Is College A Waste?

"You can lead a boy to college, but you cannot make him to think." -Elbert Hubbard

If you listened to some of the headlines accompanying a recent news story, you might conclude that College is a waste of time, money, and resources for practically everyone involved. The three links above have, as their headlines:

  • $80,000 For Beer Pong? Report Shows College Students Learn Little During First Two Years (Besides Party Skills),
  • Report: First two years of college show small gains, and
  • One in Three College Students Is Coasting. This Is News?

Over the past 15 years, I've lived and worked at Colleges and Universities all over the country: Northwestern (my undergrad alma mater), University of Florida (my graduate school), University of Wisconsin, University of Arizona, University of Portland, and (currently) Lewis and Clark College. And while, when you think of college students, you might think of this:

you're more likely to find them doing this:

and, perhaps surprisingly, about seven times more likely to actually find them doing this:

At least, that's according to this study by Richard Arum et al., Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Here, for example, is a breakdown of how college students, on average, spend their time.

I can hear the outraged parents now. What?! Only 7% of their time -- that's 12 hours a week -- studying?! How can you possibly learn everything you need to learn while only working 12 hours a week outside of class?

And then, of course, there are the statistics:

  • 45 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" over four years of college.
  • And yet, they're still graduating with an average GPA of 3.2!

(Story here.)

While my own experiences are, in fact, pretty consistent with what this data shows, the actual, personal interaction with hundreds upon hundreds of students has taught me that there's a lot more to this story than "OMG, college kids aren't learning!"

First off, there is tremendous pressure in this country on children, K-12, to go to college and graduate. That's the expectation of what you need to do to become a successful adult in this country, so we teach, pointing to statistics like college grads out-earn non-grads by $1.17 million over a lifetime.

But in my experience, a quarter to a third of students in college aren't intrinsically motivated to be there. The pre-med student who doesn't want to disappoint her dad? The mechanical engineering major who'd rather be repairing automobiles? The junior with an undecided major who really wants to direct a funeral home?

My point is that, in my experience, pretty much every student -- like 98% of them -- is capable of working hard and doing well at whatever they apply themselves to, but only if they care. Otherwise, they're going to work exactly as hard as they need to in order to get by.

I see students doing this in my classes sometimes, and I can't get too mad, because I remember doing it, too, in the classes that I didn't care about. You know what I'm talking about. Students blowing off class, studying, reading, etc., and then cramming in all-nighters before the exams, and then never thinking about the course again once they've finished it. You'll get by like that, sure, but you don't really learn. On the other hand, when/if you want to put in the hard work, the opportunities for success and extraordinary learning are plentiful at every college I've ever been to. But I don't believe the solution is to make the indifferent students work harder.

The solution is to give them options that they want to choose. Often, for many students, that means delaying college, or not going altogether! But consider other options: the trades, manufacturing, maintenance, repair work, in fact all skilled blue-collar work is just as important -- if not moreso -- than white-collar work is for our society, and is a far more fulfilling career choice for many.

But that's my experience, and my opinion based on it. What do you think? Do I have it all wrong? Is this data really a sign of the apocalypse; a sign of our societal decline? Or are we focusing on the wrong things, pigeon-holing our young adults into a career-path that may be all wrong for them?


More like this

I'm a college student right now. College has been by far my most valuable experience. Aside from learning talents and new interests I never knew I had before, I've gotten to learn another language and make friends from other countries.

College is a wake up call to how much bigger the world really is than previously thought, which is far from worthless.

The pre-med student who doesn't want to disappoint her dad?

Had exactly that situation happen to me last semester, with a senior girl who was failing physics. Her general level of well-being rose orders of magnitude upon realizing she really didn't want to be a doctor.

Your last point is spot-on; there really isn't a (socially? parentally?) acceptable alternative for students who finish high school but aren't ready for college. Sure, there's the military, or the Peace Corps, but I don't think those would appeal to the typical not-yet-ready-for-college student.

Another point is that perhaps we've been luring students to college under false pretenses -- they shouldn't just want to go to college because they will earn more money over the course of a lifetime. They should want to go to college to become a more rounded human being. We're not going to take that sharp kid in introductory mechanics and get him to take quantum because he'll earn more.

