Top Three Flawed Arguments of the Anti-College Crowd

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The anti-college movement has been the subject of increasing media coverage over the past few years. Worry about rising debt loads, soaring default rates, and high unemployment rates among recent college grads — combined with the high-profile success stories of a few dropouts-turned-billionaires — has generated a cottage industry of books, t-shirts, websites, Twitter feeds, Ted talks, seminars, camps, and media tours, all pitching the idea that college is no longer worth it for anyone who isn’t focused on a specific career that absolutely requires an academic credential. The title of Dale Stephens’ upcoming book pretty neatly sums up the high concept: Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will.

Now, this merry band of anti-college stumpers has finally generated enough press to merit its own trend piece in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times, which uncritically allows a handful of the movement’s luminaries to make their case with nary a raised eyebrow in response. To be sure, there are plenty of problems, economic and otherwise, with the American higher education system. There’s even significant evidence showing that students learn little during college, most notably detailed in the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. But unfortunately, the Times article mostly manages to perpetuate several of the anti-college crowd’s most misguided arguments. I’ll focus on three:

 1. These billionaires skipped college, and so can you. 

Here’s how the Times article frames the decision of one would-be entrepreneur to leave college:

“Benjamin Goering does not look like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, talk like him or inspire the same controversy. But he does apparently think like him. . .Two years ago, Mr. Goering was a sophomore at the University of Kansas, studying computer science and philosophy and feeling frustrated in crowded lecture halls where the professors did not even know his name. . . So in the spring of 2010, Mr. Goering took the same leap as Mr. Zuckerberg: he dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco to make his mark.”

The mythology of college dropout tycoons works best when the details of the stories are glossed over. First of all, it’s obvious that the college experience — if not the classroom experience — was essential to both Zuckerman and Bill Gates. The Facebook genesis story is very well known, so I won’t go into details. Perhaps less well-known these days is that Bill Gates not only met co-founder Paul Allen at Harvard, but crucially developed his knowledge of technology using the resources the school provided.

Then there’s the fact that these moguls hardly left college with an idea and a dream. Zuckerberg had already created a software program in high school that led to buyout offers from Microsoft and AOL, and by the time he dropped out of Harvard sophomore year, his Facebook start-up had already gained traction. Zuckerberg did not drop out because he was frustrated that professors didn’t know his name.

The ranks of undergrad entrepreneurs whose start-ups have received buyout overtures from Fortune 500 companies is so small that the scenario is barely worth talking about — and even the staunchest proponents of higher education probably would not have argued against Zuckerberg’s plan to leave Harvard to run Facebook. The same goes for Michael Dell, who was bidding on state technology contracts from his dorm room before he dropped out of the pre-med program at UT-Austin.

2. You’ll be carrying around a six-figure debt for the rest of your life. 

The Times piece quotes the founder of a group that champions college alternatives:

“Students who want to avoid $200,000 in student-loan debt might consider enrolling in a technology boot camp, where you can learn to write code in 8 to 10 weeks for about $10,000, Mr. Stephens said.”

Anti-college arguments almost always rely on exaggerations about student loan levels in order to create a false dichotomy. The fact is that about a third of undergraduates leave college with no debt and among the two-thirds who do borrow, the median debt is around $27,000. I agree that’s too high — I wrote a book about it — but it’s not $100,000 and it’s definitely not $200,000 — and the anti-college crowd loses credibility when it ties its arguments about the high cost of college to the stories of students graduating in the top 1% of debt levels. It’s like using the price of a $33,000 mattress as an argument for sleeping on the floor. If the alternative to skipping college were $200,000 of debt, I would come down on the side of skipping college, as would most sane people.

3. You no longer need to a college degree to be successful.

Or as the Times puts it: “The idea that a college diploma is an all-but-mandatory ticket to a successful career is showing fissures.”

In fact, there are no fissures in the argument that college is something resembling essential for smart and motivated students. It’s true that recent college graduates are struggling to find jobs. But young people without college degrees are doing much, much worse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for high school grads with no college is 8.4%. For college grads, it’s 3.8%. That’s partially because the qualities of good students — intelligence, say, or punctuality — are shared by good employees, but the fact is that many employers simply won’t consider applicants without college degrees, and the worse the job market is, the more employers will be able to demand degrees.

A recent study from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that between 2007 and 2012, Americans who didn’t go to college lost 5.8 million jobs; among those with bachelor’s degrees or higher, there was a gain of 2.2 million jobs. According to a separate study out of Georgetown, about 14.3% of people with just a high school diploma earn more than the median income of those with bachelor’s degrees. These are the kinds of statistics that The New York Times, in the Style section, should have used to challenge the anti-college people it interviewed — or at least included for the benefit of readers.

There are some rhetorically compelling arguments for skipping college. But for most students who are smart and motivated enough to graduate, there are better arguments for attending.