30 December 2011

Compelling Proof of the College Bubble

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.
Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.

One of the subtle cultural shifts arising from the education bubble has been how people are inclined to view college.  It used to be that people went to college for an education.  Now people go to college in order to ensure having a good job later on.*  In essence, the role of college has shifted from education to credentials.

As such, it should not be surprising that colleges dumb down both their admission requirements and their curriculum, for the goal is not education.  Rather, the goal is giving students customers a piece of paper that says they are smart.  This claim doesn’t have to reflect reality in any meaningful way because most students don’t bear the direct costs of their “education.”  Therefore, students are considerably more willing to spend their parents’ money and their future income on degrees that become less and less valuable.

Basically, then, the dumbing down of academic standards is proof of the education bubble because the free and cheap money subsidizes marginal students who would otherwise have no business being in college.  This subsidy is then seen in the dumbed-down curriculum, for students expect to have something to show for the time and money they’ve put into college, and it’s easier to satisfy customers by giving them a degree regardless of their actual accomplishments.

* One thing that always puzzles me is how parents think that four to six years of extended adolescence is better for their children’s future than having an actual full time job is.  But that’s for another post.


  1. I already have one of those worthless degrees you and many other men of the manosphere talk about.

    I started as an English major, switched to Business, and finished as an Accounting major. I hoped that having professional credentials (I have completed my CPA required hours) would help me get a job.

    Unfortunately, I can't even get a would-you-like-fries-with-that sort of job. Apparently, a Bachelors of Business Administration degree with an Accounting major means nothing.

    My sister is a freshman this year. She is studying Music Business. I was wondering if there are any salvagable programs or if everything is shit?

  2. Generally speaking, STEM majors do well. She might try medicine, if she's so inclined.

    If she wants to go into the music business, she should definitely look into getting direct experience (work at a concert venue, volunteer/intern at a record label (or in a recording studio). She should also make a point of reading the Lefsetz letter. The idea that a music business degree will give her a leg up in the business is simply ludicrous. She should also familiarize herself with the relevant technology (Wikipedia is a good place to start), the history of the music industry (starting at the tail end of the renaissance, and focusing primarily on western music), and she should familiarize herself with as many different artists and genres as possible (mySpoonful, A.V. Club, Pitchfork, and the archives of Mashable's free music Monday). Basically, if she wants to make it in the music industry, she will pretty much have to do it herself, and she will also have to be very competitive and assertive about what she wants.

  3. I was lucky enough not to get accepted into my top choice college after high school. Since I couldn't justify spending $100K on a second-choice college, I decided to work instead. I've held a variety of jobs, lived in several states, traveled, and grown up. Now my HS class is graduating college and is in the same place I was four years ago, only deep in debt. Don't get me wrong; most kids in my class who didn't go to college are working at gas stations and have kids on the way. And there's a good pile of jobs that really do require formal education. But for anyone with a lick of smarts, and, more importantly, self-motivation, college is rapidly becoming a huge waste of time and money.

  4. @lifescansdarkly- College is basically noise at this point, so people who go to college are finding that they aren't actually better off, in terms of job prospects, with a college degree. They do have a mountain of crushing debt, though, and that doesn't help at all. Eventually reality will shine through, and the fairy tale of the magical college degree will eventually be replaced with reality of job placement.

  5. There is no way into the STEM jobs without a degree.

    It would be more helpful for us to talk about well-paying trade jobs in this country, ie jobs like journeyman machinist, etc.

  6. @PRCalDude- Hence my response. If someone is desirous of going to college, their best bet is to have a STEM major. Elsewise, don't go.

    Trade jobs do need to be emphasized more, as you said, but that's beyond the scope of this post, and is best left for high school counselors anyhow.