By Jim Chisholm (not verified) on 21 Jan 2011 #permalink

My experience? I wasn't ready for college when I popped out of high school. Family pressures, social pressures, and general aimlessness (and college being the only direction anyone'd offered me) are largely to blame, I figure. All my decisions about where to go and what to do were essentially made for me until I went to college, and at that point my parents were still essentially planning out my schedule. It wasn't that they were signing me up for courses behind my back; it was the more insidious path--they knew the nature of college in a general sense, and knew about majors and programs and other such things that I really wasn't ready for. College was just the next high school; I had no reason to take one class over another for any reason besides scheduling reasons and personal preference of material. I hadn't even begun to think of college as a means to an end, that end being a job, a career. Totally not the right time in my mental maturity for me to go into college.

But it was convenient. I didn't have to worry about rent. Kids. Debt. Medical concerns in general.

Now, I am ready. Or at least a lot more ready than I was. Problem is, now I own a condo and have to make payments. And I'm in a long-term relationship with a woman whose 14-year-old daughter we are raising. And my dental health is declining. And I have a 40-hour-a-week salaried job (though it's by no means adequate). And I still have the debts from my last college venture.

College is really, really hard now. I'm still going to go, but unlike when I was 18, I have Life now. I think that's the reason behind the big push to get college done as soon as even vaguely possible, before you have a chance to have Life.

By Adam Tokarsky (not verified) on 21 Jan 2011 #permalink

I wasn't ready for college and had no idea what the hell I wanted to do with my life. I studied and graduated with a degree in the Classics -- which I loved, don't get me wrong -- but which is useless. I just quit a $70k a year job to go back to community college to become a nurse. I want a job with substance and purpose, and that lets me go to work in pajamas. And I'm ready this time, I'll nail this bitch.

As for kids who go into college right out of high school when they shouldn't, perhaps if there were a way for them to spend a year or two working for nonprofits? The pay rate is acceptable for an 18 year old, offers great experience, and may help the kids figure out what they want to do in life and college.

I'm an undergrad studying geology with a focus in paleontology, and I can relate to the fact that interest and excitement is required to be successful by putting effort into your classes. I'm not particularly interested in art history, so I find it difficult to put a lot of effort into my art history class, even if it's required as part of general ed at my school. On the other hand, it's easy to study for tests and do extra reading for my science classes, primarily because the sciences are immensely interesting to me. It's frustrating to have to invest my time in a subject that I'm likely to never need in my future career as a scientist, when I could be volunteering for a research project or taking an internship. If I want to become well cultured outside of my chosen subject of expertise, I'll read about it on my own time or take a class at my local community college.

Who's paying $80,000 for college, anyway? I'm in the no-man's land of middle class white male going to an out of state public school, but I'm paying less than $8,000 per year in tuition. How? I applied for every single grant and scholarship I possibly could, and got maybe a quarter of them. I put so much time into writing so many application essays because I really, really want to be a scientist and do research. I'm motivated to be something, and college is how I plan to get there.

I agree that college isn't for everybody, nor should it be. All too often I see my classmates majoring in something they're not interested in, simply because they think (justifiably) that a degree is required for a middle class lifestyle. Ideally, these kids shouldn't be in college. Ideally, they should be able to get a job sufficient enough to raise a family and live a comfortable lifestyle with a high school degree and maybe some vocational training. Ideally, college should be for those who want to go above and beyond.

Too bad we don't live in an ideal world.

By Kevin Marks (not verified) on 21 Jan 2011 #permalink

If you add 7+9+9, that is 42 hours per week. That is considered full time work.

Learning about how to be an adult requires a lot of peer interaction. You can't get it any other way.

This is new?? When I went to college (1968-1972) a lot of guys were there only to avoid the draft, and spent their time playing bridge, or smoking pot. One can work as hard as one wants to, and of course there is always the library with lots more information just sitting there (plus today the web).
I agree that some of the trades are better choices, and pay well enough, things like repair plumbing and electrical will always be needed. Now auto mechanics will be needing an associate degree soon since cars are far more complex than back they used to be. The article clearly focused on the humanities course, as who writes papers in math or a number of engineering classes, in the sciences it depends of course on what is being studied the amount written.

