College Alternatives, Part 3: Addressing Some Common Misconceptions and Avoiding Obstacles to Progress
Debunking some popular college mythology, counting the full extent of college welfare and recognizing the fatal flaw of mass-market teaching. Clearing the path for something better.
Published June 2018, updated Sept 2019
Over the last couple of months, I’ve tried to provide some long-overdue explanations for the college mandate for most professional jobs, the scholarship game of shady debt-deals and the low-yield teaching styles embraced by subsidized educators over the last century. For this installment, I’ll look at four semi-related and important issues afflicting the college world. I’ll also touch on why honest work/saving/investing will always beat the “non-profit” approach of politics/protesting/fundraising when it comes to real progress—something once obvious in America.
The Myth of College Value: Recognizing “Selection Bias” and Mixed “Signals”
Defenders of the college system will often pose the statement in the form of a question: “What about the ‘proven value’ of a college degree!?!”
This is a loaded question, so let’s unpack some excess baggage. When looking at any official study of “college value,” we should remember that such studies are prepared by the college industry to convince people into buying their expensive product. That may be shrewd marketing, but it’s not “science.” A pseudo-scientific equivalent would be like me paying for a “study” of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to prove that skipping college makes you a billionaire.
In both cases, the studies rely on “selection bias,” a concept I first learned about from James Altucher since I took Statistics in college and they never mentioned it. Mr. Altucher makes the good point that comparing the typical college graduate to a person who quits all schooling after high school fails to account for “ambition, drive, intelligence” … which makes all those “college value” studies pretty useless.
Furthermore, even if current studies could provide the necessary “corrections” to adjust for all personality and behavioral differences, there is another problem. Insisting that “college education pays” at the present moment overlooks the gigantic and unstable political interferences oozing throughout the system. It’s like saying that being a member of the communist party is essential for landing a good job in the Soviet Union. That was true for decades. But the USSR collapsed in 1991 (surprising most experts) and party membership is now of much less value.
Politics is never a stable foundation—particularly in a more-free society like America, where market competition always has some lurking potential. The subsidies and associated restrictions that have artificially boosted and hamstrung the college education system for decades are now reaching a tipping point. With the current trend of punishing college prices and debt loads, market forces for efficiency and value cannot be thwarted much longer.
But it doesn’t stop there. Another reasonable scholar found on the internet, Charles Hugh Smith, offers this assessment in a recent article on overall economic productivity:
Signaling, like compliance, is a productivity killer. The entire trillion-dollar system of higher education doesn’t measure or reward learning or the acquisition of knowledge; the diploma/credential signals that the student dutifully navigated the bureaucracy and thus is signaling their readiness to be a corporate/government drone in another bureaucracy. That they learned next to nothing is of no concern to the system.
For those who prefer a finer pedigree, we can look at a recent book from an economics professor at George Mason University. The book is The Case Against Education, published by Princeton University Press. Unfortunately, the nearly 300-page analysis plus over 80 pages of endnotes and references, is so full of semi-valid data and tiresome minutiae as to be largely incomprehensible and totally lacking in any semblance of a path forward. Yet a few isolated nuggets of wisdom can be found, if we do some digging. On page 13, the professor states:
despite the chasm between what students learn and workers do, academic success is a strong signal of worker productivity. The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the pre-existing traits you reveal by mastering them.
The university author goes on to list five Nobel laureates in economics that have “made seminal contributions” in the field of signaling, which may explain why the word is tossed around so frequently in contemporary academic circles. While there is some truth in the “signaling” aspect for revealing inherent ability, there is no need to spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars to obtain this flawed stamp of adequacy. Any positive “pre-existing traits” could more quickly and effectively be demonstrated on the job, where the work is not “useless” because someone is paying you for it! Employers who rely on the diploma signal may also be discounting the other side effects of modern college, including entitlement attitudes and passive work habits that are obscured by standardized testing.
For an even more pro-college viewpoint, we have a New York Times Op-Ed of July 28, 2018, written by a psychology professor from the University of Texas at Austin, which proclaims:
Americans without a college degree are increasingly dying “deaths of despair”—liver disease from alcoholism, overdoses from opioids, suicides.
Par for the course, this NYT article (and most other mainstream analyses I’ve seen) makes no mention of the professional licensing privileges, corporate HR hiring policies and other inducements that all work to coerce people into the college system and punish those left on the sidelines. But, thankfully, all bad ideas eventually succumb to their own weaknesses… and college alternatives are finally becoming more accessible.
