Post Academic

What’s up with the anti-college screeds? Part 1

Posted in The Education Industry by Arnold Pan on August 7, 2010
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"Against the river" by Me, My hero, and I (Creative Commons license)

OK, this might be a case of pot meeting kettle, but we’ve noticed that there’s a rash of anti-higher education screeds happening these days.  For the record, I don’t think we’ve ever explicitly said not to go to grad school to get a M.A. or a Ph.D. or a J.D., though it is true that we’ve written that doing so might make you puke or die or not get a job no matter how much blood, sweat, and tears you put into it.

But really, we’ve never gone so far as to say that you shouldn’t even go to college by questioning its economic value, as James Altucher of Daily Finance and journalist Claudia Dreifus (who–get this– is an adjunct prof at Columbia!) have suggested.  This shouldn’t really count against me, but, at one point in my freshman year, I did think about what I could’ve done with the $100,000 in tuition money going to Stanford University, since I told myself I could’ve done all the reading and writing on my own.  The best argument my friends could come up with to convince me I was wrong was camaraderie–and that I needed a degree to legitimize me, of course.  Hey, Stanford, how’s that looking to you now!

But I digress.  We’re gonna cover these pieces one at a time, starting with Altucher’s piece, “Seven Reasons Not to Send Your Kids in College”, today.  His argument seems to be purely financial, although it’s certainly guided by an anti-establishment streak.  He begins with the premise that his intended audience–parents of future college students of a particular affluent social status–could have an extra $1-$3 mill in the bank, simply by not sending their kids to college.  Of course, you could probably save even more if you never bought new clothes, went out to a nice restaurant, took a vacation, did anything beyond basic subsistence, too!  This leads to Altucher’s money quote: “But in my view, the entire college degree industry is a scam, a self-sustaining Ponzi scheme that needs to stop right now.”  Strong words, as many Tweeters have remarked, from a holder of a B.S. from Cornell and a M.A. from Carnegie-Mellon in computer science.

Indeed, you start to wonder whether Altucher is pulling some kind of Jedi-mind-trick satire on you, though such a suspicion is dispelled when he launches into his seven reasons against college…

See Altucher’s “reasons” below the jump…

Keep in mind, again, that Altucher’s seven reasons are offered to parents/investors, without any consideration of, you know, the kids themselves.  Here’s what he comes up with, embellished by my snarky paraphrasing for those of us who don’t understand numbers and financial stuff:

1. College costs even more than you think, because your dumb, lazy kids won’t finish in four years.

2. The inflation rate for college tuition is even higher than that for health care–but, hey, if you don’t buy health insurance for you and family, that might be another million dollars in the bank if you live long enough to enjoy it.

3. A college grad makes only $800,000 more over a 45-year career than a non-college grad–who probably already makes that much more than a Ph.D.!

4. But if you rolled that $200,000 you would’ve spent on tuition into even a conservative investment, you’d make up that difference and then some ($851,000 over a 49 year period at a 3% yield, he calculates).  Of course, the best totally abstract example to use is one that assumes you are paying for an Ivy or equivalent and that you have $200,000 at hand to put into a bond.  Because people who can pay $200,000 out-of-pocket really *need* another million or two 40 years later.

5. Hey, if you’re a smart, motivated kid who doesn’t go to college, you’d probably make even more than the $200,000 your parents would’ve spent on tuition as well as outearn the dumb, lazy college kid from point 1 over the course of your careers.  Because nothing says smart, motivated overachiever than not going to college.

6. The loan debt college graduates accrue is too much to bear at the start of their professional lives.  No argument or snark here.

7. Here are Altucher’s “Alternatives to spending $200,000 per kid so they can waste four years of their lives”:

* Give them $20 K to start some businesses: If that counts as good advice from a business guru, should you really trust what s/he thinks about everything else?  Cause that big investment in a PS3 might not pay off.

* Travel: For fun or as a hobo?

* Work…cause they’re gonna have to

* Volunteer: That’s way too altruistic and socially conscious for this pragmatic money grab.

* Read: Uh, what kind of numbskull would ever come up with an idea like this!

7 Responses to 'What’s up with the anti-college screeds? Part 1'

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  1. dhume said,

    Altucher’s screed represents the me-first, anti-society ideology of Reaganism-Thatcherism (like Marxism-Leninism for capitalists!) reaching its absurd endpoint. It’s no longer enough to say why bother investing in other people’s children; now Altucher wants people to question the value of investing in their own children. It’s especially nauseating to see pro-“free market” writers trying to steer people away from college because of the high cost, when the high cost of college today has a lot to do with exactly the me-first, anti-society ideology those writers support. I suggest this from today’s New York Times as an antidote:

  2. Arnold Pan said,

    Well put, dhume! I think the premise that Altucher begins with is the biggest problem, because his default college student is one whose family can cover the cost of the most expensive schools in the country. Altucher’s advice is only to help the richest get richer. Don’t think these tips apply to folks scraping by to afford community college fees or who are on financial aid.

    Thanks for the link to the NYT column, too!

  3. James Altucher said,

    Actually, rather than being me-first I do present alternatives that I think are better for kids. If kids are passionately motivated to learn something then by all means they can buy books, go to museums, learn as much as they want, etc. But realistically, think about what most kids do in college. Its not worth it to them or their parents for their parents to flush money down the toilet and the kids to end up in debt.

