College Might Be Useless

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Perhaps you’re still in college, maybe you recently graduated, or maybe you’ve been gone for years, but for those done with that chapter of life, tell me, did that six-figure investment you and/or your parents made do much for you? Do you wish it had done more for you — or that you had done more with it? Are you already longing for graduate school because you feel you’re probably only using about two percent of your brain, or are you reading three books a week to try to cling to the words and grammatical rules and existential preoccupations of man you learned in school? (Note: this last works pretty well, if you can’t afford grad school.)

Not to fear: there’s a book-length study to back up your suspicions of premature noodle calcification. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses is a new book by Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa that examines 2,300 students at 24 universities over the course of their four years of study. According to NPR, the study “measured both the amount that students improved in terms of critical thinking and writing skills, in addition to how much they studied and how many papers they wrote for their courses.”

The results are not very encouraging. The evidence suggests that “more than a third of students showed no improvement in critical thinking skills after four years at a university.” The first two years of college, which I remember as regrettably lazy and fun, were found to be particularly useless. Arum says a large part of the problem is that university professors have too much of an incentive to give students an easy time of it, both in terms of workload and grading, so that they’ll receive high marks on their teacher evaluations come the end of the semester. As a result, the typical workload of the college students the authors studied is laughably light: “35 percent of students reported studying five hours per week or less, and 50 percent said they didn’t have a single course that required 20 pages of writing in their previous semester.”

Isn’t it nice that you can pay $150,000 to help professors hold down their jobs? Of course, students can always make things more challenging than the status quo by taking more courses, transferring to a more rigorous school, or petitioning to skip ahead to higher-level courses. But more often what seems to be happening is that students are using their spare time to take internships and build up experience so that they’ll be that much farther ahead when they graduate. Their shepherd in all this: the Internet (and the professors sitting with their feet up on their desks when they should be finding some 500-page text for them to read). Sure, these young ones might not know how to write, but their present and future bosses can teach them that. And they won’t even charge them. TC mark


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  • Guy

    philosophy degrees sole purpose to develop critical thinking right?

    most college graduates seem a bit disenchanted and hardly are using their degrees for income…

    what should the youth do? what is a productive alternative to college?

  • kate

    as for me, my ass is getting kicked right now. i have five papers due and two midterm exams to take in the next two weeks. what colleges are these people attending?

    • Christie

      Agreed! Mine certainly does not seem as simple as outlined here, or as expensive, actually…

  • Penelope

    Going to college nowadays is more about securing a $12/hr simple secretarial position in a field you don't care for and less about learning, unfortunately. As my mother loves to remind me as I struggle over whether or not to return to school to finish my last two years, “I'm just thinking of your financial security!” You pay a lot of money to make slightly more money than you would if you hadn't payed all that money in the first place. Sure you learn things but how often do you use those things you learn in the job you eventually must get to make loan payments? The real problem is businesses realizing that a degree makes no difference in how well one can answer phones, make appointments and file papers. I feel like I could write a 15 book series on this topic.

    • Mitch

      Exactly. Attending a university may prove beneficial in one's professional life, but that should be seen as a possible side benefit. The motivating factor in pursuing university studies should be a desire to gain a classical education and better oneself as an individual. This means mathematics, science, history, the humanities, etc. Learning and understanding how and why the world works the way it does, rather than simply taking your token Business English course then moving on with your laser-focused degree program.

      'Course, as long as higher education remains a profitable enterprise, nothing will change.

      • ruthlezz

        Classical education, Amen. Let's drop the facade and stop churning out millions of Psych majors who chose it simply because it seemed 'interesting', 'easy' and 'the least science-y of the sciences'. A University is not usually an occupational school, nor should it be.

    • Jaishankar

      I agree totally, if I can find someone that can do the JOB and not walk in with some piece of paper they will get the job. And no, degree is not a security as much as one thinks, look at all the stock and bond MBE’s after the financial crash serving as waiters in restaurants to their one time colleagues? I know hairdressers making more money and investing it wisely having a good life. And sorry on the payed word I just noticed English speaking writers these days have been using that word incorrectly a quite a bit, payed is for rope being payed out in a line like on ships.

