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College Is for Suckers

Illustrations by Caryn Louise Leschen

Most Americans are duped at an early age into believing that going to college will validate their self-worth, answer life's questions and provide financial security--wrong!

By Ted Rall

IN STEPHEN KING'S novella The Long Walk, the biggest event in post-apocalyptic America is an annual race-walk featuring a hundred boys. To ensure a lively pace, flatbed trucks carrying soldiers shadow them along the side of the road. Whenever their speed falls below three miles an hour, the soldiers bark out a warning. The fourth time, they get shot.

The contestants hike down I-95 until they're blown away or drop dead of exhaustion. The last survivor receives The Prize. The Prize is anything the winner desires. The Prize is all anyone ever talks about. After the crowds go home, the winner is quietly executed.

In pre-apocalyptic America, parents force their kids to run an 18-year-long marathon for a similarly futile remnant of the American Dream called The Promise. Graduate from the right college, The Promise goes, and you'll learn all you need to know, land a good job, have a great life.

The catch is that you have to survive countless filters--grades, tests, demographics, luck--to get into a good school. For the lucky few, being admitted is merely a prelude to the ultimate challenge: finding the cash to pay insanely high tuition bills.

For most, the only answer is to take out huge student loans, setting up yet another financial gauntlet to survive long after graduation. In no time at all, The Promise says, you'll pay back the loans, earn more money than the losers who didn't make it and leave your kids an obscenely huge inheritance.

The Promise is based upon several faulty premises:

College makes you more marketable, especially during difficult economic times. Although there are a few advantages to being a college graduate when you're looking for work, the difference is slight compared to the cost of tuition and fees.

Highly competitive admissions processes select the best and the brightest. Given the way our society selects who will go to college, there is little evidence of this. Having worked in an admissions office at a highly competitive university, I can assure you that the process is arbitrary as hell. Often the best and brightest don't stand a chance.

Without a college degree, you will shrivel up and die like a desiccated bug. Actually, you might be better off financially and professionally.

Although the best way to ensure a high-paying job is to major in something "practical," a liberal arts degree is better than none at all. Wrong. There's no financial advantage to going to college as a liberal arts major.

College is a worthwhile learning experience, vital to shaping the leaders of tomorrow. College students mainly learn how to screw, snooze and get soused.

Sucking Up

I UNDERSTAND The Promise well. My mother, like many immigrants, was obsessed with the importance of education. Because she was a high school teacher, by age 10, I knew all about sucking up to teachers in order to set up letters of recommendation. Further scheming included entering essay contests to garner scholarships and volunteering to work for my local congressmember to get sponsored for one of the military academies.

My entire life from then on was devoted to the single goal of gaining admittance to and financing attendance at a prestigious university--ideally an Ivy League school.

In eighth grade, I planned out all 56 of my high school classes through senior year, and I stuck to my plan. I worked three jobs to save money for school, but kept the money in cash in my safety deposit box (so the financial aid office wouldn't take it into consideration). I joined countless inane extracurricular activities because I thought they'd help me get into a good school. Like most teens, I wanted to go to parties and have girlfriends, but I worked on extra-credit assignments instead. I couldn't let anything stand in the way of escaping my suburb.

In the end, I got into Columbia. Because I'd done well in math and science in high school, my mom insisted that I pursue an engineering degree. (Parents often confuse academic ability for interest.) "Look at your dad," she said. "He makes good money." I knew she was right.

But courses like Nuclear Engineering E3001 and Partial Differential Analysis G4305 didn't hold my interest for long. I slept through almost every lecture, either in bed or in class. Three years later, I'd racked up an impressive string of Ds and Fs, particularly in physics. When my dean called me to tell me I'd been expelled, he told me they couldn't decide whether it was for academic or disciplinary reasons. I had 24 hours to vacate my dorm.

By early 1990, I was working at a bank. (I'd told my employers that I had a degree to get the job.) The phone hadn't rung much since the '87 stock market crash, and a lot of my friends had already gotten laid off. Motivated by fear and boredom, I re-applied to Columbia, but as a history major. I was shocked that they admitted me--maybe my old discipline records got lost.

