I’ve written many times before about higher education, mainly from the perspective of financing it. Thanks to Aunt Becky, for the last few weeks the national spotlight has focused on much more fundamental questions: what is post-secondary education for? Who should pursue it, and why? What should they study, and where?
Fortunately, the definitive answers to all these questions and more are below.
It has become a cliche to say that the middle class obsession with higher education is an example of “credentialism,” whereby people go to college “just to collect a piece of paper.” Evidence for this typically includes the fact that many jobs which required a high school diploma 25 years ago require a bachelor’s degree today. I want to distinguish that process, which we can call false credentialing, from true credentialing.
True credentialing describes the fact that, for a variety of historical reasons, certain work can only be performed by people who have specific credentials. If you want to become a nurse, you can’t just hang out around nurses until you pick up the tricks of the trade. If you want to become a doctor, you can’t just read a bunch of medical textbooks. If you want to become an architect, you can’t just practice drawing blueprints until you get really good at it.
In many states, everyone from hairdressers to ear piercers need a credential of some kind. Depending on the line of work you desire, you should look into what credentials are required to pursue that profession.
Now, it’s also true that these credentials can be very difficult and expensive to acquire, and many people who start off wanting to become nurses, doctors, and architects fail to complete the required credentials, either because they discover the work is worse than they hoped (blood, gore, sawdust), or they lack the interest or ability to finish.
This is an important reason to pay as little as possible for higher education, and to maintain a very high willingness to drop out. People who complete their medical, dental, or engineering education do not usually struggle to pay their higher education expenses. But since you don’t know in advance whether you will succeed at acquiring a credential or not, you should always prefer to pay less rather than more. If you succeed, there’s no harm done in having below-average educational debt, and if you fail there’s an enormous advantage to having below-average educational debt!
Another good reason to get a post-secondary degree is if you are interested in pursuing high-wage employment. I’ve had enough jobs over the years that I don’t particularly recommend it, but if you’re the kind of person who wants to work for someone else, it’s almost always better to be paid more rather than less, and better-paid jobs typically require some kind of post-secondary education, whether it’s a formal degree, a vocational diploma, or even something as simple as a commercial driver’s license.
Note that I am distinguishing high–wage employment from having a high income. If you want a high income, you should figure out something you’re good at, then charge people to do it for them. If you’re not good at anything, you should get good at something, then charge people to do it for them.
It might cost a few thousand dollars in art supplies to get good at screen-printing, or a few thousand dollars in gym memberships to get good at weight lifting, or a few thousand dollars in running shoes to get good at training for marathons, but if you want to work for yourself, you don’t need a degree. You don’t even need a resume (as long as you promise not to ask for it).
This is a good time to mention a common misunderstanding people have about higher education. It’s become a cliche to say that so-called “STEM” fields pay well, so students should be encouraged to study science, technology, engineering, and math in college. But this advice is only relevant if you want to seek wage employment. You do not need a college degree to own a tree nursery (“science”), Apple doesn’t ask you to upload a resume before submitting apps to the App Store (“technology”), Chinese factories don’t ask to see your degree before shipping you drone parts (“engineering”), and anybody can upload mathematical proofs to the internet (although I don’t think there’s very much money in that one).
In other words, acquiring a degree in a STEM field may make sense if you want to turn your degree into high-wage employment; it’s totally unnecessary if you want to work for yourself.
An advanced education
Another important reason you might pursue post-secondary education is to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of one or more subjects. Fortunately, this can usually be done for very little cost if you’re able to do any planning at all. The key insight is that the cost of American higher education has a horseshoe shape: tuition at community colleges and in-state public universities is extremely cheap or free, mid-tier private universities and out-of-state public universities are extremely expensive, and tuition at elite private universities is again cheap or free due to large endowments and generous financial aid (ignore the sticker price; nobody pays that except aging 90’s TV stars).
Here you might object that “thanks to the Internet,” information is free. Why would you pay anything to sit in a classroom and listen to a lecture when you can watch thousands of hours of lectures on any topic from the comfort of your own home.