  • fl

    This article is pretty fitting for my current predicament, actually. Ever since graduating in 2009 and having been unemployed since (minus a brief three-month stint as a part-time teacher's aide at an elementary school), I found myself thinking that maybe it would have been a better investment of my time if I had stayed home and gotten a desk job out of high school, working my way up the corporate ladder. I'm pretty sure daily viewings of Judge Judy, Food Network, and the Price Is Right is quickly undoing the “critical thinking” skills I harnessed from writing ~1000 pages of academic writing (assuming each course had a weekly one-page reading response + three 5-page papers, over a 16-week semester, 4 courses per semester on average).

    It doesn't help that while attending community college courses now (“for fun”), the instructors continue to emphasize how a bachelor's degrees allows an individual the potential to earn $20,000/year more on average than someone with a diploma/associate's. While the numbers might prove that to be true, on average, I'm waiting for that $20,000/year to kick in for me.

  • GIRL

    A bachelor's degree is about as handy as a high school diploma was in the 1950s. Solution: go to grad school. Can't afford it? Take out a loan.

    • fl

      In 20 years (most likely less) a Ph.D would be what a B.A. is today. Then what?

    • Mitch

      To what point and purpose? What major industry remains in the U.S. which requires a college education to properly perform the jobs composing it? We're a service sector economy. What need does the produce manager at Smith's have for a 4 year degree?

  • Stegosaurus

    Try being an engineering major for like two days. While I agree that most majors at college are a joke, and that you would be better served learning how to weave baskets under water, there are still some students that feel serious pain from their studies. Hopefully it pays off some day…

    • Connor

      No one said anything about most majors at college being a joke.

      Most majors can present challenges if you take them. Or you can coast.

      Yes, some students feel serious pain from their studies. Not all of them are engineering majors, though I will say that engineering of any kind is by far the most intimidating!

      • Jaishankar

        I felt serious pain from my studies but I have a question, should you force an Engineering major to take cooking and art classes and pay 1000 for each one? Or maybe underwater basket weaving as a MUST for a well rounded engineer? Could be interesting. But really should it be shoved on them like all the useless classes are on art majors in graphics and animation or the wanna be chefs trying to learn about building a bridge using calculus?

      • Connor

        I’m not sure what college you attended or are looking at right now, but no one that I know has been forced to take a cooking class. There is a general education category of Fine Arts that one must satisfy, though. General education courses are meant to help the student explore possibilities for other fields of study in a formal manner and to allow them to understand more than just their vocation. You can say that the classes are there solely to help professors hold down jobs. That’s completely fine. But the reality is that, perhaps in combination with that idea, you can learn from these courses if you put time and effort into them, and oftentimes you may get more out of it than you would get out of independent study, at least for younger college students not used to learning on their own. They do serve a benign purpose.

      • Jaishankar

        Just making a point that they force silly classes on degrees that have nothing to do with the degree, and I wonder when they demand that you write in code for your classes but you are taking graphics why don’t they make the engineering types take art classes and force them to make passable art? Too many of my class mates want to know why they are taking classes so unrelated at such a high cost that it seems ridiculous.

      • Jaishankar

        Just making a point that they force silly classes on degrees that have nothing to do with the degree, and I wonder when they demand that you write in code for your classes but you are taking graphics why don’t they make the engineering types take art classes and force them to make passable art? Too many of my class mates want to know why they are taking classes so unrelated at such a high cost that it seems ridiculous.

  • greenlight

    As a European where all education is free, I can't help but let out a belly-laugh whenever Americans mention education and costs in the same sentence. I've been working for a few years, but I just dropped back into uni for an extra course that interested me, and it didn't cost a dime.

    • Mitch

      Goddamn Europeans, with your free education and your universal health care, and your reasonable social services and your history and culture, and your tight pants and your techno vikings.

      …Can I come play at your house?

    • Atari

       Doesn’t matter how nice it sounds, socialism just isn’t a good thing.