The Best of the Worst: Reaching the University Summit
In assessing the real value of college, one useful aspect to consider is their measures of utmost accomplishment (i.e., master’s or doctoral papers)—the gold-plated crowns that allow a person entrance into the elite club of People with Letters after their Names. Just how valuable are these elements of highest achievement in the university setting? I mean real value, not imputed significance from a corporate official.
Let’s first look at the Apprentice Model, which grew out of the guild model of the Middle Ages and worked well for many professions. In the Apprentice Model, a person began as an unpaid student (apprentice) receiving free room/board/training, then moved up to being a paid worker (journeyman) after a few years. Qualified participants finally graduated to more independence through demonstrating their achievement by producing a “masterpiece” as judged by a group of genuine experts, with significant accountability built into the system. That masterpiece could then be viewed by anyone—or even purchased if a buyer was interested. White-collar jobs could do likewise, if anyone got serious about training for those positions. Customers do like to buy “good things.”
To the contrary, in the University Model “masters” or “doctoral” status is granted by a panel of obscure academics based on their own subjective preferences. The “masterpiece” they scrutinize is typically some esoteric dissertation crafted merely to impress the university judges and, ultimately, their political sponsors, who both just LOVE official titles and nomenclature. Consumers, parents and employers have virtually no input or access to the modern process. And colleges prefer it that way. In other words, modern education is “public” for funding purposes, but not for accountability.
How does that charade affect quality? For the 10-year period of 2004 through 2013, over 478,000 Ph.D. titles were granted in America, along with millions more of additional Master’s Degrees. Both prestigious titles usually involve some sort of major thesis or project. If any of these modern academic “masterpieces” have real value—I simply ask two questions to the general public. When was the last time you bought one? When was the last time you even looked for one?
In a nation that purchased over 680 million books last year on the (somewhat) open market, I don’t see many people or businesses clamoring to buy any of the Big Ideas from Big Schools with Big Subsidies. Political titles aside, the marketplace apparently views the element of highest achievement in the university setting (master’s or doctoral papers) as basically a worthless formality. And the public is right.
The Extent of College Welfare
While it’s common knowledge that college is subsidized, I’ve never heard any critic or supporter attempt to quantify the full extent of dependency. Perhaps that’s a testament to the low level of dialog and heavy focus on superficial distractions from both sides of the pop culture divide.
Advocates of the college model use a clumsy version of circular logic to promote an alleged need for external welfare as opposed to being reliant on (and subordinate to) earnings and input from paying customers. The unwritten orthodoxy goes something like this: college is subsidized because it is great; college can never achieve its full greatness without subsidies.
This all makes perfect sense if you’re an academic hiding from the cruel marketplace while clutching your tenure and title. That fanciful reasoning also helps reinforce another staple of modern academic thought: the customer is always wrong and is probably too unsophisticated to realize it. Accordingly, students need to be told what to think, whom to obey and whom to fear. This primitive approach manifests itself in spoon-fed book reading assignments of approved authors, scripted multiple-choice testing, selectively lenient or harsh labeling for what groups to revere or revile, an ever-shrinking list of appropriate viewpoints, and what tribal slurs to hurl as weapons or which forms of alleged rudeness to indignantly protest as thought-crime. This is what you get when detached, vote-scheming politicians—instead of involved, responsible customers—pick up the tab for so long. (By “customers” I mean to include both the students and the employers who hire them.)
Since the college establishment has wielded enormous influence over American society for the last 3 or 4 generations, it’s worth taking a look at just how much taxpayer funding gets handed out in the name of higher education. Otherwise, it’s difficult for the public to make an “informed decision” on this important topic.
Tallying up the total outside support for colleges and universities is tricky since no single agency is willing to admit the full extent of academic dependency—despite the avalanche of other self-promoting “news releases” they crank out on a regular basis. Here are highlights from the best available data I can find.
For the Fall 2016 to Spring 2017 school year in America, colleges and universities reaped $251 billion (PDF page 9) in government, institutional and private support from student loans and grants, plus $254 billion in direct subsidies for state-run colleges and another $44 billion (from prior link) in local government spending on community colleges for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2017. If we subtract the overlap of about $11 billion amongst the figures for state grants and subsidies that leaves roughly $538 billion in total annual outside support. This includes about $96 billion in federal student loans that will eventually be paid back unless politicians declare a public “debt jubilee,” which might actually be the best of the bad options available. (The bankers who finance bi-partisan political careers strongly disagree.)