The answer, of course, is that regardless of what information costs, information is different than an education. Out of curiosity, I pulled up the requirements for an undergraduate degree in history at Yale University. Eyeballing it, students need to take about 10 classes in the Department of History to meet the degree requirements. Here’s a description of a semester-long, freshman class selected at random from the Yale Spring semester course catalog:
“This course introduces students to the myth-making processes involved in the creation of nation-states in the post-Ottoman Middle East, including Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, as well as in Iran and Egypt. It explores the ways in which national identities and nation-states formed—in ways both organic and forced—around certain myths and ideologies. It examines the impact of these national/nationalist myths on revolutions and uprisings in the late Ottoman and post-Ottoman Middle East. The course readings, sources, and discussions examine the relationship between myths of national origin, revolution, and state-making. The class also addresses the ways in which the control over the creation of myths of origin and ethnic, racial, national, and religious identity shaped society and politics in nation-states, republics, and monarchies especially after 1918. The course focuses partly on the theoretical underpinnings of national myth-making and ideologies of nationalism in order to offer historical understandings as to how states, majority and minority groups, and different national movements in post-Ottoman society created and re-made ‘imagined communities’ of nationals and citizens, sometimes through violence. The course surveys the ways in which new identities became manifested in a number of often-revolutionary ideologies including pan-Arab nationalism, Zionism, Kemalism, Phoenicianism, Baathist socialism, and various anti-imperial and anti-colonial movements.”
By contrast, Khan Academy, the most famous of the “free online universities,” appears to have about an hour of video explaining the history of the Middle East in the 20th century. PragerU, the creepy conservative alternative education site, has four videos about the Middle East, including the 5-minute-long, iconic video starring the dead-eyed master of ceremonies, Dennis Prager himself: “The Middle East Problem.”
Look: I love Wikipedia as much as anybody, but even at its best, Wikipedia can only provide you with information, not an education.
Post-secondary education advice roundup
We’re going a little bit long here, so I want to add a bunch of quick hits that will be available in the same place:
- Whenever you move between states, immediately change your voter registration, apply for a new state ID or driver’s license, and file taxes in the new state (even if you don’t owe any state taxes). State residency for tuition purposes is seen by amateurs as an intrinsic fact about your identity, but this is false. It’s a composite of what you can and can’t prove. The more facts you can prove about your presence in the state, the more likely you are to receive in-state tuition.
- If you decide to go the elite-private-school route, do not take any post-secondary classes after the summer after you graduate high school. At most elite private universities, if you take any classes after that summer, you will not be eligible for “freshman” admission, and you’ll be required to meet the much stricter “transfer” admission requirements.
- On the other hand, if you decide to go the in-state public university route, you should aim to meet as many of your general education or distribution requirements as possible before enrolling, so you can focus on getting as specialized a university education as possible. The way this works is that “lower-division” courses are typically large lectures, often taught by over-worked lecturers and offering little or no personal attention, while “upper-division” courses are more often smaller classes taught by tenure-track professors. The more you can tilt your course load towards the latter, the more bang for the buck you’ll get.
- Many people say the only way to gain fluency in a foreign language is to live for an extended period in a country where that language is spoken. This is false. The only way to gain fluency in a foreign language is to attend the Middlebury Language School for that language.
- Never pay for non-professional graduate school. I don’t think you should pay for professional graduate school either, but I understand the world needs doctors, so I’m not going to fight that battle here. But if you are considering attending a graduate program in the humanities or sciences, only enroll if you are provided health insurance, a tuition waiver and a stipend. Do not borrow money for non-professional graduate school. Do not pay for non-professional graduate school. If you can’t get admitted to a program that provides a tuition waiver and a living stipend, go do something else and apply again the next year.
I think college is terrific. That (and a certain global financial crisis) is why I spent a decade floating around between institutions of higher learning before I found my calling. But it’s also a system that in many ways preys upon people who are, by design, too young and ignorant to know what they’re doing.
If there’s somebody like that in your life, send them this post!
For what it’s worth, STEM PhDs are paid for (unless you’re getting scammed, in that case you shouldn’t go to whatever institution is scamming you). Not that I’m saying that anyone should get a STEM PhD, but just so people know they don’t have to go into debt to try.
It can be tough to get a tuition waiver for most masters program. So apply for a Ph.D. and leave after getting the master’s degree.