Running the Collegiate Gauntlet at Age 17

It gets worse on campus every generation. Moral temptations and professorial tyranny and lunacy escalate, yet parents still send their children into what is accurately described as a gauntlet. As I will show, it doesn’t have to be this way. But for most students, it is and will continue to be this way.

We hear about running the gauntlet, but we barely know what it means. I have seen only one movie in which the scene on-screen was close to the horror of what North American tribes put captives through. That movie is The Black Robe. Most runners did not survive the ordeal.

Academically, most students do not survive the ordeal. There are about 15 million Americans attending college today. Of those freshmen who start college, over half will not graduate. Depending on how long they survive in the system before leaving, their dead-end experiment can cost them or their parents up to $100,000. Sometimes it costs more. Ivy League schools are now priced in the range of $40,000 a year. This will increase next year.

The risk of flunking out is a minor one when compared to the moral condition of the typical university. The extent of binge drinking is covered up by school administrators, but it is extensive. And it can be fatal. CNN reports:

University of Michigan student celebrating his 21st birthday died after downing his 20th shot in 10 minutes. An Old Dominion University student choked to death on his own vomit during a pledge-week drinking binge. A Colgate University student is facing four years in prison after crashing into a tree during a night of drinking, killing four students.

Drinking yourself to death is a rare occurrence, but the threat of alcoholism is there. My cousin’s ex-husband, a generally decent man and a UCLA All-American, became addicted to alcohol in college. He has suffered from this condition, on and off, ever since. He was in a fraternity that consumed prodigious quantities of booze. I think this is why he never graduated. The CNN report continued:

“Most students get here and think, ‘Oh, it’s freedom. I can do whatever I want without mom and dad finding out,” said Kelly Hill of Detroit, Michigan, a junior at the University of Michigan. “A lot of them don’t know what their limits are.”

A recent book by a former White House correspondent, Barrett Seaman, tells of campus life in a dozen of the top academic colleges and universities: Harvard, Stanford, Virginia. The book’s title is all you really need to know: Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You. It got a good review in Business Week. These are the best and the brightest of their generation. Some of them are killing themselves at their parents’ expense.

At just after 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning in October, Hamilton College’s security chief received an emergency phone call. A first-year female student at the elite upstate New York liberal arts school had collapsed after downing 22 one-ounce shots of vodka in a drinking game. The incident was far from unusual: She was one of 20 inebriated students who had to be rushed to the hospital that semester.

This is the price of sending your child off to college: the inescapable risk of his or her self-destruction. What Tom Wolfe wrote about in I Am Charlotte Simmons is happening all over the country. Wolfe has the most observant eye of my generation. He was the man who coined the phrases “the me decade” and “radical chic.” What he reports in his novel sends chills down the spines of parents. But they, like their offspring, just can’t seem to say “no.” They finance the process with after-tax small fortunes.

None of this is necessary, yet it is nearly universal.


In my day, a few universities were just beginning to abandon the doctrine called “in loco parentis.” It means “in place of a parent.” University administrations decided that it was not their task to police the activities of students outside the classroom.

I lived in a co-ed dorm: men on one side, women on the other. There was a paid house mother at every “gate.” The halls were policed. You could get expelled for bringing someone of the opposite sex into your room. But most of the dorm mothers would not report obvious violations.

A decade later, co-ed dorm halls were in avant-garde schools.

By that time, it was not just that universities refused to act as parents. It was that they acted as madames.

This has not changed. College administrators are as power-seeking as ever. They enforce rules: against smoking, against hate speech, against perceived racism. Because of the power of the Internet, they are hard-pressed to police cheating. They may enforce the civil law against date rape, however loosely defined. But co-habitation and booze on the weekends are still features of campus life.

Cheating is widespread. Plagiarism is easily proven technically. A particular phrase is rare. That’s why we can use Google to find a document based on a phrase with only half a dozen words — one document out of five billion. There are digital tools for discovering plagiarism. They are expensive, and most professors don’t use them. The professors have given up and therefore given in. The students know this.

I handled this in my teaching years by assigning papers that were impossible to steal. No one else in academia used my approach, so plagiarism was not possible. They were debate papers: one-third pro, one-third con, and one-third resolution of the question. They were a challenge. They forced students to do the research and make judgments.

If you are going to spend $50,000 or more to let your child learn that cheating prospers, I can suggest better uses for your money. Of course, if he learns to compete without cheating, that is an important skill. I’m just not sure that it’s marketable. How can he prove it?


Why do parents do this? Because employers use the college degree as a screening device. What Congregational churches did in New England in 1650, so do millions of businesses today.