I broke my parents' hearts (both had MS degrees) by flatly refusing to go to university directly after high school. It is probably the best decision I've ever made in my life. It took me twelve years to get over my weird childhood well enough to start looking for something that I wanted to do that would earn me a good living. Also, we're uncommonly lucky in the US to have a system that's flexible for us late-learners. Such is not true in all countries!

By B Anderson (not verified) on 21 Jan 2011 #permalink

I just finished my second year of school, and the explanations for the results don't take into account people like me--people who are 'coasting' and earning A's and B's regardless of interest because the classes are simply too easy . For instance, my elementary statistics class spent two or three days learning about bar graphs. On one of those days I spoke to my eight-year-old cousin. He was learning the same things.

My introductory geography professor even acknowledged it by saying he knew we'd all learned latitude and longitude long ago, but that he was required to teach it by his department. The first two English classes could be retitled "How to Write a Coherent Paragraph". All of these classes are required either by my major or to graduate.

So, yes, I do quite a bit of socializing, simply because I don't often need to study for more than ten minutes per subject, and grades consist of maybe three or four tests and nothing else.

You are at the wrong school in the wrong program. Of course I can brag that I was in a specialist honors degree program at a top tier research university outperforming students years ahead of me, but I won't.

Keep wasting your parent's money. I'm sure those party skills will come in handy.

You hit the nail on the head. College is most often a waste of time and money for unenthusiastic students who have no real interest in learning about even a basic curriculum. I strongly support efforts to educate more young people about learning technical skills and trades that will be 1000 times more useful to them when entering the job market. And as for that million-dollar gain in employment, I have heard the line but I can't find any reasonable support for it.

Besides, you go to college for four years at which point you spend maybe $30-100,0000 on tuition, not counting books, room and board, etc... and if you're full time you probably only have a minimum wage job, so you come out basically $30,000+ in debt with a bachelor's degree that is a carbon copy of 100's of others with little hope of getting a job that pays more than 25,000 a year. Meanwhile, 4 years in a trade a person has been making $30,000+ per year, and should be able to get a journeyman's license that could net them $50-60,000 per year. So a dedicated college graduate wastes four years studying something they may not even be interested in order to be shit back out at the same place as they were when they began. That's not even talking about the partiers.

The other thing that nobody mentions is that timing is important. I went to college in the beginning of the recession, which means I graduated when we hit rock bottom. I could have gotten a comfortable-paying job out of high school, learned some skills, and gone to college when I got laid off or when pay cuts got really bad. Instead, while everyone was getting job experience I was getting an education and now I've graduated into a poor economy where only experienced workers are hired. And since the government has decided it is going to do whatever it can to destroy the middle class by having us pay to support both the rich and the poor there is no place to turn to for support upon graduating. Meanwhile we're paying for people who haven't worked/gone to school for 2 years to continue sitting on their asses. College was the biggest waste of money and energy I have ever participated in.

Whoa. Slow down. One, I don't party. When I say socialize, I mean just that.

I know I'm at the wrong school. Otherwise I wouldn't complain about it so. As for wasting my parents' money, well, they literally said "You're going there whether you like it or not", so I'm not too bothered.

But I think my point still stands. The majority of students are at public universities with public K-12 educations, which are for some reason often lacking and aren't uniform. This lends itself to super-easy freshman and sophomore year classes.

If my first post came across as bragging, that was not my intent and I apologize.

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Perhaps the question should be whether most students would receive better value attending Community College for the first two years. They could complete lower division general education requirements at a much lower cost and have time to consider what major they wish to pursue. Last I checked the local community college doesn't charge $5K/10K a semester to re-learn high school algebra.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 22 Jan 2011 #permalink

I think you are missing a crucial point here: There aren't nearly as many jobs for high school grads as ere there once were. Lots of the blue-collar jobs you mention have been shipped out of the country, or replaced by day laborers and people more easily exploited than a citizen.

There is also the question of job qualification inflation: Plenty of entry-level jobs that did not previously require a college degree, now demand one. One of the complaints many college grads have, upon entering the work force, is that they are not using the skills they acquired in college. They are quite right--you don't actually need a college degree to do most entry-level jobs. Even engineering, which is now one of the more demanding majors, used to be staffed at the entry level by high school grads who received on-the-job training.

