Columns

Eppler ’13: Why college isn’t irrelevant

By
Opinions Columnist
Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hard times tend to produce radical ideas, and the current economic crisis is no exception. Many observers have noticed the hardships faced by recent college graduates – limited job prospects, crushing student loan burdens – and suggested that the current American educational paradigm of college for all is obsolete. This vision has even reached Brown. Recently The Herald highlighted the case of Dylan Field, formerly ‘13.5, who was awarded $100,000 by tech billionaire Peter Thiel in exchange for a commitment to leave college for two years and start a business (“CS undergrad wins tech fellowship,” Sept. 10).
The contemporary argument against college is relatively straightforward. In an era where information is freely available on the Internet and the founder of the next billion-dollar company needs only a wi-fi connection and a good idea, spending tens of thousands of dollars on four years of education is an anachronism. The current challenges of graduates reï¬ect the free market’s assessment of their skills and accomplishments. Famously successful college dropouts such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg represent the ideal. The only thing separating an unemployed liberal arts graduate from billions in the technology industry is his or her diploma. It’s a beautiful vision, but it’s almost entirely wrong. It does not account for the true causes of our ills and would devastate institutions that have provided unimaginable benefits to our society.
Given the benefits of the American university model – the production of knowledge that benefits all, millions lifted into the middle class, a prominent role in our culture and social structures – those who wish to drastically reshape it should face a high burden of proving both that the crisis of the university is real and that their reforms would resolve it. The anti-college advocates fail on both counts.
The unemployment crisis identified by anti-college advocates is not attributable to American universities’ failure to prepare graduates for the job market. When the economic crisis began in 2008, unemployment increased proportionally across all groups, regardless of educational attainment. While unemployment is currently higher among college graduates than it was pre-financial crisis, unemployment rates are still drastically lower for college graduates than those without a college degree. If college were truly a bad investment, unemployment rates would increase for college graduates relative to those with other levels of educational accomplishment, but the facts do not bear out that pattern. While times are not good for anyone, achieving a college degree is still one of the best ways to ensure gainful employment.
Economists across the political spectrum – from noted liberal and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman to Edward Lazear, chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors – agree that current unemployment rates are a “cyclical” phenomenon attributable largely to normal economic ï¬uctuations and economic policy, not a “structural” phenomenon resulting from permanent shifts in the composition of the economy and workforce. This distinction suggests that anti-college advocates have fundamentally misplaced their efforts.
Instead of attempting to destroy some of our nation’s most critical institutions, they should be advocating revised monetary policy and increased government stimulus to rejuvenate the economy and improve job prospects for graduates. The fact that they do not suggests they are uninformed about our nation’s challenges.
Anti-college advocates also point to the crushing student loan burdens faced by many graduates as an example of the failure of the American university system. This criticism does not pass muster. Our student loan system is not a natural law of the universe. It is the result of a set of policy choices. Some of these choices are probably bad ones – such as the fact that private student loans, unlike almost all other types of loans, may not be discharged during bankruptcy – and should be revised. But destroying the university to address the student loan problem is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Arguing that the student loan system, a tangential part of the university model, condemns the university to irrelevance suggests that anti-college advocates have not considered the basic logic of their argument.
It’s certainly possible to make a principled argument against higher education and formal education more broadly. They’ve been around for decades, and have rightly been soundly rejected by most. Anti-college advocates are doing something different, though. They’re taking advantage of fear to push a radically destructive agenda.
It is unsurprising that the anti-college argument has gained some traction. We’re scared by the world we’ll be entering as graduates, and the anti-college argument offers a path to safety. But the argument doesn’t represent the best information about the causes of our challenges. Brown students should reject it.

Ian Eppler ’13 is a senior with possibly unwarranted confidence in the value of his Brown social science degree. He may be contacted at ian_eppler@brown.edu.

  • Anonymous

    College boy, your article is too long.

  • Bill Gates

    social science… this is Fake fake fake degree.

    1. experimental sciences. real

    2. social sciences/humanities: fake fake fake degrees for fake people in a fake fake fake world