Employers do some really stupid things. This is one of them. This discrimination against people who did not graduate from college blocks the careers of millions of people who could otherwise have been highly productive. It assumes that just one form of intelligence — taking exams — is the one that counts most. Yet businessmen only rarely ask employees to take any more exams. Stupid!

By establishing a rule that only college grads are eligible to work in management, employers begin looking for people who can tolerate boredom. Boredom, above all, is what college is all about. Why is it that the toleration of boredom is an indicator of success in business?

Precision is another matter. It need not be boring. If you could screen for precision, why would you screen for the ability to tolerate boredom? Why is tolerating boredom a legitimate substitute for precision?

Yet the reality is that businesses do screen access to upper management in terms of college degrees. High school students who want to make a middle-class living want to graduate from college.

It is the lure of salaried living that draws the moths to the academic flame. Michael Dell and Bill Gates were college drop-outs because they saw a better way to gain financial success. They preferred to pay salaries rather than be salaried.

Businessmen hire Ivy League graduates because they are using the degree as a substitute for IQ. It is illegal to use IQ tests to screen job candidates, according to the courts and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. But this does not explain why businessmen hire college grads from mediocre colleges — the vast majority — rather than creating apprenticeship tracks. Why not screen for the specific skills needed to do the job? But few industries do this, with one exception: programming firms. Here, the skills are crucial, not academic certification by a system that is a decade behind the curve.

So, our children are forced into the academic mold. If they don’t do well taking tests, they are screened out of careers that have nothing to do with taking tests.

This is nuts.


If a high schooler has both a strong interest and basic skills associated with a particular service trade, then the best approach is simultaneous apprenticeship and college. This is what businesses do with their managers, who are paid to earn an MBA in the evening. This strategy can work with high schoolers after a year on the job.

A high school senior should find a local business that will employ him part time. He should spend 10 to 15 hours a week working during the school year, and full time in the summer after graduation.

The idea here is to gain basic skills as an employee. These skills are rarely innate. The student also tests his mettle. Can he handle the job? Third, the high school graduate earns enough money to go through college.

But doesn’t college cost $40,000? Not if you do it the smart way. The smart way overcomes the problem of stupid employers. For the first two years, the student gets his credits by written exam: CLEP, AP, or DSST.

If the employer is local, the student lives at home. This saves his family thousands of dollars a year.

If a high school student starts protesting about living at home, be forewarned: college freedom could become a major problem in his life.

How many hours will the student actually be at home? Not many. He has a job. In off hours, he is at the library studying. This leaves time for sleep and maybe a TV show. He is asleep when he is at home. Why should he care where he sleeps? His protest isn’t about his sleeping quarters. There is another agenda involved.

Alternatively, maybe he can get a better job learning a trade or career in a distant city. There may be the ideal employer there. Are you ready to send him there? If not, why not? College will be a lot more dangerous. Too many women, too little responsibility. Too much fantasy-world living at your expense.

I like the work-study program that UPS offers. A student goes to work for UPS. He can get $3,000 in tuition money plus $2,000 in forgivable loans each year. He can’t afford Harvard, but he can afford my approach to earning a degree. See the UPS site.

If a student works hard and shows promise, a businessman will usually look favorably on helping him. If the student must attend day classes, the businessman will create workarounds. He is getting a good worker, cheap. Good workers are hard to find. He is paying for his services with flexible time rather than money.

My son-in-law put himself through college as a draftsman. He became a master of AutoCAD. Now he is putting himself through seminary. He works Thursday through Saturday. In the summer, he works full time. The engineering firm doesn’t want to lose him. It pays him by the hour as an independent contractor — no retirement, no health insurance. It’s good for the company (cheaper), and it’s good for my son-in-law (flexible hours). It took him three weeks to prove himself. When his manager knew he was reliable, he let him come in on Saturdays, unsupervised.

If a student will hustle, show up on time, and not be incompetent, he can work his way through college. Parents need not pay a dime. That’s why I wrote my report, “Stupid Employer Tricks.” This is one way to get around stupid employers.


Teenagers who want to gain some security at wages above minimum figure out that a college degree will grease the skids. But college is not required for someone who wants to make a lot of money. He can start his own business. He can become a Michael Dell.

Most teenagers dream of a lifetime safety net. Their parents agree. A bachelor’s degree offers this, or seems to. But they should not expect the degree to make them rich. It is little more than a hunting license these days.

I think a good compromise is a combination of apprenticeship and getting through college by examination. The student pays his way. It’s possible, though rare.

As I tell college-bound high school students, make a deal with dad. Agree to pay your own way. For a college graduation present, dad will give half of what he had estimated the degree would cost him. Use the money to start a business, go to grad school, or put a down payment on a house. Everyone wins this way.

November 14, 2005

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2005