#110 Misunderstanding Higher Education (2004)

All Rights Reserved © 2004 Thomas W. Day

This week, I listened to one of the dumbest discussions, ever, on higher education and its costs and benefits. The discussion was on a local public radio show, a show that is usually fairly low-brow. The people involved were all advocates and employees of universities who have been draining millions of dollars from local taxpayers. Of course, there was no alternative argument being presented because people who work for a living are busy working, not creating fanciful statistics to promote not working as an alternative to productivity. Or something like that.

The discussion was about how expensive a public or private college education has become and if that expense is justified. Other than chanting how “expenses” have increased and how those expenses are necessary to provide a quality education experience, absolute no useful or creditable information was given to explain why universities’ expenses have increased far faster than the inflation rate. Mostly, the folks from academia babbled useless statistics about how obtaining a college education will result in higher income over a lifetime.

The fact that 80% of the currently available jobs do not require a college degree and that future projections for jobs in this country anticipate even lower educational requirements didn’t bother the folks from academia. They have this worthless statistic that “proves” that a person with a bachelor’s degree will earn one million dollars more, in a lifetime, than a person with only a high school diploma. If a statistic was ever able to lie outright, that would be one of the most dishonest statements ever made by a human.

Let’s examine a pair of situations that would fall into this statistic. My brother, for example, is an intelligent, hard working person from a middle class background who has been employed since he was 19 and probably represents the average working guy who never went to college. On average, I’d suspect that he is as typical of the upper-middle of the type of person who hasn’t been to college and has been “disadvantaged” by that deficit. He was not a particularly good student in high school. He married young and never had the resources or motivation to pursue further education once he found work and started his adult life. He’s hard working, contributes to his community, and has a small circle of friends and family who depend on him to be steady and reliable. He’s had a steady job working for a salt mine in central Kansas for the last twenty-plus years and has grossed about $600,000-750,000 lifetime income.

George Bush might represent the upper-middle of the type of person who does go to college and obtains a college credential. He’s dumb as a post, lazy, unmotivated, drug and alcohol addicted, and so irresponsible that his parents shipped him to another state so that he wouldn’t embarrass the family when his father was running for the US Senate. He managed to be an embarrassment from half-way across the country, but he still managed to stumble through to a Harvard bachelor’s degree. George failed at every adult enterprise he ever attempted and his parents bailed him out of several criminal adventures with their wealth and power. George’s lifetime income is still on the ascent, but it wouldn’t be impractical to estimate that he’ll attract more than $1,000,000,000 in his lifetime. Using that comparison, you could say that a minimal college degree is worth a billion dollars in a lifetime. After all, what else is different between these two men?

If that kind of logic is the result of higher education, I think we can easily understand why the country is sinking into idiocy. There are at least two kinds of people who attend universities: 1) motivated and intellectually curious people who are hoping to find an intellectually stimulating environment and 2) the spoiled offspring of the ruling elite who have to show minimal intelligence as a rite of passage into the country’s power structure.

Generally, the second group will do a much better job of boosting the economic statistics justifying a college education. The inbred, brain-dead children of families with power are far more likely to have the connections needed to obtain high paying jobs in the Misfortune 500. If, like G.W. Bush, the kids are too foolish to hold a job, the family will invest a few million until they find a niche where Junior can’t possibly fail. In Bush’s case, they found a group of pro baseball investors who wanted a figurehead to front their organization, which sort of implies that they wanted to shield themselves from the public eye. One way or another, the demented and limited offspring of the rich will inherit the family’s massive wealth and they’ll hand it to financial advisors who will continue to add to the family fortune, and Junior’s income statement.

The more inspiring products of higher education are likely to become the financial advisors of the first group. Failing that aspiration, they’ll become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists, most of who don’t generate the income necessary to prove the point that a college education is a terrific financial investment for the children of the middle class. The numbers of liberal arts degree holders who can be found shuffling books at Barnes and Nobel, managing coffee inventories at Starbucks, and reminding pimply illegal aliens to ask if their customers “want fries with that?” is as depressing as it is humorous.

A little while back, Paul Erlich, of The Population Bomb fame, described his experiences as a dean of Stanford University. The financial power in that institution was held by the liberal arts folks, who had plenty of time for politics since their schools were under little-to-no demand from students. The science and engineering instructors are teaching classes, managing research, and publishing or perishing in their competitive fields. Even the deans of those schools are involved in doing productive work, so their representation in political meetings is minimal.

All of that results in liberal arts profs campaigning for salaries commensurate with their scientific contemporaries. The fact that someone with a doctorate in social studies or modern Greek literature would be hustling French fries in the real world has no effect on these discussions. Among many idiocies, this is the main reason that the operating costs of universities are out of control.

The fact that the personalities and capabilities (financial and intellectual) of people who generally obtain a degree are dissimilar to those who don’t hasn’t slowed the higher education propaganda machines. Logic, facts, and economics have no effect on their demand for public financing of what has become a private venture. When the average middle-class person can no longer consider obtaining a college degree because of the cost, state universities have lost their reason for being and, more importantly, the reason they obtain taxpayer financing.

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