By Jacob Weisberg
The first job Roger Labrador, a 1992
graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, landed after
graduation was working as a short-order cook for US $4.25 an hour. Things
have improved slightly since then. He's now making US $5.00 an hour at a
Pragmatists might be inclined to say that's what Labrador deserves for
majoring in studio art. But consider the case of his classmate and
girlfriend, 22-year-old Kimberly Brewer. She majored in biology, thinking
she'd be able to get an entry-level job with a biotech firm or
veterinarian. But the biotech firms told her she needed a graduate degree,
and the veterinarians told her they wanted someone with "hands-on
experience." She is now working at a rubber-stamp factory for US $6.25 an
"Out of all the people I went to school with," says Labrador, "I only
know one person who got a real, high paying job. Nowadays, people don't
care if you have a degree."
Statistics bear out the pair's experience. A recent survey of
Californians who returned to community college for job training after
getting a bachelor's degree showed that almost 10 percent have incomes of
less than US $8,000, a figure slightly below the poverty line. But it's
not just California graduates who are wondering about the real value of
their diplomas. According to a 1991 study by the National Center for
Education Statistics, 40 percent of all 1990 graduates felt the work they
did in their jobs did not require a college degree.
In the U.S., a great many of us go to college with the naive assumption
that a diploma will bring us economic success. While it's true that
college graduates make more money in the long run, it's also true that
four years at a university is no longer the best path to making a lot of
money, nor is it even a guarantee of a secure middle class existence.
For those who are so intensely focused at age 18 that they know how
they plan to make money, four or more years doing something other than
making it is likely to be a waste of time. With four years of college now
costing as much as US $100,000, a US $139 yearly subscription the Wall
Street Journal is probably a better investment. As Robert Wallach,
president and CEO of Robert Plan, an urban auto insurance agency, proudly
told that newspaper, "We have the lowest proportionate number of college
graduates on staff in the industry. I don't want the valedictorian, I want
the kid who sold cigarettes in the bathroom."
Indeed, a look at the Forbes 400 shows little correlation between the
accumulation of degrees and the accumulation of wealth. First on the list
is software whiz kid Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard in 1975 to
start Microsoft, from which he has earned a cool US $6.3 billion. Another
example is Michael Dell, one of whose computers I'm writing this on. Dell
dropped out of the University of Texas after starting his own company,
which later became Dell Computers. He is now 28 years old and worth US
people have succeeded without college, but there are also many
famous ones, for example:
John D. Rockefeller
Alexander Graham Bell
Frank Lloyd Wright
and seven presidents from
Washington to Truman
It's not just cyberpunks who can make
it without a sheepskin. Being booted from Brown didn't do much harm to Ted
Turner's career. Nor did dropping out of the University of California at
Los Angeles hurt show-business tycoon David Geffen, who was a
multimillionaire at 25 and is now, at 49, worth a billion dollars. After a
few semesters at college, Geffen left to get some real training in the
mailroom of the William Morris talent agency. Of course, the Morris
agency, like most employers, did not hire people without college degrees.
When Geffen's transcript arrived in the mail, he intercepted it and
substituted a forged letter. Even the talent agency was more interested in
the credentials than the talent.
The ranks of college dropouts include a lot of highly literate people
as well, even a few intellectuals: poet Maya Angelou, Vanity Fair editor
E. Graydon Carter and National Public Radio legal-affairs correspondent
Nina Tolenberg. The highly motivated usually manage to educate themselves.
It is an American tradition as old as Ben Franklin.
Even if college isn't a reliable passport to an upper middle-class
existence, you could still argue it's a good place to get an education, to
broaden your mind and learn about the world. But intellectually and
academically, college is in a bad way. Consider the titles of some recent
about articles about the American university: Killing the Spirit, Liberal
Education, The Closing of the American Mind, Prof Scam, The Hollow Men ...
The list goes on.
