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Unaccepted wisdom

June 16, 2012

[J.P.'s Moment of Common Sense on Broad View, KBZZ 1270 AM and 96.1 FM in Reno. Listen to Broad View live Saturdays at 2:00 PM Pacific Time.]

When I was in college, many years ago, the over-riding theme of my life was already set: that I wanted to write but was destined for numbers.  Every semester for four years I would eagerly try to sign up for creative writing, learn that the creative writing courses were all full, and then take another math course instead.  Math courses were always available and easy for me.  I didn’t have to attend class.  I could wait until a week before the final exam, open the book and start reading, then pass the final.

There really wasn’t any point to attending class anyway—the instructors were all Chinese graduate students from Taiwan and nobody could understand a word they said.  Nobody except the other Chinese students.

By the time I graduated I was taking math courses that only math and physics majors needed, left college with a major in accounting, and never did learn anything about writing.  (Which you can probably tell.)  After college I went to work at a CPA firm where I discovered I knew nothing about actual real-world accounting and had to be taught from scratch before I could do anything useful.

Which brings up a question about my college education: what good was it?  After spending four years of my life and a crapload of my father’s money, I never got to learn what I wanted, took a bunch of math courses I didn’t need where I did all the learning on my own, and was worthless to my first employer.

Conventional wisdom says that college diplomas are beneficial, both to the individuals who earn them and to society at large, but fewer and fewer people believe it.  Look how dramatically the world changed during the 20th century while so-called “higher” education was staying the same.  It’s questionable in the extreme that wasting four or more years of your life and racking up student loan debt to pay for college is a good idea.  People are talking about the higher education bubble, comparing it to the real estate bubble that caused the financial crisis.

In 2008 people suddenly realized their homes were worth less than they thought—this time people are going to realize their college degrees are worth less than they thought.

You probably saw Occupy Wall Street protestors complaining about their student loans but maybe you don’t realize how enormous the problem is.  There’s more than one trillion dollars of student loan debt outstanding in the U.S., most of it guaranteed by the federal government which means you and I are on the hook.  Much of that debt is owed by people who can’t even find a job, let alone make their payments.

Our president keeps insisting that more kids in college and more student loans is the answer to all our problems but it’s time to re-examine this particular piece of conventional wisdom.  The current university system is outmoded, modeled on what the ancient Greeks were doing 3,000 years ago.  Think about that.  3,000 years doing the same thing!  Gather self-proclaimed experts in one spot, have the students come and listen to them, and hope they learn something.  The Greeks didn’t even have books back then—now we have computers and the Internet.  Shouldn’t something have changed?  Can you think of another industry which conducts business the same way it did 3,000 years ago?

It’s ridiculous.

At least the Greeks did some educating.  The modern university doesn’t care two hoots about educating anybody.  That’s why job applicants show up with degrees but can barely read and write.  All universities care about is soliciting donations from alumni, applying for federal grant money, and squeezing as much tuition as possible from the poor saps who come to town wanting a degree—then they funnel the resulting piles of dough into their bulging piggy banks so they can perpetuate flotillas of grotesquely overpaid tenured professors, many of them complete idiots, who seldom even see the poor students who are mortgaging their futures with student loans... and sucking their parents dry at the same time.

Here’s some numbers that will make you sit up and bang your head on the headboard.  The University of Michigan, where I went to college, where nobody bothered to make sure my teachers could speak English, where I couldn’t get into a creative writing course for four straight years, and where I didn’t see a single professor until my third year, has eight billion dollars in the bank.  That’s cash, sitting in the endowment fund.  Makes you wonder why the tuition isn’t free, doesn’t it?  The University of Nevada Reno is closing in on three hundred million in its endowment fund, which doesn’t sound like much after the Michigan number but UNR is smaller and younger.  Give them time to mature and hone their instincts.  After all, greed isn’t something you learn to satisfy overnight.  The point is, why did Reno just raise tuition by 13% when they have all that money in the bank?  Why is Michigan raising tuition?

And if you think UNR and U of M are bad, Harvard has $32 billion in the bank.  Harvard could save Europe from its debt crisis if they wanted.  Or they can wait for Greece to go bankrupt and buy it.

The college education scam is worse than ridiculous—it’s a crime.  Forget conventional wisdom.  If your kid is graduating from high school, tell him to get a job.  And if he needs to learn something to further his career, find a way that doesn’t involve enriching the hustlers of the university system.  It’s 2012.  Anybody who needs to know something about a given subject can Google it, buy any book every written about it on, or have a Skype video conference on their living room TV with the foremost expert in the world this afternoon.  Even if he’s in Greece.

That’s... today’s dose of common sense.

“A liar begins with making falsehood appear like truth, and ends with making truth itself appear like falsehood.”—William Shenstone

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”—Buddha

From Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA       

June 20, 2012 - I agree except there is another option. Trade school is a great alternative to a university education. Here in GR we have a skill center that high school juniors and seniors can attend during school hours. It's free for those who are accepted! - Samantha, Grand Rapids
J.P. replies: I can't help wondering why the nuts & bolts job of teaching a trade isn't better performed by the private businesses actually involved in that trade.  Who knows more about working in a body shop, the public school system or the body shops out there fixing cars?  A century ago a fifteen or sixteen-year-old who wasn't interested in Thoreau and algebra could get a job in a trade sweeping the floors and work his way up, learning the trade from the ground up.  Now we take that same kid and force him through to a high school diploma that is often fake – he can barely read and write but he has a piece of paper – and then encourage him to borrow oodles of money to continue his sham education at the nearest university.  We not only lose the benefit of the years of work he could have contributed, but the youngster himself loses his self-esteem and his financial well-being.  Instead of a productive citizen with money in the bank, we end up with a debt-ridden unemployed bitter-body trying to Occupy Wall Street.

June 17, 2012 - We need people with your line of thinking in Washington. There are people taking courses that have no job potential and the colleges have no interest that they will get a job as long as they get their tution paid by the student or the federal government. The high school graduates need to look at what jobs are available and they will find the trades are in need of a lot of people. There is a small catch there though because the unions are enslaving the workers to further their own pockets. The short supply of trades people will dictate their pay and we do not need another bunch of greedy union bosses to fatten their pockets. – David, Pittsburgh

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