What Colleges Don’t Tell You
There’s much you should know before going or sending your child to college.
Most people today believe that college is a must — if not for the learning, as the hunting license for a decent job. So they don’t look too closely at what, for all that time and money, colleges provide vs. other post-secondary options, such as apprenticeships or the military.
Many respected entities have tried to warn students about college. For example, the cover story of the August 2016 issue of Consumer Reports was headlined, “I Kind of Ruined My Life by Going to College.”
In my private practice, I suggest to certain students that they might be wise to at least defer college, but the college-is-a-must meme has been too deeply implanted by high school counselors, the media, and the very-convinced parents: “You earn a million dollars more! (A canard — see below.) Besides, what would I tell my friends, that my child, who could have gotten into a brand-name college isn’t going to college at all, or ‘just’ to a community college?”
Despite that, as we approach the May 1 deadline, the date most colleges require prospective students to plunk down their commitment money, I believe I should take a shot at giving you pause:
Cost. It is difficult to ascertain the relevant number: how much you’ll actually pay for the full four-year cost of a bachelor’s degree, subtracting cash financial aid. Many college websites I’ve visited bury even the full one-year cost so deep in its website that few find it. True, if your child (or you) have already been admitted, the college will show you a (too-low) estimate of the one-year cost including how much loan you’ll have to take out. But usually, the small print says that the costs are subject to change annually. Of course, there’s the above-inflation-rate increase in the sticker price but less obvious, the discount, (colleges prefer the less tawdry sounding “scholarship”) is usually renewed only if the student meets certain conditions — for example, a high grade-point average and maybe not even then. I call that the drug-dealer scam: The college offers you the first dose (the first year of college) cheap to get you hooked, and when you are (You’ve spent a year at the college,) the price for subsequent doses goes up and up. That’s especially true after the 4th year, when the college implies it’s your fault for not having graduated, even though at most colleges, a large percentage don’t. (See below.)
While you may be able to bargain with a college, especially if another college is offering a better deal, often a wiser and certainly underrated option is to spend the first two years at a community college — On average, it has better teaching because instructors are hired and promoted based mainly on teaching performance not (usually esoteric) research. And an 18-year old living for another year or two under a parent’s watchful eye may be wise.
Learning. A major nationwide study, Academically Adrift, found that in that most core of competencies, thinking skills, between freshman and senior year of college, 36% of students grew not at all! That’s not surprising. Except at small teaching-oriented colleges and at community colleges, faculty is hired and promoted primarily on research productivity, which requires very different expertise than to be a transformative undergraduate instructor. Besides, college students are forced to take courses and learn material they have little interest in, and assigned massive readings. No wonder so many college students don’t show up to class, use Cliff’s Notes, submit term papers bought on the Internet, and pay ringers to take exams for them — -Remember, many of the most widely taken university courses are taught in an auditorium, so the professor may not know whether you or someone else was taking your exam. It’s obscene how much colleges charge for adding so little learning to its students.
Bias. Colleges are supposed to expose students to the marketplace of ideas, the full range of responsibly held thought. Alas, in recent years, there has been heavy censorship of ideas that dare veer right of center. Many studies have demonstrated faculty’s leftist bias. For example, a 2014 study by Samuel Abrams, professor of political science at Sarah Lawrence, found that in the New England states, the ratio of liberal to conservative professors was 28:1, up from just 5:1 in 1989.
In recent years, the bias has extended even to outside speakers brought to campus. The occasional right-of-center speaker often gets disinvited when students get wind of it, or if allowed to show up, not allow the speaker to speak. For example, recently, gay Republican Milo Yiannopoulos was not allowed to speak, ironically, at U.C. Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement began. Instead, his supporters were beaten up. Eminent libertarian scholar Charles Murray and renowned men’s advocate Warren Farrell were shouted down or disinvited. Even the Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, who flew all the way from Jerusalem to Berkeley, was shouted down and not allowed to speak. Such truths won’t be found on the colleges’ websites, brochures, or guided tours. To think, sacrificing a student’s and family’s financial future for such an education.
Substance abuse. Away from parental supervision, and instead, being placed en masse in minimally supervised residence halls creates fertile ground for substance abuse. For example, even though college students are generally brighter and better adjusted than non-college peers, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that a higher percentage of college students binge drink and get drunk.
Graduation rate. Here’s another nifty fact that colleges aren’t eager to tell you: Fewer than half of freshmen at so-called “four-year” colleges graduate in four years. Only 53 percent graduate, even if given six years! — -and remember that each year after year 4 is likely to be even more expensive than the previous ones. Of course, graduation rates vary widely across institutions. but here are some popular colleges’ 4-year graduation rate: Harvard 88%, NYU 79%, UCLA 67%: Oberlin 66%, University of Texas Austin 51%, University of Colorado Boulder 41%, University of Kansas: 32%, City University of New York 20%. The problem is particularly bad at public universities, where only 19 percent of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years:
Of course, if you were a weak student in high school, you’re even less likely to graduate, let alone in four years. I asked Clifford Adelman, senior statistician at the U.S. Dept of Education to run statistics on weaker students’ graduation rate. He reported that, “If you graduated in the bottom 40% of your high school class, you have less than a ¼ chance of graduating college even if given 8 ½ years.”
Career. Providing additional validation for the Chronicle of Higher Education study cited above, The Atlantic reported in 2012 that 53 percent of college graduates under age 25 were doing work they could have gotten straight out of high school.
Of course, that varies by major. If you have the ability and motivation to complete the difficult engineering or computer science degree, your employment prospects are much better than if you majored in sociology, gender studies, or art.
But what about that statistic that colleges and the media like to trumpet: that degree holders earn $1 million more over their lifetime? It’s grossly misleading. First, it’s retrospective. In 1970, only 40 percent of high school graduates went to college. Now it’s 70%, so there’s an oversupply of college graduates, which means lower pay. Second, the pool of college students is brighter, more motivated, and better connected than the pool of not-college people. You could have locked the college students in a closet for four years and they would have earned much more money. Ignore that terribly deceptive statistic.
Fundraising. In quite an example of chutzpah, after extracting so much money and so much time for so little benefit, colleges go after more of your money throughout your lifetime. Colleges start the “friendraising” process early and keep a database on every student and alum. The more the person donates, the more thorough the dossier and the more frequent the telemarketing calls, personal pitches, etc. The goal is to get you to give big not only through your lifetime but to name alma mater dear as a beneficiary in your will.
Please don’t be a lemming. Sure, if you’re well motivated to go to college and especially if you can get into a designer-label institution, you probably should go. But if you were a lackluster student in high school, aren’t unduly motivated to take four to eight years more of academic instruction, and might do well to spend a year or more under your parents’ safekeeping, I’d encourage you to consider options such as apprenticeship, on the job training, the military, or at least start at a community college. After all, you can always do college later. 95% of them will be more than happy to take your money and time.
I created a YouTube video, “What Colleges and Graduate Schools Don’t Want You to Know.” As of this writing, it has received 313,498 views, 5,435 thumbs-up and only 130 thumbs down, plus 958 comments almost all positive. Many are from college students and graduates who agree with this article’s and that video’s contention that higher education is America’s most overrated product.
Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in the evaluation of education. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.