However, the total incoming revenue stream for all colleges and universities that “grant associate’s or higher degrees” is only $649 billion according to the latest official data (2016-17 school year). These figures come from three independent sources and may not work well for comparison; it’s hard to tell due to government’s lack of attention on these important but embarrassing figures. Just imagine an annual report from the U.S. Department of Education stating “welfare dependency at U.S. colleges and universities tops 80%.” Again, this is probably the case, but we can’t say for sure.
No matter how you look at it, America’s enclaves of higher education are extremely dependent on outside support. More than anything else, this explains why subsidized academics are hostile to attempts at market-based reforms and why colleges have been that way throughout their sorted history.
Fatal Flaw of Mass-Market Teaching: Easy Targets for Outside Interference
Perhaps the most detrimental feature of modern college that is becoming more apparent every year is the dialog-ending smear campaign of the Thought Police. Many on the political right think that merely shining a light on this heinous activity will somehow trigger a “mea culpa” moment of academic awakening or perhaps prompt jellyfish college administrators to suddenly grow a spine and assert actual leadership over their domain. Not only is that failing to achieve any positive results—except a ratings bump for Fox News and AM talk-radio, along with unwarranted attention for some dreadfully ill-informed young adults. But like everything political, it obsesses on the superficial effects without addressing the deeper cause.
The root cause of failure for the university model is its relentless pursuit of outside subsidies and their many restrictive strings attached, instead of pursuing quality and efficiency in the open marketplace. At this point, academic freedom is essentially dead in American colleges.
While it is seldom acknowledged in public, the elitist nature of the university model has always chosen the path of privilege and double standards. When very few people got involved in that system (up until the 1940s) it had lesser impact on society. Now that everyone in corporate and political leadership is forced into that passive and pandering model, the results are becoming more dramatic.
The university system has usually featured a sense of solidarity, conformity and intolerance to some extent. The most significant difference today is, thanks mostly to the internet, independent observers are finally getting a chance to expose the inner workings of the academic world. And it isn’t pretty.
The ongoing substance-free, slander-fest—initially about “heretics” or “commies” or “isolationists,” then moving on to “McCarthyism” (both real and imagined) and now anything deemed as “racist” or “sexist” or other speech-code violations—offers a perfect snapshot of the collapse of higher education. These crude one-word summations qualify as “approved slurs” to neutralize any criticism of expansive State power and promote an atmosphere of mass-conformity; see Part 2 of this series for Exhibits A through E for some common examples. While some indoctrinated millennials and their collegiate ring-leaders may have perfected this pretentious piety parade, they certainly didn’t start it.
The gross intolerance and self-censorship we see at most college campuses result from the inherent weaknesses of ALL written and recordable forms of teaching and communication that are sold for mass-distribution. Both methods present themselves as an easy target—essentially a “sitting duck”—to be shot down by partisan political groups that strive to maintain a pristine public image, an absolute must for persuading others to hand over more tax-free “non-profit” subsidies.
And with the welfare state bulging with millions of hungry (but usually overweight) mouths and thousands of parasitic (and never satisfied) support groups, the attack on un-approved science, facts and opinions is relentless. On any given day, cable TV news and AM talk-radio spend hours howling over the latest “OUTRAGE!!” from the other partisan side.
And the left/right drama contest of feigned indignation doesn’t have a “balancing” effect, as some might hope. For starters, our college-educated leaders in the Republican and Democrat parties are virtually identical on every major issue, notwithstanding so much noise to the contrary; this racket emanates from college-educated pundits paid to highlight their trivial differences and elicit votes, not to think for themselves and definitely not to solve problems. It was that way in 2004, around the time I finally started to accept what others were already insisting. It was going on began long before then. And the unipolar ballet is essentially the same in Washington today.
But the smear quotient for mass-market teaching methods goes much deeper than partisan bickering. Since the rise of the welfare state in the 1930s (and the warfare state two decades before that), writers and teachers have overwhelmingly worked for the government or large institutions/corporations. As it turns out, their preferred mono-style communication and instruction methods have resulted in the general trend of promoting more centralized power, more hyper-legalism, more lawless abuse of the Constitution (which is silent on the topic of education), more wealth confiscation and more violence (while attacking any independent voices that suggest otherwise). This has little to do with “liberal” or “conservative” bias, misleading labels tossed around by political insiders with an axe to grind, who have probably never worked in the open marketplace. It has everything to do with cultivating institutional privileges while distracting people from what matters.