Which brings me to my final point, the amount of remedial schoolwork offered by universities and colleges: Once upon a time, if you could not do algebra, geometry, or write a few coherent paragraphs un-aided, you simply did not go to college. These things were taught in high school, and if you did not learn them in high school, you had to take remedial classes as a high schooler or you failed to receive a diploma. Nowadays it is not uncommon, especially for public schools, to accept students who struggle with arithmetic and sentence structure. The incredible range of high school quality may contribute to this result: if high school grad A went to Boston Latin and high school grad B went to WorstHighSchool, DC, both graduating with 3.0 GPAs and attend UMass, it seems likely that grad A may be coasting through his/her General Education Requirements while grad B may have to study hard to keep up.

I pushed my children to go to university because I just loved it!

Where else is a small town kid going to meet people and instructors from all over the world? I never told them what to study, or even to stay the full four years. I just wanted them to expand their horizons.

It must have worked. They each put in about six years, and seem to be on track to be life-long learners.

Money and career are not the only reasons to attend. The poster who studied classics had an experience that can't be replicated. I have never actually worked in the field I studied.

My friend, who is self-employed, was once accused by her son of having wasted her money and time at college. Her reply - "NO! I would never have had the courage to start my own business without the college experience."

Is college worth it? IMO an aimless college degree in business or liberal arts is worth it if you don't come out with more than $25,000 worth of debt. Now if the kid knows he wants to be a marine biologist that's a horse of a different color. My kid is a junior in high school, has no idea what he wants to do. I think one year off school, to try and figure things out is a good idea. One year off school to play Call of Duty 24x7 is a bad idea.

Of all the liberal arts classes the only ones I enjoyed were Statistics, Sociology 1 & 2, and believe it or not, the EngLit class and the Public Speaking class.

The other thing is, I started college straight out of high school and because of the freak month of birth, I was 17 as a college freshman.

Flamed out on that one. Oh I enjoyed the computer classes and even the psych classes but the damned English class. Uggh!

Went back in my early 30's. Did very well this time around because I was more serious about it.

I didn't want to go to college. I suggested to my H.S. counselor that I go in the service. He was horrified. I went to college. I flunked out. This was the Vietnam Era, so I joined the Air Force, learned computers, and had a decent life. I am retired and going back to college because I want to learn some things (Marine Biology, Psychology.) It worked out.

By Sweetwater Tom (not verified) on 22 Jan 2011 #permalink

What I´ve learned in those "wasted" years at school.
To be curious. To think. To see beauty. To search for more. To always seek what´s behind that hill. To do something new. To share. Talk. And even more important: listen.
Learning isn´t something you can quantify like a stack of bills. It´s so much more.
It´s the ultimate enrichment.
Damn. That´s why I come to websites like this!
To fucking learn some more!
And not only this one. Learning is all over the place.
I´m 51 now and I still do it every day!
And I´m not goin to quit!
So tell me something new before I get bored.

None of the problems at play here are going to get solved, until you solve this one: "plenty of entry-level jobs that did not previously require a college degree, now demand one." And no college/university can solve it simply; it's a problem external to the educational system.

Going to college has, for a substantial fraction of students, become a pointless arms race that they have no choice but to engage in.

By Andrew Foland (not verified) on 22 Jan 2011 #permalink

I think the young generation should not be blamed completely. These days colleges most of them if not all are kind off running a business and not an institution of education where you educate people. Today's generation needs motivation which has to come from there parents and from college. We need professors who can teach subjects in a more interesting way but thats not happening. Professors are tied to the college laws and hence can't do much and the students have to pay the price.
At the same time I feel parents should not force their children with what they think is right. Today's generation need motivation which has to come from somewhere where they spend most of their time and thats college and home. But sadly its not happening.

I go to a JC, with plans to go to a four-year college. My problems with college were of the not-ready type. I went to a JC in another city for years and got only Incompletes(which should have been Withdrawns) and F's(which should have been Incompletes) because I didn't have a major. I had an inkling of what I wanted to do, but only in the middle of last year did I realize what I REALLY wanted to do for a living, for the rest of my life.

