Is It Really Higher-Ed?

Higher Education

by Doug French by Doug French Recently by Doug French: Gold Prices and Panic

The idea that a brick and mortar university education is the key to success and riches still has a hold on parents. Author Jennifer Moses’s piece in The Wall Street Journal last weekend made clear that her and her Rutgers professor husband will do anything and spend whatever to get their Moses twins into the one of the nation’s best colleges of their choice.

Evidently tuition cost isn’t a concern. However, Mr. and Ms. Moses must make sure the twins qualify for the Ivy league if that’s where they want to go. Don’t want them ending “up having to go, God forbid, to Rutgers,” she writes. So the twins have had plenty of SAT and ACT tutoring, according to Ms. Moses at $125 per session. Of course on top of this are the fees paid for the actual testing and travel to all these places of higher learning. Plus, an additional consultant is on the job to counsel the male twin to not do anything stupid that could jeopardize his chance of admission. Moses considers the consultant a bargain at $701.25 so far.

The thrust of Moses’s view is there are only so many spots available in prestigious universities and that dumb kids with rich parents have a leg up to getting those few spots, so parents must do everything possible to make sure their worthy children are accepted. “We are all caught up in a crazy arms race, where the order of the day (to borrow a useful term from the Cold War) is ‘escalation dominance,’” she writes.

All this while Richard Vedder’s work finds that 60 percent of the increase in college grads end up working in jobs where a degree isn’t required.

Vedder points to credential inflation that arises from a perceived need by individuals to demonstrate potential employment competence through a high-priced college diploma. He writes, “Employers are using education as a screening and signaling device, at a low cost directly to them (although not costless because of the taxes they pay to sustain much of this), but at a high cost to the prospective employees and to society as a whole.”

Support from the taxpayer may not last much longer as state governments teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. When push comes to shove middle-class tax payers will not be eager to keep subsidizing rich kids or their professors with light teaching loads. But for now, as Vedder points out, those in higher education that know college is a bad deal are keeping quiet out of their own self-interest.

Before throwing their hard-earned dough at their kids’ higher education, parents might want to read Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. Kirn is best known for his novel Up In The Air which was adapted into a movie that generated six Oscar nominations last year.

Much of Kirn’s very funny book chronicles his student life at Princeton where he roomed with eccentric children of the upper crust. The reader’s first glimpse at Kirn’s life at Princeton has him waiting for the effects of two black capsules to kick in so he can complete his Rhodes Scholarship application. Meanwhile his friend is seeing what happens when you smoke ground up Percocet tablets through a water pipe.

“I have other comrades in estrangement,” writes Kirn, “way out here on the bell curve’s leading edge, where our talent for multiple-choice tests has landed us without even the vaguest survival instructions.”

While Kirn went home to Minnesota for the summer, his classmates would spend the summer on the Cape, the Island, or the Vineyard. He classifies the Princeton student body into groups. For instance those that came back baked from spending the summer on sail boats, drinking gin and tonics, and wearing funny hats. These privileged students “napped during lectures, but rarely to their detriment because they could always charm some awestruck stranger–a plump girl with a limp, a science major with untied shoelaces–into giving them copies of their notes.”

There were those students who wanted to serve mankind and those who only stopped to eat and drink to sustain themselves for studying. And then there were those who pursued higher education by injecting cocaine.

Kirn worked the system and made it to Oxford. “Flexibility, irony, self-consciousness, contrarianism. They’d gotten me through Princeton,” explains Kirn. As for his education, it began when he was laid up in bed with pneumonia. Bored, he read the classics, books he’d never bothered with before. “And so, belatedly, haltingly, accidentally, and quite implausibly and incredibly, it began at last: my education.”

Reprinted from