    There’s no “me-first Reagan-Thathcher” thing going on. I’m thinking about my kids, me, society. etc. Why should we sit back and let college presidents keep doubling tuitions without putting up a fight? The way you fight is with your spending decisions.

    People are filled with hate on this topic, it seems.

  4. Arnold Pan said,

    Thanks, James, for putting up with our admittedly snarky post and for taking the time to reply. I do think the last point you make is something we can all agree on, that we need to fight the way tuitions keep getting raised without any checks. Our spending decisions have something to do with it, for sure, but I imagine not paying tuition isn’t stem the tide of fee hikes.

    Coming from the perspective of a would-be/could-be academic, I do agree that tuitions are out of control, and that students (and parents) are getting less for more money. One other way to think about it is how could we get more for y/our money? Certainly, I (or folks like me) have a vested interested in this, but having more and better-treated and less over-taxed faculty might help.

    As for your points about motivated and unmotivated kids, we’ll just have to disagree on how to measure what’s money well-spent and what’s not. Sure, smart, motivated kids can do a lot on their own, but they can do more in college with access to good teachers and others with shared interests. Don’t know how you attach a price tag on that, but there is value to it. In terms of the money-flushing kids, that’s up to the parents, since they’re likely to be wasting money on them one way or another.

    Again, thanks for reading!

  5. dhume said,


    First let me say I really respect an author who stands up for his views and takes on reader criticism.

    Second, I think I owe it to you to try to explain why people like me are so “filled with hate on this topic.” I’m angry because I see an institution I care about deeply, the university, being destroyed by a society that doesn’t seem to have any clear idea what it’s destroying or why it’s destroying it. I try, and plenty of other people have tried for a long time now, to explain why I think what academics (especially humanists, like me) do is important and should be supported by society.

    In return, I (and everyone else in the humanities) is treated with contempt even by our own “colleagues” in the sciences and business disciplines. We’re told that whatever we make, it’s too much (in what universe is $12K/year too much?). We’re told that what we do is useless (in what universe is knowing about your own culture and other cultures and knowing how to express yourself eloquently useless?). We’re told that we’re change-resistant, elitist parasites who want to avoid doing “real work” (in what universe is teaching not real work?) by leaching off the very taxpayers and students we sit up in our ivory towers despising (the vast majority of us care a lot about our students and worry about the plight of the ordinary taxpayers, since that means us too). That’s the baggage I and a lot of other academics bring to discussions like this. We’ve made a lot of sacrifices to do work that we believe in, most of us get nothing (or next to nothing) in return, and then (from our perspective) someone comes along and says we should get even less. So we get angry.

    Is that fair to you? No, it isn’t; but I hope you have a little better idea where that reaction comes from, at least.

    I don’t have time to write any more now, but I do hope this discussion continues!

  6. Paprika said,

    “We’ve made a lot of sacrifices to do work that we believe in, most of us get nothing (or next to nothing) in return, and then (from our perspective) someone comes along and says we should get even less.”

    Agreed. In fact, most teachers get this type of treatment. Teaching gets no respect and is one of the first corners cut when times get tough. Even worse, it’s people who’ve never taught who are making the cuts. And then people complain that no one has discipline or wherewithal or knowledge to compete in the global marketplace. Gee, why is that?

    There’s nothing wrong with having a different perspective on education, especially college. College isn’t right for everyone, and maybe some people who are in college shouldn’t be there for various reasons, but that doesn’t mean the institution as a whole is a waste of time. Suggesting dumping college altogether implies that the professors and instructors don’t offer anything of value. But is that true? How many people out there would call their college years a waste?

  7. I can’t even believe that this is a discussion. The only reason I came across this page was becuase my cubicle neighboor was spouting anti-college sentiment, and calling it a scam. Which I politely nodded my head, obviously not wanting to get into a conversation on such a ridiculous topic because for me, college saved my life. The real purpose for an education is to learn how to think clearly, logically and to learn how to discipline the mind. Not only that, but it gives you options in life and it teaches you what your inherent gifts are. Think for a moment of the person who originally posted the essay. I don’t know what he got his B.S. in, but I think he graduate degree was in comp sci. I point that out becuase someone who goes into a field like that is practically minded to begin with. The point being is that he is protesting that the financial payoff wasn’t as good as he hoped fo. The ROI wasn’t high enough. I can’t think of a worse reason to go to school than to strictly boost you income. You go to school to learn to use your mind. Once your intellectual curiosity has been turned on and you know how to think, damn the world is yours. You don’t depend on anything or anyone for a paycheck. If you want to be an entrepenure, go be one. Make 100 million a year. People are doing it left and right. Hell, I would, but life is too short for that kind of work. I didn’t go to college right out of high school. I decided to start a business with my father. Now, I’m thirty-eight and our company is thriving. I am have decided to go back because I have come face to face with my own ignornace. Nothing can compete with the bredth and speed of the informational exposure that a well-rounded liberal arts education provides. I have sharpended my quatitative reasoining skills to a point that I never thought possible and am learning to discipline myself and orchestrate my life in ways I never conceived of. I know my experience is not common, and I am coming at this whole intellecual curiosity thing with an esoteric view; with that being said, college does serve to offer a vocational skill set, yes. But it is worthless if you don’t understand who you are and you are unable to tap into your inherent gifts.

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