BOOK REVIEW: ‘Is College Worth It?’

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IS COLLEGE WORTH IT?: A FORMER UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF EDUCATION AND A LIBERAL ARTS GRADUATE EXPOSE THE BROKEN PROMISE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
By William J. Bennett with David Wilezol
Thomas Nelson, $22.99, 240 pages

William J. Bennett and David Wilezol’s “Is College Worth It?” asks and authoritatively answers one of life’s biggest questions.

The orthodox answer to the question, the authors write, is “Of course it is. Though the cost of attendance is ever increasing, those who go to college make more than those who don’t. And while the job market is bad, it is worse for those without a college degree.”

“Is College Worth It?” provides a thoroughgoing deconstruction of the “of course it is” delusion. It turns out that for too many, and maybe even most of our young people, the answer to this central question is, sadly, “no.” “Whether the standard of excellence for higher education is cultivating the mind and the soul or maximizing financial return on investment, most of higher education fails most students,” the authors write.

College has simply become too expensive. In the time between when I graduated from college and when my kids will start in a couple of years, the price differential, adjusting for inflation, has jumped 300 percent. When I went to college, my parents just wanted me to follow my muse, develop my mind and be happy. This led to my getting a doctorate — and to everyone’s surprise, I somehow figured out how to make a good living. However, a bachelor of arts degree in political science at a price of more than $150,000 now seems like a bad life choice. Somewhere during the past 25 years, the idea of following your muse in college got killed.

What killed it is explained by the “Bennett Hypothesis,” which by now should be elevated to the status of a theory or a law: “College tuition will rise as long as the amount of money available through federal student aid continues to increase with little or no accountability.”

Awash in taxpayer-subsidized money, colleges offer their discerning-lifestyle consumers every possible amenity: wired dorms, state-of-the-art workout facilities, beautiful grounds and Zagat-worthy dining. Teachers teach less and research more. The person who is probably teaching your kid is not a tenured rock star, but a galley slave grad student who is paid so little that he or she qualifies for welfare assistance. It also bankrolls an ever-growing middle management of deans and directors. And let’s not forget the high six- and seven-figure salaries of college presidents. We have created a subprime higher-education bubble, and Mr. Bennett and Mr. Wilezol aim to let some of the air of out it.

The first thing that has to change is the belief that we are failing as a society if everyone doesn’t go to college. This snootiness is not serving our young people or our economy well.

Truth be told, and Mr. Bennett and Mr. Wilezol are truth-tellers, college is not for everyone. In New York, for instance, only a third of the population is college ready, and the nationwide statistics are not much better — which means college is only worth it for a minority of students. Most would be better served to follow a model that provides short, focused instruction and a period of apprenticeship where one learns “on the job.” Germany does this quite successfully.

The authors also make the case for the return of vocational high schools. We can’t outsource the repair of a boiler or a natural-gas pipeline, the wiring of a home or office building or installation or repair of an elevator to India or China. These are great-paying careers that are in high demand, but we are doing nothing to encourage young people toward these high-paying jobs. The mismatch effect of robbing our economy of a master plumber in favor of another run-of the-mill B.A. ought to be considered educational malfeasance.

For those with the requisite gray matter to handle college-level work, the authors show that these students still need to choose wisely. It is a horrible return on investment to spend four years and six figures on a degree in women’s studies and a minor in religion. What does this prepare one for? The authors understand that there is world of difference between a liberal education and an education in liberalism. They write, “In today’s colleges much of what is being taught in the humanities and social sciences is nonsense (or nonsense on stilts), politically tendentious, and worth little in the marketplace and for the enrichment of your mind and soul.”

It’s not the advice that a Bowdoin, Barnard or Wesleyan-bound student wants to hear, but it makes better sense to get an associate’s degree and become a dental hygienist and make $68,250 per year. If your soul longs for genuine enrichment, check out “Great Courses” and you can study with the best in the academy for a couple hundred bucks.

Mr. Bennett and Mr. Wilezol are both products of liberal education — and Mr. Wilezol is still pursuing a graduate degree in Greek and Latin — but the moral of their story is that if you have the aptitude for a STEM degree, go for it. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math programs nurture the habits of mind that are the building blocks of growth and prosperity. However, if the humanities are your calling and market signals be damned, the authors profile a handful of schools where you can follow your muse at an affordable price. Move over U.S. News & World Report, “Is College Worth It?” empowers consumers and is an indispensable practical guide. The cost-conscious DesRosiers family will be looking seriously at Georgia Tech and the Colorado School of Mines.

“Is College Worth It?” is a book that should be read by everyone. No parent should write a check and no student should declare a major without first reading this book. For the graduating class of 2013, I fear this book has come too late. You can read it in your parents’ basement while you are looking to find a job with that degree in anthropology. But for those who have graduated high school and are heading off to college this September, there is still time. If you are more of a hands-on type, think about deferring for a year and working as an apprentice in a skilled trade.

The authors deserve the final word: “If traditional higher education wants to retain its prestige, its historical significance, and its students, it should re-establish a college education that serves the heart, the mind and the checkbook. If it doesn’t, the future of higher education may move on without it.”

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