Books and Code · A Miscellany

College for Grown-Ups


Having gone to college as a grown-up, I have something to say in response to this well-meaning article.

“The source of these problems is baked into the current organization of residential higher education.”

…which has been propped up by government subsidy for decades.

“If we were starting from zero, we probably wouldn’t design colleges as age-segregated playgrounds in which teenagers and very young adults are given free rein to spend their time more or less as they choose.”

The problem is that the proverbial We shouldn’t be designing anything. College is expensive and age-segregated because bad policy has made the higher education market unresponsive to the price mechanism and caused obscene amounts of money to be wasted.

“While innovators continue to imagine more flexible forms of college, traditionalists might champion two proven models: community colleges […] and the G.I. Bill”

These traditionalists are deluded fools. Tuition prices will come down when we stop dumping money on colleges by the truckload. If community colleges are the answer then they will beat out other options in the marketplace, no heavy-handed “championing” needed…

The vast majority of college undergrad learning can be done for pennies. This is not a new internet phenomenon. $50 and a trip to the used book store or a walk down to the public library gets you access to all the textbooks and materials you need to learn just about anything you can learn at a liberal arts college. Not self-motivated? Start a study group. If the only way you can motivate yourself to learn is by borrowing tons of money to pay someone to “force” you to do it, then you probably shouldn’t be going to college in the first place. Go get that retail or secretarial job now that you will inevitably end up in later anyway. That’s keeping it real.

Most people leave college and end up in a job that has nothing to do with their degree. Put another way, many jobs shouldn’t require a degree or could use skill-based competency exams instead. If we didn’t throw tuition money at ambivalent kids, many could enter the labor market directly instead. There’s no shame in this route, or wouldn’t be if we hadn’t engineered the educational system to be a marker of class.

On the flip side, I’ve seen kids with a Computer Science degree who can’t program themselves out of a paper bag. What on earth were they doing for 4 years?! Give me the competent kid with no degree any day–except employers can’t find those people because they are drowned out by the noise of thousands of pretenders waving a useless piece of paper that we bought for them.

The “intangibles” of the college experience can be had for the cost of your own free time and a library card. The job-training aspect (and high-level academic training, which is simply another form of job-training), will be vastly cheaper when colleges have the incentives to make it so and consumers aren’t paid to demand a product they don’t actually want.