  • Hannah

    I think young people entering university today face some really tough choices. People who should not be there shuffled in because they felt it was necessary in order to gain ANY kind of decent employment, or because their parents pushed them to continue studies. I sympathize with students who feel pressured to be in university and who deal with enormous debt to be there. But are universities useless? There is no question that academic standards have been lowered in universities throughout Canada and the U.S., but I'm not sure we can blame this on the professors. The bottom line is that more and more students are going to university, and university is not for everyone. Public schools are failing many students and not preparing them for university (this is another story, for another day). Universities cannot be expected to take stupid, unmotivated people (yes, you remember meeting some of those) and transform them into wonderful critical thinkers — and no employer will do this, either! People need to start taking responsibility for their education, whatever form this education may take.

  • ;]

    College may or may not be useless but fuck you if you think I'm not working my ass off.

  • R.

    I'm not sure what's news about this. That academia is biased or that people are idiots?

    I went to a really rough high school – rough meaning that there were race riots, the principle was attacked and had to be hospitalized during one of those riots, and you couldn't walk into certain bathrooms, hallways or wear certain items of clothing because of gang activity, among other things.

    But I graduated, I went to a junior college and got good grades and transferred to one of the best schools in the state. Education is like anything else: you get out what you put into it. And when you send a bunch of entitled, self-involved ass-holes to a party school where it's more important to be in the right frat than get the right grades, what can you really expect?

    Don't blame the universities for not being able to teach the idiots who spend all their college years (usually 5+ because they've got their parents' money to burn) smoking weed, playing beer pong, stealing pills and paying other people to do their work for them. I think part of the reason a B.A. means less now is because more idiots are out there devaluing themselves and their education.

    I'm not trying to say that academia isn't biased, because it definitely is flawed. But it's not more flawed than the marketplace, and we're never going to insist that people are hired based off of true merit, now are we?

  • EmiliaBedelia

    this article devalues education even more.

  • ariezee

    THIS ARTICLE IS SOOOOO AWESOME! In form and in content! How can I write like this!? What do I have to do to write like you? or write in a place like this!? O________O ????

    • ariezee

      I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. -Dr. Seuss. =)

      • ariezee

        “might”…. could be…. like unicorns could exist. yay.

    • Bill A Pomerans

      wow ur s0 random and zany !!!!!1

      • ariezee

        maybe…. but if the research say that college is useless…. why listen to the research at all? the people who did this research went to college. so their research is useless…??? no? O__o ???

        i think the author of this article went to college too.

        bear in mind…. the title of this article is “College MIGHT Be Useless”….. might…maybe… O__o like unicorns. i like unicorns. when rhinos workout, they turn into unicorns.

  • Sceneryhog

    Did you know that the only reason why students have a core curriculum is to ensure teacher employment? Think of it: Why do you have to retake English, Math, Biology, etc. when you're focus is Art or something completely irrelevant to your chosen subject? I have taken some of these courses THREE TIMES because I went to high school, community college, and then a university. It is to ensure that teachers have job security.

    There was a time when liberal arts college were not appreciated; and many thought simply being and English major or History major was not enough and many teachers became frightened that their discipline might face extinction. Luckily universities are learning to market these disciplines in the workforce much better then they did in the past.

    There is are some questions you can ask yourself after you graduate that will hopefully make you appreciate the time and money you have spent on going to a university:
    1. Did I learn a lot?
    2. Did I get that job because of my educational background?
    3. Do I consider myself and innovative thinker now that I know how find information and maximize my time and talents?

    I can honestly say yes to all of these. I think where people fall short is exactly at the point where they think college degrees ensure job security. There is no job security anymore. You have to think outside the box and add to your resume. There are no stagnant employees or stagnant minds anymore. Those with the innovation lead this country.

    Teachers have done a swell job at selling themselves to the university; but I daresay that they have not found a good way to help you sell your own degree to the workforce.

  • The Source

    I happen to have known quite a few people who decided college “wasn't for them” and either dropped out early or never bothered to attend a school. And several years out from the time they graduated high school, they're often finding themselves drifting between one retail or “courtesy” service job after another, frequently unemployed or taking up multiple jobs to keep up with the costs of living. The unemployment rate of people who complete college is substantially lower versus those with only partial exposure to college or those who only have a high school diploma. A person with a B.A. or B.S. is, statistics say, likely to earn anywhere from $800,000 to over $1 million more over their lifetime versus someone with only a H.S. diploma/GED. Taking the lower estimate, that's at least $17,000 more per year per person over 44 years.

