian college and one went t to a local Catholic college and lived at home.  Now the Lord allowed me to take the brunt of the expenses but it almost killed me financially and I'm the only source of income in my house.  I did a pay as you go arrangement.  Lets say my house won't be paid off until I'm 86.  No trips to Tahiti for me, although it sounds like Bert Perry has a better handle on things so maybe he can go to Tahiti and tell me how it is.  Anyway my advise to all you guys and gals out there is to consider all your options like two years at the community college to get the basics out of the way as Bert mentioned and then with the Lords guidance and your guidance help you children pick the college and major they want to pursue.  The only suggestion I can make is they take a major that is tied to a specific occupation like Teacher, Police officer, Engineer, Accountant, Physical Therapists, Nurse, Pastor etc.  If a child is specially gifted in a area or believes he has a real call by the Lord to be a missionary to a specific group of people or country  I think I would encourage them to pursue their calling and go the extra mile for them.  If the child is not sure what they want to do or struggles academically I think Bert Perry's advise should be well taken.  Bottom line I think in this world today are children need college or some type of special training to get into an occupation.  My youngest still does not know what he wants to do.  He is working and I'm trying to encourage him to pick something to get trained in and told him Ill have his financial back although I did put a time limit on that offer.   I said he has to be thru by the time I'm 62 which is three years from now otherwise he won't get any money until my wife and I go home to be with our Lord.  My wife is hoping that is sooner rather than later for me.  Only kidding.

Jim's picture

College has proven "worth it" to our family:

  • In 1971, my cousin and I were the first of our large clan (the "Hayward" family) to graduate from college
  • I'm now retired and my education (University of Cincinnati) enabled me to provide well for my family
  • In 1973, my wife graduated with a degree in math from Florida State. She is 29 weeks from retirement
  • My 3 kids:
    • A (son, now 35) is an accountant for a Fortune 500 company (Minnesota State)
    • B (son, now 33) is an engineer with a Fortune 500 company (University of Minnesota)
    • C (daughter, 31) is a financial consultant with a Fortune 500 company (Minnesota State w MBA from M.I.T.)
  • Only son A borrowed money
  • I contributed only marginally to my kids education ... approx $ 5000 each
Bert Perry's picture

....you're being way to nice to me now.  But Tahiti sounds fun, though I don't think I"ll be going any time soon.  :^)   Maybe Duluth instead?

Seriously, my view is that it's good to get a profession, but since a lot of us have to change professions these days, it's also a really good idea to have the basics so you can change.  I know a lot of engineers who have gone into various phases of finance, for example.  

And another comment on community college; it's a great place to start, but there comes a time when the young 'un may have exhausted what they can teach, and then it's time to transfer.  And again, real degree programs don't contain the word "studies", because what's important is what you've learned and what you can do, not the fact that you actually did what students do to get to that point.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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