Writers, pundits and teachers respond to the well-known phenomenon of “conform or be cast out” by self-censoring material to pass muster with the official gatekeepers and maintain their institutional credentials. But even after their considerable efforts to mollify the mobs, it’s never enough. Appeasement never sooths the angry brutes. (Independent scholars, by design, don’t have credentials that can be taken away; they have intentional students to enlighten and challenge as needed or dismiss if warranted.)
Today on the college front, one sentence out of line (in the view of the academic gestapo) can ruin a career. The chilling effects of this barbarism—even at “good” schools—cannot be overstated. Academic bullying has been a key feature of the university model for decades and it’s only getting worse, as documented every day by The College Fix and Campus Reform. Putting the high cost of college aside, immersing oneself in that toxic culture creates major personal risks and attitude patterns that may linger long after graduation.
Since broadcasting any challenging message to a vast audience of strangers will always be rich pickings for slander-prone extremists and easily offended conformists—and the wealthy corporations and powerful agencies who bankroll many of them—the best alternative is to bypass the dangers of the reckless distribution system to the greatest extent possible.
Direct teaching methods like mentoring and apprenticeships—where vested owners and stakeholders have more input—inherently provide some immunity from that public estrangement. They also preclude the easy profits of the mass-market education system. In the business community, that’s called a “win-win” scenario.
Don’t Wait for the “Anti-Profits” or Someone Else to Take the Lead
This is where an updated business model is needed and effective quality control comes into play. I’ve tried to address both aspects from a high-level overview. If you don’t like what I’m offering, maybe come up with your own plan or perhaps look in other existing non-college education alternatives for professional jobs, such as MissionU and Praxis.
Implementation of college alternatives will take effort—one business, one student and one mentor at a time—not as a top-down spasm of outside government mandates. It will take some people who understand the private-sector approach of doing your research, coming up with a scope and budget, investing time and energy to hopefully achieve mutual benefits with consumers… and perhaps gaining some long-term, sustainable profit if all goes well.
Since profit-bashing is a big deal nowadays, we should be careful not to step into the snare of the “non-profit” approach. Although there are a staggering 1.6 million tax-favored charitable, political and religious groups in America, none of them have been effective in developing college alternatives. Very few are even trying.
For all the fundraising and shouting on the deficiencies of college education, the deafening silence when it comes to REAL ALTERNATIVES should tell us something. By definition, these activist groups are expressly “anti-profit” (i.e., anti-work, anti-cooperation, anti-equality before the law) and proud of it! Meeting the immediate needs of the poor and weak was once their specialty, and a very important role, but that never required special tax breaks. In today’s political climate, none of the too-pure-for-profits are positioned to attempt a long-term solution to just about anything. That would be too “profitable” for their tastes and might put them out of business.
This is an important trend I’ve been watching (and the Fake News has been botching) that I plan to write about more extensively soon. For now, let’s note that people who fall for the methods of favoritism and divisive double standards (starting with lazy white slaveowners, crazy white college professors and every other narcissistic clan under the rainbow) are not just woefully lacking in discernment. They have implicitly doomed themselves and their intended mission field to a lifetime of dependency and despair. (If I’m wrong, please point to ONE tax-favored group out of 1.6 million that has put forward any viable alternative to the mandatory 4-year college degree for professional jobs. I’ve looked and can’t find a single good example. But I can find this tax-free corporate minion model funded by the State of Colorado and praised by the State Media complex.)
The multi-generational failure of subsidized college should be enough evidence for reasonable people to consider a different approach. But the lure of subsidies and the warm blanket of official approval are apparently too much for the faint of heart, especially if they believe the message they’ve been taught in school that Big Things Can Only Happen with Big Government.
Along the way, we seem to have forgotten that innovation comes from individuals. That can (I hope) include people who are reluctant participants of one of those tax-favored groups as well as erstwhile members of small and large corporations, such as me. However, the misguided folks who advocate the practice of favoritism and double standards—particularly the ones who run the various educational, political and religious institutions of our day—have repeatedly proven over the centuries that they will never risk giving up their position of power by challenging the status quo.
My biggest take-away from that is to not wait for a Knight on a White Horse to storm in and crush the infidels, especially on the college landscape. Better to step out from the pack and find some reasonable people to cooperatively work with for the mutual benefit of everyone involved. After that, the more cautious can join in once the pioneers have cleared a path and the road becomes less dangerous… but also less exciting. That is simply how progress happens.
In the world of college alternatives and many other life choices, the adventure begins when you get an idea or hear a good plan and decide to act on it.
Back to work for me. What will you do?
For further information please contact: Steve@mentor-model.com