What is College Really All About?

I’ve always found it amusing when someone makes the case that a college degree is not needed for material and career success and a professor responds that college is not about getting a better job or earning more money.  They are offended at such a base standard by which to judge the service they provide, and remind of the wonderful and fulfilling aspects of a liberal education.

The reason it’s amusing is because, whether profs like it or not, the myth that college guarantees a better job is the thing paying the bills at just about every school.  It’s also the thing colleges explicitly, repeatedly market and sell customers.  The belief in the degree as a ticket to a better job is the number one driver of demand for college.  After that probably access to artificially cheap money and overall wealth increases which allow many kids to purchase college as a consumption good; a four year fun time courtesy of other people’s money.  A distant reason for a small number of people is the actual learning they can get from college.  It’s not that the learning isn’t valuable, it’s just that an intellectually curious person has so very many ways to dive in to philosophy or history that it’s a tough case to convince them the only way is to spend tens of thousands and four years.

A lot of people in higher education are so confused about the actual product they sell and so blinded by the trappings of the university that they assume it is a robust, competitive market.  Perhaps compared to government K-12 schools it’s a cornucopia of choice, but it hardly resembles a free market.  Not only is the demand artificially high due to taxpayer grants, subsidies, scholarships, and loans, but a great many careers legally mandate degrees before an individual can even enter.  Law, accounting, just about anything related to health, the growing range of bureaucratic government jobs, and more can get you fined or jailed if you dare practice without a degree.  Laws prohibit employers in other fields from using other measures of ability like IQ tests in hiring.  Add to this the pervasive belief that one simply cannot live a decent life without a degree – a belief more akin to religion than regulation for non-mandated fields – and you’ve got the current higher ed marketplace.

It’s competitive in a sense.  Imagine if every city had a handful of DMV offices, and the offices had budgets partly determined by how many customers came to their particular office to get a license.  This would incentivize marketing and enhancements to the experience as competition between offices emerged.  You might have entertainment while waiting in line, or nicer lobbies to sit in, or food and drink (the price of which would just get added on to your license fee, which could be deferred and paid out over 20 years with subsidies from taxpayers), etc.  Over time, the nicer buildings and other in-line offerings might distract from the actual reason customers were there in the first place.  They had to get the legally mandated license to drive.  Or, to make a closer comparison, maybe only half the people in line legally needed a license, and the other half could drive legally without one but their parents and friends would be ashamed of them and constantly tell them that they’d be better drivers if they got one.

To understand anything about higher education today we have to understand what the actual product is in this distorted, unfree market.  Aside from those purchasing college as a consumption good and some small number purchasing college purely for the learning or “human capital” enhancements, the customer is buying the credential because it is legally or socially mandated.  Object all you want, but it’s not hard to prove.  Colleges themselves sell the degree-as-job-catcher angle harder than any other, and that’s the number one reason given by students for attending.  Besides, even the consumption good and human capital aspects of the product could be easily had for free if you just moved to a college town and took classes without registering.  The reason people don’t is because of the belief – sometimes true due to legal strictures – that they can’t make a decent living without a degree.

The discussion about problems in higher ed is not a discussion about learning or ideas or a liberal education.  It’s phony to respond to a criticism of college with a defense of philosophy.  It’s missing the point to respond to critiques of college with defenses of classroom style learning or other educational methods.  To do so implies that learning valuable ideas is only possible through the arbitrary four year debt-fueled system.  That is an intellectual arrogance of the highest order and a conflation of education and school that is dangerous for the former.

Good ideas are too important to be anchored to the current university system and its jobs focused mythos.  Good careers need a lot more than a prefabricated four-year bureaucratically managed prep process.  Separate the classroom from the credential and both will improve.