You would not believe how much of a difference knowing what you really want to do has. My schooling has direction, I'm excited to learn, and getting A's and B's is almost effortless because I know that getting those A's and B's will help me get my dream job.

I understand blue collar jobs are important too, but my dream job pretty much requires college to get and that's okay with me.

I was ready for college in a big way, but the first thing I ever took out of my college mailbox was a notice "No more student deferments will be issued." I was a draft lottery pick and I got a bad number. I spent a lot of time holding Uncle Sam at arm's length (a better story than Alice's Restaurant). When I successfully avoided the draft I returned to do what I came for:

Learn stuff
Chase girls
Play ball

I sometimes rearranged the order, but there were dozens of interesting things to study, the girls were all smart and you could play in the gym until midnight. What a life!

One thing we do have to remember is that: if 36% of students aren't learning anything significant in 4 years of college, 64% of students *are*.

Not that it's great news that 36% aren't, mind you, but it doesn't mean that college is a waste for everybody and that nobody's getting anything out of it.

I think Ethan's analysis is probably right. College has become expected of everybody, which means that it's getting "lowest common denominatorized"-- although not all the way. It moves towards that, and then the poeple who still aren't interested slack off and barely get through. (Except that thanks to grade inflation, they barely get through with nice looking grades.)

The college students who really bug me are the ones who don't want to be there, who slack off, and then who whine about classes being too hard and grading being too strict. They're a minority, but a minority that saps far more than their share of energy and enthusiasm out of college instructors. If you're gonna slack off, admit it, and take responsibility for it.

My grandfather was a sharecropper who never finished high school.

My father got out of the Air Force in 1946 and slacked off for a while, basically free-wheeling. One of his buddies told him he was too smart to not take advantage of the GI Bill. He ended up with a Master's in Education and loved teaching. Then again, he'd loved teaching electronics in the Service so it wasn't much of a surprise.

Of his four sons, one's a teacher and the other three are engineers. I graduated with about 160 hours because I never could do moderation. Too much of a good thing, and I swear I'm going back for the physics PhD when I retire.

Of three kids, two have a BS in physics. One is taking grad classes towards an MSEE, but plans to go for a PhD in physics if he can work the job obstacle course. Another goofed off for two years not sure of what she wanted to study, discovered psychology, then discovered sociology, graduated in three and a half with a dual major, and is ABD in social psychology.

All three of mine had a two-line mission statement when I shipped them off:

1) Learn cool things.
2) Have fun doing it.

Seems to be working. Whether they make careers of the subjects they studied isn't nearly as important as the fact that they see the world differently. Way cool being able to talk to the kids in math, to say in a sentence of physics what would take a few paragraphs of hand-waving -- worth every penny and every year.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 22 Jan 2011 #permalink

Lots of excellent comments. I do think maybe 70% of entering students could use some maturing before going. There's way too much credentualism, "get that piece of paper, then cash it in for a meal ticket". Somehow I don't think there will be any mealtickets on offer when the current crop graduates. All my kids pretty much knew/know (2 freshmen, and a junior) what they wanted to do, and see college as a step -so I'm not too worried about the results, although I'm trying to help "optimize" the results (I place learning above credentials), I figure after a few years in the workforce skill and knowledge will sort out the empty credential-ed, from the real go getters anyway.

Myself I was way more than ready for undergrad, but badly not ready for grad school -and most of us get only one real chance at it. I put some of the blame on my undergrad institution, which made getting a three year degree easy as pie, but which was insufficient prep for grad school.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 22 Jan 2011 #permalink

I spent most of my 7% and 9%s time in college talking to professors about research, reading about fascinating developments in math and linguistics, and trying to learn to do my own research. All things that I was told would make me great at grad school. Well, all I got were crappy grades because of required but amazingly uninteresting classes (I get that analysis might be important, but I just don't care about fields when there are groups and rings to study and prime numbers to fascinate me) and not enough professors willing to recommend me to graduate school since my grades didn't meet their desires.

So now, with only a 4yr degree and little work experience, I'm overqualified for working as a custodian and under-qualified for managing them. In the end, all I got from college were friends I can count on, the love of my life, and a chance to taste what being a researcher is like.