I still wasn't convinced that blowing $25,000 in savings on one year of school was a wise move--my $36,000 salary disqualified me for financial aid. I wanted to finish what I'd begun ten years earlier and looked forward to being an undergraduate at age 28.

I graduated in 1991. Since then, the central premise of The Promise has evaporated. Measured by traditional indicators like the Dow Jones average and the unemployment rate, the American economy has boomed, but the average employee hasn't noticed. Not only are corporations not hiring, but they've laid people off 43 million times since 1979. From 1990 to 1994, the top 5 percent of wage-earners saw their paychecks rise 17 percent. The rest of us lost ground.

Most Americans go to college in order to land on the first rung of the comfy, safe corporate ladder. Now that those corporate jobs are either low-paying or non-existent, we should ask ourselves some questions.

Why Go to College?

IN AMERICA, the selection process for college is quite arbitrary. First- and second-grade teachers armed with IQ exams disguised as "aptitude tests" mark kids as college- or 7-Eleven-bound within the first few months of school. From that point forward, the fate of American children is virtually predetermined. Nonetheless, college-tracked students are expected to spend the next 12 years preparing for the college application process.

Even for the fortunate who have been selected, a minor slip-up can lead to developing an intimate knowledge of deep-frying.

"College-bound" students devote their childhoods to the hope of receiving a thick letter from a college admissions office. They join cheesy activities they don't really like: student government, marching band, Latin Club, yearbook. They invest hundreds of dollars on test-prep courses for the PSAT, ACT and SAT. Then they take the tests again--as many as four times--to raise their scores.

Plagued by "senioritis" and burned out after more than a decade of college prep, some may be tempted to let their guard down, but it's best to keep their Junior Council on World Affairs membership dues paid up through commencement. After all, students listen with a shiver, colleges have been known to react to a drop in senior-year grades by rescinding their acceptances.

So you've gotten into the school of your dreams? Don't ease up now! The same vicious atmosphere of competition prevails here--you'll need the right grades or evaluations to get the right college recruitment offer from the right company, or even to make it to graduation. Given up on the job market? You'll still need at least a 3.5 GPA to get into a good graduate school! The treadmill never stops.

Until the day your heart stops beating, people will ask you where you went to college. Your answer to that cocktail-party question will often determine what people think of you, what jobs you'll be considered for, whether or not you'll be promoted, whether your in-laws will approve of you. If you're lucky, your glowing personality, savvy wit and stunning achievements can overcome an education deficit ... if you're lucky.

Not everyone buys into The Promise. Dan Hassan, 31, found that dropping out of an Ivy League school after just a year hasn't prevented him from rising to a management position as a director at a Manhattan ad agency. "Very little that you learn in a liberal-arts education is ever used in the workplace," he says, but admits that his in-laws still nag him about finishing his degree.

Dave Schulman, a 26-year-old Duke graduate, says, "College is complete bullshit. I owe $40,000 in student loans, and for what? So I can make $28,000 doing data entry?"

Everyone's so busy saving money and getting good grades to go to school that they never ask the most fundamental question of all.

Is It Worth It?

ONCE YOU cut through all the hype, the financial and emotional sacrifices Americans make to send their kids to college just don't yield the payoff that many of them are looking for--financial security. Some people figure out they've been had after the fact. Allan Feuer, a 27-year-old freelance writer, says, "I don't think it was worth it. I haven't seen a financial payoff." Feuer dropped out after three years and returned after a five-year hiatus: "I'm glad that I finished, but it's more for personal reasons."

Politicians from Labor Secretary Robert Reich to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan blame our current economic problems--downsizing, increasing income disparity, the trade deficit--on the need for more education. Why are these people lying to us?

