University education: priceless or valueless?

One of the best things I’ve listened to in the past few days was Charles Hugh Smith talking about his new book, The Nearly Free University, on the Resilient Life podcast.

The costs of running universities and attending them have sky-rocketed since 2001, while the outcomes for most graduates are increasingly negative: a mountain of debt and often no conspicuous skills advantage over someone who went out to work at 18.

Hugh Smith addresses what he calls this ‘factory model’ of higher education, which seems finally about to implode under the pressure of its own, well, uselessness.

“In the good old days of the factory model, and I mean both the factory model in education and the factory model of production, you could get a degree in underwater basket weaving – or in my case, philosophy – and then you go work for an insurance company or some white-collar job in which whatever you were supposed to learn they would teach you on the job. So your degree literally was sort of like a stamp on a passport; you were not claiming to know anything of value to that business.

“Well, that worldview and that economy is dying. The idea that you can just show up and an employer is going to lavish a bunch of on-the-job training – that is no longer efficient for the employer. They want somebody that can produce value on Day One. We need to create and teach the value system that is needed in the real economy, and values, of course, are not taught at college at all.”

I can relate to that. Friends’ children are coming out of university with degrees in fashion design, creative writing and modern dance. The ‘lucky’ ones are working full time in the bar and hotel jobs they did at weekends before they went to Uni. Others are simply unemployed.

Given a few more years and several unpaid internships each, all of them will hopefully be in full-time work. But they will be, in their mid to late twenties, only where they would have been if they’d gone straight into jobs when they left school. The only winner was the higher education system.

Seeing my daughter getting swept into her school’s GCSE-A Level-Uni process like a leaf falling into a running gutter, I can see how hard it is for kids to imagine an alternative. Only three out of 50 A-level leavers from her school went into employment this year.

Meanwhile, one of her older cousins (history degree, Oxford) is slowly working his way up from a grunt job in NHS data management – formerly his holiday earner. His girlfriend (biochemistry degree, Oxford) is in teacher training after working for a year as a basic-waged teaching assistant. Between them, they have many tens of thousands of pounds of student loans to repay.

And those were real degree courses at on of the world’s best universities. Think of all the young people plodding through three years of glorified babysitting on courses cobbled together to take advantage of the loan system – sorry, cater for the ‘demand’ for degrees.

Another of my daughter’s cousins, also in his early 20s, has just bought his first house. But then he went into an apprenticeship at 16. Of course, he now has a hefty mortgage but so too, eventually, will the graduates … on top of their student loans.

One can argue that student debt is an investment in your future. Borrow now, earn more later. Charles Hugh Smith disagrees:

“Statistically, half of all recent college graduates have either no job at all or they are severely underemployed. This speaks to an enormous disconnect from the higher education system and the economy that it is supposed to be serving.”

“What is the pay-off for our society of saddling college students with a trillion dollars in debt? A huge study, one of the few that has actually tracked the results of a college education – like, how much do people learn in getting a four-year degree – … found roughly a third of all college graduates had no increase in critical thinking skills.

“Another third had marginal improvements in the kinds of skills that we would consider critical in what I call the emerging economy, the parts of the economy that are actually growing and expanding instead of shrivelling and fading.”

For the moment, the tide is still just about running in favour of the university cartel. But kids are catching on to the worthlessness of degrees that mean nothing to employers.

Hugh Smith proposes a combination of apprentice-style on-the-job skills training for work and employment, combined with online courses and tests to develop critical thinking ability. It’s the kind of fitter, cheaper alternative we need.


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