Williams: Is college education worth it?

By Walter E. Williams | The Daily Signal

August is the month when parents bid farewell to not only their college-bound youngsters but also a sizable chunk of cash for tuition.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

More than 18 million students attend our more than 4,300 degree-granting institutions. A question parents, their college-bound youngsters, and taxpayers should ask: Is college worth it?

Let’s look at some of the numbers.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “when considering all first-time undergraduates, studies have found anywhere from 28 percent to 40 percent of students enroll in at least one remedial course. When looking at only community college students, several studies have found remediation rates surpassing 50 percent.”

Only 25 percent of students who took the ACT in 2012 met the test’s readiness benchmarks in all four subjects (English, reading, math, and science). Just 5 percent of black students and 13 percent of Hispanic students met the readiness benchmarks in all four subjects.

The National Conference of State Legislatures report says, “A U.S. Department of Education study found that 58 percent of students who do not require remediation earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 17 percent of students enrolled in remedial reading and 27 percent of students enrolled in remedial math.”

The fact of business is that colleges admit a far greater number of students than those who test as being college-ready.

Why should students be admitted to college when they are not capable of academic performance at the college level? Admitting such students gets the nation’s high schools off the hook.

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The estimated total cost of attending the University of Vermont for 2017 is $31,960 for Vermont residents and $55,442 for out-of-state residents. That cost includes tuition, fees, average housing and meals, books and personal expenses. (Source)

The nation’s high schools can continue to deliver grossly fraudulent education—namely, issue diplomas that attest that students can read, write, and compute at a 12th-grade level when they may not be able to perform at even an eighth- or ninth-grade level.

You say, “Hold it, Williams. No college would admit a student who couldn’t perform at an eighth- or ninth-grade level.”

During a recent University of North Carolina scandal, a learning specialist hired to help athletes found that during the period from 2004 to 2012, 60 percent of the 183 members of the football and basketball teams read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. About 10 percent read below a third-grade level.

These were students with high school diplomas and admitted to the university. And it’s not likely that the University of North Carolina is the only university engaging in such gross fraud.

Many students who manage to graduate don’t have a lot to show for their time and money.

New York University professor Richard Arum, co-author of “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” says his study shows that more than a third of students showed no improvement in critical thinking skills after four years at a university.

That observation is confirmed by the many employers who complain that lots of recent graduates cannot seem to write an email that will not embarrass the company.

In 1970, only 11 percent of adult Americans held college degrees. These degree holders were viewed as the nation’s best and brightest. Today, over 30 percent hold college degrees, with a significant portion of these graduates not demonstrably smarter or more disciplined than the average American.

Declining academic standards and grade inflation tend to confirm employer perceptions that college degrees say little about job readiness.

What happens to many of these ill-prepared college graduates? If they manage to become employed in the first place, their employment has little to do with their degree.

One estimate is that 1 in 3 college graduates have a job historically performed by those with a high school diploma or the equivalent.

According to Richard Vedder, who is a professor of economics at Ohio University and the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, we had 115,000 janitors, 16,000 parking lot attendants, 83,000 bartenders, and about 35,000 taxi drivers with bachelor’s degrees in 2012.

The bottom line is that college is not for everyone. There is absolutely no shame in a youngster’s graduating from high school and learning a trade.

Doing so might earn him much more money than many of his peers who attend college.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

4 thoughts on “Williams: Is college education worth it?

  1. The question should be: Is the cost of Vermont’s public school education worth it?

    Don’t just compare Vermont’s State spending per student (an inflated ‘equalized’ student enrollment) that includes only about 60% of a public school district budget. My school district budget, for example, shows a total cost per student for K-6 of over $20K per year. Students can attend Johnson State, Castleton State and Lyndon State colleges for an equal amount, and that includes a full college course load. Imagine. We pay as much to educate a 1st grader as we do to send a student to one of these State colleges – including room and board!

    Meanwhile, the Vermont Smarter Balance and NECAP academic performance testing indicates that more than half of Vermont’s 11th graders aren’t meeting minimum standards in Language Arts, Math and Science. And, yet, Vermont has a 90% high school graduation rate.

    At the same time, only 40% of Vermont’s high school graduates go to college and 30%-40% of those who do go to college must take remedial instruction and ultimately drop out before graduating from college.

  2. Make no mistake about it, we’re talking about a lot of money.

    “Americans owe over $1.4 trillion in [college] student loan debt, spread out among about 44 million borrowers. That’s about $620 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt. In fact, the average Class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, up six percent from last year. ”

    Meanwhile, Vermonters spend more than twice that amount educating their K-12 students on the backs of property taxpayers.

  3. Re-read the last few lines of Mr. William’s article. I lay the blame solely at the feet of the high school administrators who want to claim ” X % of our graduates go off to college ! (This is how we justify our salaries)”. Speaking as a college graduate with a basically worthless degree, I can only thank my Mom who always told us to have a skill to fall back on. I have worked with my hands and my head as a skilled tradesman for nearly 40 years. My family always had a roof over our head (bought, not rented) , food on the table and relatively new vehicles in the driveway. Yet in most high schools, the students have been conditioned to look down on anyone who gets their hands dirty for a living. Think about that the next time you get a bill from a plumber or automotive technician ( They’re not mechanics- todays cars are more complex than our spacecraft of 20 years ago) . When’s the last time an electrician’s job was outsourced to India?

    • I agree with J Z Turtle. We use to have strong vocational programs with numerous courses offered in learning a trade. What is stupid is when these under achieving high school students borrow thousands of dollars to go to college. A good air conditioning man, plumber, electrician or carpenter make good money if they are good at what they do.

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