    The lucky few innovators who really do surpass the need to attend college are, well, few. However, certain professions, I sharply doubt, can be practiced by many merely through self-taught lessons or discoveries by happenstance. Engineering? Medicine? Law? Would I really trust the next generation of people who design our buildings and bridges, prescribe dangerous medicines or surgical procedures, and interpret cryptic wording to have been educated by unaccredited means? No!! The irony here is the author's choice to reference “professors” to make the case.

    The author seems to imply the alternative to college would result in fairly tantamount income/job prognoses. They're assuming the fault lies with the university curricula themselves rather than owing any part of it to the expectations college students or their parents have of college. The lack of motivation to learn so much as the motivation to be successful in his or her social niche. So, why were your first two years “regrettably lazy and fun?” I mean, did you take your own advice and take on more challenges? I wouldn't say college is the panacea for today's world; and, sadly, its benefits are blunted by anemic job growth and outsourcing. But college is far from “useless.”

  • Jaishankar

        College degrees, what are they supposed to offer you, a good rounded education with a focus on what? A reason to sit in the wine bar and say , Yes I read that literary tome myself and here is my pontification on what I thought of it’s value to educational purposes. Personally I read books always have and most people think I have a PHD and ask what University I attended, I just reply U of Hardnocks and slur it all  into one word like a name. Actually I have had 5 years of schooling but more specific for my field and not so many waste my time classes, some I just have NO IDEA why the require them except they are to keep some teacher in a job. I read the classics and today’s literature both, I read books on how to conduct oneself with clients and family and friends. I read a lot! I search the internet for information then double search to corroborate the information is correct for the most part.
        Most of what I learned in my college attendance was this, I read and research more than ANY of my teachers really teach. I can just go through the book at my pace and I end up knowing more than most students because I took the time to learn things. Why do I do this? When I was young my family was very poor due to losing my father and I read biographies about people and folks like George Washington Carver and Andrew Carnegie who inspired me. They didn’t get the money handed to them to go to school at someone else’s expense. They read books, many many books and asked questions and did very extraordinary things by pursuing and applying the knowledge they gathered. They had some education but put themselves into learning.
     I have paid for most all of my education and lucked into a small scholarship which basically bought books and some computer equipment. Half the time I feel I am wasting good money to take required classes but I did it anyway to get the paper so some HR dept can say, “has papers is legit”, yet I would much rather have a very knowledgeable person working for me with passion than some degree weilding dullard.
         Law, Engineering, Medicine and Physics , and this includes things like computer chip designer types etc, I can see as applicable skills in specific job sectors, business math is good for banking and investing but after that what about Plumber, Electrician, Construction, Computer repair tech, Auto repair, Secretarial, Dental tech and more, they are people who fill the needed services.
       And don’t get me started on the artists and creatives who need a specialized education to become illustrators or game designers, not games engineers who create the engines that make the stuff move but rather the artists create the look and feel of the worlds and characters. And fashion designers and interior designers and people who even make your tatoos!
       I would like to think that a University education was more weighty than it is today, seems people had much more going on about 40-ish years ago until all the protesting started. I dunno wasn’t there then lol! But I hear this a lot in college students, “oh go to school but you really learn all you need on the job” I can only agree on half of this. But if I was hiring I would like the employee to have some knowledge about what we do. Could you please come in looking for job with a bit of experience and knowledge in what we do I am glad you are well rounded but do you really understand how do do what we need you too? I am learning that today business’s are having to teach their employees at their expense how to do anything on the job now since the degree is piss water half the time. Then said trained employees have entitled attitudes and move to another firm after all that training paid for free. Currently I am going to a college to take some courses and MORE than half the students are there on someone else’s money. All free and when I hear them say to each other in the hall way, well if I don’t pass this and looks like a fail I take the fail and they pay so I can do it all over again and maybe get by on  a C average. REALLY? Do I really want to hire that mindset NO! “Sorry boss I just lost you 10 grand on that blunder let’s have a do over? NO you idiot I will hire the person who hungers for success and accomplishment first thanks, there’s the door.
    I think we need more apprenticeships now for every sector JUST to get some trained people working.
      I do see a value to a rounded education to at lest be exposed to new and other ways of thinking but if you don’t know how to apply it you may as well serve fries with your Shakespeare!

