A Case for Dropping out of College

John Elliott | November 28, 2018 | 1,225

A Case for Dropping out of College

Samuel Knoche has dropped out of college. In a fascinating article for Quillette he lists the reasons why he has abandoned his computer science major at Fordham University. 

For starters, Knoche has found that the costs outweigh the benefits. A prime example of this is seen in how Knoche passed two 4-credit classes in calculus his Freshman year:

The professor had an unusual teaching style that suited me well, basing his lectures directly on lectures posted online by MIT. Half the class, including me, usually skipped the lectures and learned the content by watching the original material on MIT’s website.

He asks the obvious question:

From the perspective of my own convenience and education, it was probably one of the best classes I’ve taken in college. But I was left wondering: Why should anyone pay more than $8,000 to watch a series of YouTube videos, available online for free, and occasionally take an exam?

Knoche also took a Philosophical Ethics course in which the professor required him to write a 5 - 10,000-word essay. The professor reviewed the first draft and then gave it back with the requirement that his criticisms be incorporated in the final version. Knoche ponders:

Is $3,250 an appropriate cost for feedback on 10,000 words? That’s hard to say. But consider that the going rate on the web for editing this amount of text is just a few hundred dollars. Even assuming that my professor is several times more skilled and knowledgeable, it’s not clear that this is a good value proposition.

His remarks about class time are also devastating:

Like many of my fellow students, I spend most of my time in class on my laptop: Twitter, online chess, reading random articles. From the back of the class, I can see that other students are doing likewise. One might think that all of these folks will be in trouble when test time comes around. But watching a few salient online videos generally is all it takes to master the required material. You see the pattern here: The degrees these people get say ‘Fordham,’ but the actual education often comes courtesy of YouTube.

Ouch.

While these anecdotes are troubling, it’s easy for students to head to college anyway due to the knowledge that college graduates earn more than non-college graduates. Citing George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, Knoche points out that this is due more to “ability bias,” rather than actual education:

From the outset, the average college student is different from the average American who does not go to college. The competitive college admissions process winnows the applicant pool in such a way as to guarantee that those who make it into college are more intelligent, conscientious and conformist than other members of his or her high-school graduating cohort. In other words, when colleges boast about the ‘70% income premium’ they supposedly provide students, they are taking credit for abilities that those students already had before they set foot on campus, and which they likely could retain and commercially exploit even if they never got a college diploma.

 

Even if  all of this is true about the value of a college “education,” Knoche admits that real value of college lies in the “signaling” value of the diploma:

Because employers lack any quick and reliable objective way to evaluate a job candidate’s potential worth, they fall back on the vetting work done by third parties—namely, colleges. A job candidate who also happens to be someone who managed to get through the college admissions process, followed by four years of near constant testing, likely is someone who is also intelligent and conscientious, and who can be relied on to conform to institutional norms. It doesn’t matter what the applicant was tested on, since it is common knowledge that most of what one learns in college will never be applied later in life. What matters is that these applicants were tested on something.

At this point, Knoche confesses  that the problem lacks any easy solution. Many employers require a bachelor’s degree for jobs that traditionally have not required one. You often need a degree just to get in the door. So, as long as the education establishment has a monopoly on conferring degrees, then the system will only continue to grow.

If Knoche is correct – that you can get a good college education on YouTube – then there are obvious alternatives to an expensive private university. Two years of junior college followed by enrollment at a state university provides a much more inexpensive option. If the diploma is the only thing most students need, then this is the way to get it.

At the same time, Knoche misses two very important reasons for going to college: building a network and meeting a spouse. For example, I know plenty of students from Hillsdale College in Michigan who have come away with a highly regarded diploma, a bunch of friends, and a spouse. Even though many may hate to admit it, that’s a life time of reward and well worth the cost.

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[Image Credit: Kit, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0]



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