Things are looking grim even at the highly selective Ivy League
schools. It was big news last spring when a survey of 3,119 Ivy League
undergraduates reported by the magazine U.S. News and World Report found
that only half the respondents could name the two senators, from their
home state, and only 41 percent could name at least four members of the
U.S. Supreme Court.
The Ivy League, though, represents only seven schools. There are now
thousands of colleges in America, partly as a result of the GI Bill passed
by Congress in 1944. The bill made it possible for millions of World War
II veterans to go to college. As a result, colleges swelled into
universities, and a lot of new colleges sprang into being. But in looking
for ways to finance their existence, many of these institutions have
become little more than corporate subsidiaries, centers for "research"
that have little to do with opening the minds of the young.
The professors at these schools are often more focused on securing
tenure by publishing their own work—a crucible known in academics as
"publish or perish"—than on teaching, and leave the actual work to TA's
(teaching assistants), graduate students with little more training than
undergraduates. At the University of California at Berkley, there are
1,742 of these teaching assistants, and at Harvard University—the school
ranked number one academically in the survey published by U.S. News and
World Report—there are about 850 of them.
The wars over political correctness have also turned many campuses into
battlefields, where there's more debates about what students should be
studying than there is actual studying of anything. As critic Robert
Hughes points out in his new book, The Culture of Complaint, the current
controversy over multicultural versus traditional curricula assumes that
what people read in school is so important because everyone knows few
graduates will read anything other than the occasional best seller once
they graduate. This is proof, if any were needed, of the failure of the
system. What are colleges doing if not fostering the curiosity that will
make their graduates into lifelong readers?
If college is so dismal, why are we more intent than ever on the idea
that everyone must go? This year, more than a million people will graduate
from college; in 1960, fewer than 400,000 received degrees. Part of the
reason is the social function that the university has come to play in
American life. For most of us, college is our first chance to live away
from home; to learn about drinking, drugs and sex. And it affords us the
chance to do it in a sheltered, protective setting. It introduces us to
kinds of people we've never met and creates avenues of social mobility.
The belief in college also stems from a kind of misplaced egalitarianism
that says if everyone has the same credential, credentials will somehow
cease to matter.
The result is almost precisely the opposite. Today, paradoxically, a
college diploma is considered both essential and nearly meaningless. Since
employers can no longer rely n a college diploma, per se, to have much
value, they rely more and more on specialized graduate-school programs to
train prospective employees. Hence, the recent boom in MBAs. Roger
Labrador and Kim Brewer, the two UC Santa Cruz graduates who couldn't find
good jobs, are both planning to continue their studies—he's thinking about
graduate school; she's taking animal health technology courses at a
community college. The problem with this is that four years to get your
ticket punched before moving on to real training isn't a very efficient
use of time.
Some efforts are under way to reconsider what the experience of college
is all about. S. Fredrick Starr, the president of Oberlin College in Ohio,
and Gerhard Casper, the new president of California's Stanford University,
have both suggested making college three years instead of four. This has
drawn a hostile reaction from other university presidents, who consider
the four-year plan eternally locked. In fact, it's a historical accident.
Harvard took the four-year scheme from Cambridge in 1636. Soon afterward,
Cambridge switched to three years. Casper argues that dropping the fourth
year would force colleges to think harder about what it is they want to
In many ways, the problem lies not with colleges themselves, but with
what our society expects from them. We need to get away from the idea that
a BA or BS is the single necessary credential for any sort of
advancement—or even an automatic hallmark of academic achievement. People
graduating from high school should be encouraged to take the time to
consider their options, and to try different things before they go off to
spend four years at a college. Had Labrador and Brewer worked in the real
world before going to college, they might have spent those four years
differently and been better prepared for the realities of the job
We need to recognize that a great many people don't want, can't afford
and won't benefit much from such a diversion. The cure is not to cut off
opportunities for going to college; it's to think more seriously about who
goes and why they go. Instead of moving toward a system where everybody
goes to college, we should think about creating a situation where
everybody who wants to can, but no one feels her life will be ruined if
she doesn't. College should be a choice—but not an automatic one.