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Is College Worth It?

Posted on Sep 2, 2013
John McStravick (CC-BY)

By Michael Lindgren

“Is College Worth It”
A book by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol

“Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will”
A book by Dale J. Stephens

“Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality”
A book by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton

“College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students”
A book by Jeffrey J. Selingo

In a famous episode of “The Sopranos,” Tony takes his teenage daughter on a college trip to an idyllic New England hamlet, only to run across a long-lost informant in hiding, whom he ends up garroting in the mud while his daughter tours the picturesque ivy-and-brick campus. Those of us who have recently been on college visits may feel that Tony drew the easier assignment. Give me a choice between comparing financial aid proposals and fighting a bad guy to the death, and I’ll be asking you to pass me the wire.

In my youth, the whole process was pretty laid-back. Where you went to college was an important decision, sure, but it didn’t inspire existential gloom, nor did it call into play financial and structural resources exceeding those of some European nations. If you didn’t get into one small, moderately prestigious liberal arts college, then another down the road would be sure to take you, and in 20 years it wouldn’t really matter which one, anyway. Of course, as I’m reminded—over and over and over again—it’s a different world today.

A classmate of mine at what was then a reasonably but not insanely selective Northeastern college has since become an education consultant. “So,” I asked him casually, “what chance do you suppose we would have—”

“None,” he said, before I could finish my question. “Neither of us would make the cut today. Not even close. It’s that competitive.”

None of this is news to any parent, of course, or indeed anyone at all who has looked at a newspaper, website, carrier-pigeon message or smoke signal in the past decade or so. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without another op-ed or speech decrying the crisis in higher education. With a generation of graduates crippled by the double whammy of unemployment and stratospheric levels of student debt, the conversation about what went wrong and how to fix it has become increasingly toxic and recriminatory. Like the blind men and the elephant, each of these four recent books offers some insights into the dilemma, but a comprehensive vision for reform remains elusive.

Former education secretary William J. Bennett and his co-author, David Wilezol, frame the question with characteristic bluntness in “Is College Worth It?” Their answer: a resounding “depends.” If you’re rich and can afford it, yes; if you’re a talented engineer, yes; otherwise, maybe not. The authors’ bugbear is the moderately achieving middle-class kid who, spurred by devious and unrealistic college financial aid departments and abetted by the federal government, takes on massive student debt in pursuit of an impractical education. Their conclusion—that “the most fundamental reform that should be made is abandoning the idea that a four-year college education is the appropriate or even necessary choice for everyone”—is pragmatic enough yet offers little comfort to those who will be left behind in the new economy.

“No matter how high-tech the economy becomes, elevators will get stuck [and] toilets will get clogged,” the authors rumble, sounding pretty much exactly like Ted Knight, in “Caddyshack,” telling Michael O’Keefe that “the world needs ditch diggers, too.” It doesn’t help their case much when they scoff at the “cushy working arrangements” of “underworked” professors or when they begin decrying the evils of coed dorms and the abandonment of the Western canon.

Despite these alarming lapses into Victorian high morality, Bennett and Wilezol would find an unlikely ally in Dale J. Stephens, a young entrepreneur and “unschooler” whose “Hacking Your Education” promises to show the savvy and self-motivated how to do an end run around college. Stephens’ book alternates between fluffy can-do exhortations (“If you write publicly for long enough, people will begin to offer you jobs!”) and breathless cocktail-party anecdotes about his friend Slacker X. McWeb, who dropped out of school and crashed a TED after-party and schmoozed with a bunch of famous people and is, like, a DJ now and flies first class all over the world! Buried deep within this silliness is some good common-sense advice: Use your public library, write 1,000 words a day, force yourself into uncomfortable interactions. More damning is the obvious but unspoken truth that smart, self-directed young people like Stephens will do well inside or outside a college environment, whereas no amount of “hackademics” is going to turn around lives betrayed by poverty, poor choices or substandard secondary education. My advice: Skim “Hacking Your Education” for its bracing message of self-empowerment, but go to college anyway.


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