Jared Bernstein, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, finds no correlation between education--even a technical education--and increased income. The best-educated, most computer-literate workers do no better in the 17-year-old climate of downsizing than anyone else. "We are seeing wage declines for the vast majority of workers," Lawrence Mishel, Bernstein's partner at EPI, says. "Workers in every industry you look at, including those that are the most technologically advanced, have been losing ground."

Despite dazzling innovations like the Internet, Bernstein and Mishel say that new technology is entering the workplace at the same rate it always has. Contrary to popular perception, American workers haven't suddenly been rendered obsolete by sudden technological improvements. In fact, the United States already has the most highly educated work force in the world--25 percent of our workers are college graduates. Logically, we should be kicking the most ass in the global economy, but we're falling way behind.

Blame our economic problems on the decline of unions, greedy CEOs, excessively free trade, a regressive tax structure, the absence of an electric fence along the Rio Grande, whatever you want. But it's not caused by insufficient education.

Hardly Education

W E TAKE FOR granted that a four-to-eight-year stint at a college or university is required to mold an American into a well-rounded, educated homo modernis. In ancient Greece and Rome, the relationship between students and teachers was personal, customized and intense. Today's colleges and universities are anything but.

First of all, American colleges are not a filter. Only about 50 four-year colleges reject more applicants than they accept. About 200 more admit 50 to 90 percent of all who apply. The rest let in anyone with a high school degree.

At Columbia, I met countless idiots--kids on scholarships who passed classes without attending them, children of wealthy alums, pre-meds who cheated on almost every exam they took.

One time, when I was working as a math TA, I tutored a calculus student in the "help room." We kept breaking down a question until I found the problem--she didn't know her multiplication tables.

Although America's universities are churning out a steady stream of brain-dead simpletons, our society relies almost exclusively on college credentials as the central determining factor of social status and employment opportunities.

"A college degree is a signal to employers that you can do what people tell you to do for four years," Patrick Barkey, Ball State University's director of business resources, says.

If I were hiring for Microsoft, I'd be much more interested in related work experience than in a Stanford degree and a GPA. But it ain't that way.


ROBERT FRANK and Philip Cook argue in their new book, The Winner-Take-All Society, that "winner-take-all" markets, where more and more people compete for fewer and fewer prizes, add up to enormous differences in economic rewards for negligible differences in performance. For instance, an Olympic silver medal winner is nearly as good an athlete as a gold medalist, but doesn't receive nearly the same amount in endorsements and prestige.

Frank and Cook found that although degree holders tend to earn more money than non-degree holders on average, education only accounts for 15 percent in the difference of wages. "Human capital"--people's personalities, abilities, physical appearance and intelligence--account for the vast majority of the variance in wages and personal success.

There is no proof that holding a degree from an accredited educational institution makes you a smart person, yet that's a central assumption in our society. So people chase more degrees. A bachelor's degree is now worth what a high school degree was a few decades ago. In most companies, you need a master's to be considered for a middle-management job. Soon you'll need a doctorate.

As degrees become devalued, the only winners are university trustees, who invest their skyrocketing endowments in the financial markets so they can afford to pay themselves six-digit salaries.

Why play along? If you really need a cumbersome bureaucracy to teach you what they want to teach you because you're too unimaginative to learn on your own, and the idea of a four-year vacation from life appeals to you, start rounding up recommendation letters and application fees. If you need college certification to pursue your profession, go for it.

Otherwise, bear in mind that The Promise, whatever its merits during the '50s and '60s, is a quaint anachronism dating to an unwritten social contract that has long since been revoked. Inexplicably, our politicians and pundits are trying to turn the U.S. into France, where Sorbonne graduates drive taxis and collect unemployment. Trained for an elite without openings, these people can't find it within themselves to do what they want--start their own business, write books, write software, sell stuff on the street--whatever it takes to survive in a world without guarantees.

They bought into the notion that a college degree is everything. They expected to coast through life after graduation, so they focused all their energies into the day when they'd walk down a long aisle in alphabetical order and collect a diploma. They lived for that moment, and once it passed, their lives were over.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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