    And BTW … its paid not payed I have noticed way to many college students cannot for any reason spell simple words these days, the emails I am sent, are grindingly hard to dismiss sometimes.

    • Connor


      I completely respect a passion for self-education. I’m not doubting your intelligence, but if you just read through your comment, it’s apparent that your writing skills are abysmal. Being able to articulate yourself clearly and efficiently not only in speech but also in writing is a sign of a productive education. I’m hoping that you’re just being lax because it’s only a comment on the internet.

      More importantly, while I do agree that a passion for success and accomplishment is without a doubt a requirement, a degree does not make the person a “dullard.” It’s one thing to say that you can offer yourself a good education without a degree. It’s another completely to imply that a degree actually hurts your education. That stereotypes a huge amount of people, and, assuming you are as educated as you say you are, you know that that is practically the definition of unintelligence.

      “And don’t get me started on the artists and creatives who need a specialized education to become illustrators or game designers, not games engineers who create the engines that make the stuff move but rather the artists create the look and feel of the worlds and characters. And fashion designers and interior designers and people who even make your tatoos! ”

      I’m not completely sure, but it seems you disapprove of “artists and creatives” going to college to pursue their passion. If that’s the case, then you simply haven’t looked into it well enough and are passing a baseless judgment. “Artists and creatives” can make connections, learn from professionals, and be exposed to new avenues for their passions that they may never have been aware of. That’s not to say that they don’t require a significant amount of independent work to become successful. College can help, though.

      • Jaishankar

        Yes Conner I am being a bit lax and working in another language.

        I am in college now for the third time myself. But this time I have noticed something a bit disturbing. The attitude of most of the students here is appalling. They have an attitude that since someone else is paying the bill they can slide by on low grades or fail and take over classes without much consequence. They hand it minimal work with minimal effort.
        One classmate said since one of our classes won’t affect the G.P.A he isn’t going to put much effort into doing well but slide by too. Another classmate is hoping she can make 2.0 to get by. I think their thinking is, if they get that paper that says degree they are able to get a job. Much more than that to it I do believe. Updating yourself always, returning to school, taking more classes in today’s work world is important but…. I think some people would benefit more from apprenticeships and vocational schools. Not everyone is able to deal with high levels of math, writing, history etc.

        I am in the arts. I work in games and media and I am working on another degree to further my skills and I decided to go for the whole degree rather than classes here and there piecemeal. I have seen too many portfolios all looking EXACTLY the same. Anime characters abound. I can tell they didn’t get much training in life drawing, the art of animated sequence, story telling, basic design skills, colour theory, and more.

        I asked the advisor at this college why they don’t teach more art to their graphic design students and I was told it’s a technical degree.

        When I returned to college even the retired lawyer living next door to me said most of college for him was a party a day and slide by on his school work. I am sorry I value education, too many are denied it and have to go the route of self training and then get put down for NOT having the piece of paper. Yet they have more native intelligence than many I meet in this school.

        Just my comment on whether college is worth it or not, depends on the degree and the cost. Americans have it harder having to pay for college immediately upon graduation at high costs, when many other nations have free education. Sorry for the lot of them at 100k debt starting out in life after school. They get to compete with the South Asians, Asians and Europeans that get a free education and walk out debt free ready to work for starter wages and can successfully save money to buy a home and move on in life without grinding debt. I guess this is the American way to be always deep in debt.

  • Maggie Tyson

    I feel like you and a lot of people who commented went to really shitty schools. I’m not saying my school wasn’t shitty in its own right – the administration was fucked. But my professors? Brilliant. Every professor I met at the school, whether in my department, or another teaching one of my gen ed’s, genuinely cared about helping students succeed. I’m working an office job that is unrelated to my degree because I can’t afford grad school right now but that doesn’t mean my degree was worthless. I learned a lot – my critical thinking skills are great ;)

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