And you know what? That's far more important to me anyway. I wouldn't convert that amazingly valuable 51%. I wouldn't change it for the world.

Because that 7% stuff got me nil, but that 51% gave me good food, good drink, and good friends.

Learning should be made much more ehm gripping:

I do think maybe 70% of entering students could use some maturing before going.

What about the idea of college/university being where young people mature? It's like a practice round where it's much easier to deal with rent and balancing schedules when you have, you know, much more time in a day (which mostly students do compared to full time employment). It also gives young people a chance to learn things on their own, without parents around. What can give during a learning experience? How about that crappy course in multvariate calculus.

I'm now on my 6th attempt at college, 41 years old, and while some might look at those statistics and think my chances of success are low, I can attest that I've never been more motivated and focused (and free of personal drama and upheaval) so that I can make my dream a reality. Sure, I wish I would have had my "stuff" together sooner, but if this is how it's going to play out, who cares? I'm just glad I get another chance and have found the things I'm so passionate about (astronomy, physics and math). I spent 20+ years learning how to paint, tell stories, understand culture, understand art, and now I want to understand the Universe (and I hope to get really good at sharing my understanding with others.)

Sadly, how I found my motivation and passion for these subjects isn't a recipe I can share. I got laid off, did some traveling, met some people, and a love was born... Ymmv.

I think people are afraid of taking the time and risks it takes to figure out who they are and what is really meaningful to themselves, I know I was. I didn't do it voluntarily (though I often daydreamed about it.) Maybe the giant upheaval of unemployment we've been "enjoying" these past few years will have an upside of giving people enough time and a kick in the pants to get more of a sense of what they really want to do with their lives. It worked for me :)

Huh, 20 years ago, I went to local JC, transferred to State and my folks spent maybe just shy of $10K for the whole affair. I graduated into a 100K+ annual salary. So yes, college was worth it â but I would have trouble saying the same for those would transpose those numbers.

As an Elec Eng student, I think one of the biggest detriments is general credit course requirements.

I understand, to a point, that they want a balanced college experiance. Honestly how important, how needed is this concept?

To me it just comes off as a way to pad the pockets of the machine.

College to American kids is something you do to get a piece of paper that will put more money in your bank account. Many don't give a damn about actually learning things. They're there because their parents made them go, or they realized that you can't even get a crap job in a lot of places without at least *some* degree. The only reason I would ever get a degree is for the money. There is no other reason. If college wasn't so damned expensive, my tune would change. I love learning, but I don't have that kind of money. I refuse to be in debt up to my eyeballs for decades to come. So it's Wikipedia, science journals, and a lower-middle class life for me.

If not for greed and the fact that companies are requiring people to have college degrees when someone without a degree could do just as good a job, there'd be a lot less kids going to Uni.

The only common theme to the people I know with 4 year degrees is an ability to drink & metabolize large quantities of alcohol without dying.

Bah. Humbug.

By Bethistopheles (not verified) on 24 Jan 2011 #permalink

As an Elec Eng student, I think one of the biggest detriments is general credit course requirements.

I understand, to a point, that they want a balanced college experiance. Honestly how important, how needed is this concept?

To me it just comes off as a way to pad the pockets of the machine.

THIS is a major gripe of mine. I want core classes and some electives. I don't need to learn something I'll never use that's not remotely relevant to the degree I'm trying to earn. It only serves to bilk students that have no money to begin with for even more cash.

By Bethistopheles (not verified) on 24 Jan 2011 #permalink

College is what you make of it. If you are simply there to get a degree, then thats what you will get out of it. If you are there to learn and expand your horizons, then that is what you will get out of it.

I'm also tired of people who complain that college is so expensive and they are in soooo much debt and can't find a job after graduating....with an English degree. If you're going to be spending lots of money on a piece of paper, it should be an investment. Choose a major that will actually get you a job or don't waste your money!

"Honestly how important, how needed is this concept? "

I work with many colleagues who attended certain non-US universities that did not have general education requirements, who studied nothing but their very own major courses. They have great, GREAT difficulty in both understanding new concepts that come from outside their field, and in communicating with other departments to accomplish the daily tasks of their jobs.

