Making the case against college

Back in October, I was baffled to see Jacob Weisberg at Slate lose his cool over an effort by Internet entrepreneur — and libertarian — Peter Thiel to make kids consider not going to (or at least not finishing) college.

Weisberg's description of the program: “The Thiel Fellowship will pay would-be entrepreneurs under 20 $100,000 in cash to drop out of school.”

Sounds promising to me, but Weisberg flipped out, calling it an “appalling plan to pay students to quit college” and a “nasty idea” without ever quite telling us why. It's not as if Thiel was paying kids to become prostitutes or divorce their parents, or something most of the culture would believe was self-evidently bad. Weisberg, however, treats dropping out of college as being on that level of so-bad-I-don't-need-to-explain-why-it's-bad.

I've long suspected too many kids go to college and finish college — that college is a waste of time and money for many, and our economy and culture would be better if, as a whole, America spent less time at college.

One common pro-college argument is “it's statistically proven that college pays for itself in higher earning power.”

I've long made two rebuttals to question those statistics:

1) Part of that is irrational bias by bosses, who put too much value in a college degree.

2) Part of that is the fact that smart kids with good work ethic tend to go to college. In other words, being able to get into a good college is a sign that you have it what it takes to be successful in the business world.

Reason's Nick Gillespie points us to a study suggesting something like my Point #2. The New York Times describes the results:

In 1999, economists from Princeton and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation looked at some of the same data Professor Eide and his colleagues had used, but crunched them in a different way: they compared students at more selective colleges to others of “seemingly comparable ability,” based on their SAT scores and class rank, who had attended less selective schools, either by choice or because a top college rejected them.

The earnings of graduates in the two groups were about the same — perhaps shifting the ledger in favor of the less expensive, less prestigious route.

On a related note, Ira Stoll at The Future of Capitalism points us to an article called “The Great College Degree Scam.” Here's the heart of that article:

the push to increase the number of college graduates seems horribly misguided from a strict economic/vocational perspective… We are deceiving our young population to mindlessly pursue college degrees when very often that is advice that is increasingly questionable

Finally, let me point you to writings on this theme by Glenn Reynolds, my colleague Michael Barone, and my brother John Carney.

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