As a ChemEng/bioeng myself, I can tell you that you will need quite a bit of background in diverse fields in order to understand the specifications your client/boss is attempting to communicate to you. It helps to have some inkling of their field (which will definitely not be yours--your boss may well have an MBA and a Marketing degree, and be personally unable to balance his checkbook), so that you can grasp what they mean, rather than what they say.

It also helps you to know exactly how stupid you really are, and how other fields problem-solve. Among my colleagues who studied at universities without general education requirements, they seem to suffer from a kind of Dunning-Kruger, that their field is the only one to solve Problem X and they are the smartest person ever for figuring out Solution Y, when they have only in fact re-discovered a concept that was resolved a couple hundred years ago in a different field. See DOI: 10.2337/diacare.17.2.152 for a particularly nice example.

My question is why do Universities offer degrees that are useless to begin with? If an English degree won't allow the student to make enough to pay back their loans, then why would you even offer such a degree? And why in Gods name... does it take an equal amount of time to get an English degree as it does an engineering degree. Maybe the Engineering degree should take 4 years...and the english degree take one.

This discussion is quite interesting reading for an outsider. Many European students also don't know what to do with their lives and may show a similar behaviour at least at the beginning of their university studies.

However, it's often difficult for Non-Americans to understand what the sense of the college is in the first place. You spend four years learning all kinds of subjects, but with no discernible focus. You leave college with a rather broad general education but have apparently acquired few skills you can directly use in a complex working environment.

In Europe you decide what you're going to study when leaving high school, be it law, business managment, medicine, sciences, etc. And that's all you're going to learn at university. After four years of studying, you have already got a wide subject-specific background. You can either leave college and enter the work force, or go continue your studies and specialise in a certain area.

General education is what you're expected to get at high school. Mind you, I'm not saying our system is better, just different. We have problems of our own, and there's a reason why there's so much brain drain to the states.

The University's job is to offer different majors, not to only offer degrees that can make money. That is what trade schools are for. An English degree by itself isn't very useful, but if it is combined with an education degree then there is some reason to offer it. The same reasoning can be applied to history degrees or subjects of that nature.

Engineering should take more than four years. I'm in mechanical engineering and my plan will take me six years, with one full year of work experience through interning. The least possible amount of time to finish an engineering degree through my university is 4.5 years, with every quarter having the maximum amount of credit hours each quarter, including summers. I know of very few people who finished their engineering degree in that amount of time. Given how much I've learned in four years, I'm not sure how someone can study English for that long.

"...the sense of college..."

should read "...the meaning of college education ...".

I think the fact that college graduates out-earn non-grads by $1.17 million over a lifetime is overrated. This sort of researches is mostly about people who graduated long time ago, and they lived in different economical reality than we have today.

@big blue
The paper you cited is definitely outlandish but it doesn't necessarily make a case for the college. Calculating integrals is something you should learn in high school, and advanced mathematics is part of most science curricula anyway.

There's something I've been wondering about. Is it possible in the USA to earn a master's or a PhD without attending a four-year college? If yes, then the college seems pretty much useless.

I see students doing this in my classes sometimes, and I can't get too mad, because I remember doing it, too, in the classes that I didn't care about.

Absolutely true. As a bio major, I spent a lot of time working on my science classes. Art History... not so much.

I can't understand why so many colleges feel the need to cram a "general education" down the throats of students who are shooting for specialized majors in technical fields. Does an engineer really need Victorian Lit? A microbiologist need philosophy? Does anyone ever need to take a semester of Women's Studies?

Ethan was my professor for the astronomy class I took from him that he bet his facial hair on. Im not a physics major, actually far from it im a studio art major. However my interests are very broad and I could commit myself to many different paths if I wanted. Art is what I do best and I am good at. I do have a learning disability that makes certain paths (ones filled with math or intense of reading) a lot more difficult to follow. But when I think about how much I have grown and learned in college I have to agree that it is an invaluable and very expensive experience. (a real life contradiction)Ethan showed me that I could still be passionate about astronomy and space without necessarily devoting my entire life to it. Maybe Ill stop by and have a conversation with him soon.

As far as picking a major that will lead to getting a job, back in 2004 it was a very good idea to get a MA in biology, but I graduated in 2010. The biotech industry has changed since 2004, and PhD biologists are a dime a dozen, even for entry-level pipette jockey jobs.

However, I wouldn't mind skipping the entry-level job if I can find something using skills the rest of the biologists usually lack: techwriting, graphics, and illustration. And I wouldn't trade my research project or my fantastic thesis advisor for anything.

I didn't read all of the comments so maybe someone here posted something similar but as a recent (little over 1 year ago) college graduate, I have to agree with most of what was said. I majored in hospitality - after dropping out of Engineering - and I really enjoyed the classes and the school, and for the most part, I enjoy the field I work in. I know I could have finished Engineering if I really tried, but I had older friends who went down that route and I couldn't imagine sitting in a cubicle all my life punching through equations looking for the one little error in thousands of lines of code (or whatever). So I opted out and went for a more fulfilling career (also because I want to see more of the world, which is easier working for hotels).
The down side to all of this, is that I really didn't need a degree to do what I do, as where I work, I am the only one with a degree in hospitality (and a scarce few have a degree in anything)and I do the same work as everyone else. Having the degree helps me get jobs and interviews - my foot in the door - which is really all most people need, especially now with the job market.
On the flip side, having a degree/career path where you have to be social at all times, college really helped out in that regard. I joined a fraternity, I went to parties, I threw parties, I went on road trips, I hosted events. It was a great experience for my life.
And while it was a training module for my career, I know this isn't the case for all degrees, but I think people need to have the social outlet that college allows. Even if it's just a 2 year AA or something, it's a life experience that opens you up to new people and cultures and ways of life and thinking. My best friend hated school, he only did it because his whole family are lawyers and he had that pressure to get a degree in something. He ended up going to school for 5 years, dropping out with at least a full year left (meanwhile I graduated in 4 1/2) with no degree whatsoever. But that wasn't his dream, he loved music and that's all he ever wanted to do. Now he has recorded his debut album, and the launch date is in 3 weeks or so ( = Shameless plug). He's working on his dream, with no degree nor want for one. We should all be so lucky.
I know this turned into a rant, but the underlying message is that you can't make sweeping judgments about people, in any regard. Everyone needs to make their own decision to their own life.

I am encouraging my kids to go to college because they have grown up on a farm in central Iowa and need to expand their horizons. My oldest is a freshman at Lewis and Clark and is loving it. Does he study enough? Does he eat nutritionally balanced meals everyday? Don't care. He is learning how to prioritize his time, pursue his goals, wash his sheets. All important skills for the future. I do not want to micromanage him, I want him to grow a human being who will go forward with confidence, self-esteem, and respect for others.

What you have said about doing things that interest you is important and, in fact, in the past ten years major studies show that the degree to which student's personality (i.e., interests) match their college major significantly affects grades earned, persistence, and graduating on time.

I have recently summarized this research for the public showing how students can take advantage of it. It is a free 29 pg e-book, "Choosing a Major Based on Your Personality, What does the research say?" You can download it at our Career Key website.

Personality-major match is not the full story, of course, but it is a helpful step forward and has a solid theoretical and scientific basis.

College is what you make of it. If you are simply there to get a degree, then thats what you will get out of it. If you are there to learn and expand your horizons, then that is what you will get out of it.

While its true that college experience is what you make of it. The amount of resource it takes to get to college and time and effort beg us to give a good reason for it. The question is if the effort and prestige given to college is worth the prize. Simply answering meditatively won't help the situation for the kids. For your quote that college is what you make of it,put way too much fate into kids hand in determining there lives, while at the same time removing the burden of prove from the college themselves. A international kid inside a poor or bad college in a different country, will suffer great adversity at improving his scenario,and WILL NOT have the same time as someone in a good college with good professors and the resources/money to not be 'pressure' to succeed.

Back on topic with the creator of this article

I agree with all my heart with your statement. The ability to choice your fate is often time crucial in have a good college experience and life in general. Countless kids I've saw of multiple different level of talent are often bored or feel hopeless in controlling there own destiny. "I have to go to college, there's no other way""If I didn't have to gain money, I would've done things differently""Talk about school all you want,but I've learned NOTHING that I couldn't had learn somewhere else at a faster pace with far less bullying and pressure"