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Is College Worth It?
By William J. Bennett and David Wilezol Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013. 278 pp., hardback.
Reviewed by Doug Kutilek

William (Bill) Bennett was Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan and apparently is now a talk-show host.

Current accumulated American college tuition loan debt exceeds one trillion dollars, and continues to grow. More than half of all students are in debt from college, with an average—average—debt of $23,000, and horror stories of graduates—or non-graduates—with $50,000, $100,000, even $200,000 of debt and no employment prospects in the field of study are quite common, with very limited hope of paying off that debt in 10, 20 or even 30 years. And this debt cannot be disposed of by bankruptcy. The situation for those who seek or secure graduate degrees is even worse.

Part of this massive avalanche of indebtedness is due to aggressive and less-than-fully-disclosing college recruiting (in both private and public not-for-profit, as well as for-profit schools) that encourages and enables students to secure easy-to-get government loans. A second cause is the fact that the government is the primary lender (creating money to loan out of thin air), rather than banks and other lending institutions, as it was in the past. Banks have a self-interest motive to investigate “ability to repay” factors before making loans, while government bureaucrats have no such motive, and hence are more open to saddling a borrower with unpayable debt (this latter, my observation, not the authors’).

Bennett and his co-author address the whole culture of steeply-escalating college tuition costs (driven primarily by the promise of ever-increasing government student loan levels), the all-too-frequent enormous debts easily and willingly (but naively) accumulated by students (many who never finish a degree), and the shattered expectations of those who bought into the myth that a college degree guarantees a good paying job. It is asserted—rightly—that on a cost-effective, return-on-investment basis, far too many students pay high prices for marginally or entirely worthless degrees, often at second-rate and / or over-priced schools. Indeed, many students shouldn’t go to college at all—trade schools (auto mechanics, electrician, HVAC, etc.) are shorter, cheaper, and get you to the job market much soon, with greater assurance of gainful employment in one’s field. An on-the-job apprenticeship is also economically a better option in many cases.

If we were to accept and believe everything the media dumps on us in the newspapers and magazines, and supposedly all the junk that flows from the tube, we would think that everyone in the world is addicted to something and is controlled by some external force. If they are addicted, dare we suppose they are addicted to addiction?
The degree areas with best ROI (return on investment) are those in STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—which happen also to be those that are academically the most demanding, which have no appeal to the modern “party til you drop” mentality of many college students. Degrees in fine arts and social “sciences”—anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, English, philosophy, religion, etc.--are those least likely to repay the investment in tuition, especially if one attends a high-priced private school.

The authors do an inadequate job of exploring options for paying college tuition costs, without going into debt. ROTC and / or military service, with college tuition provided as a job benefit were scarcely mentioned or not mentioned at all. Likewise saving in advance, or going part time, or going a semester, working a semester, etc. were not emphasized.

The authors also failed to emphasize that if a person merely wants knowledge for knowledge’s sake and not for professional employment purposes, it is far cheaper and a much more efficient use of time to simply devote oneself to reading about one’s chosen field of interest. Of course, some fields require a college degree (or two)—nursing, pharmacology, medicine, law, engineering, teaching in government schools (though education degrees—probably the single most common degree—have not in the least guaranteed high quality among government school teachers; requiring an education degree seems more a ploy pushed by teachers’ unions to restrict the supply of available teachers so that compensation levels can be artificially elevated).

And then there is the question of whether a degree from the “better” schools is worth the high cost. A degree from the top engineering schools—Cal Tech, MIT, Colorado School of Mines, Harvey Mudd,—and top Ivy League schools—Harvard, Yale, Princeton--in most cases does carry a “premium” in the job market—in getting hired, and in compensation—over other less notable schools. The authors give a list of the 100 best education bargains.

American higher education, in large major, has “lost its way” in the modern era, with an abandonment in part or in whole of the study of Western civilization and the classic works of that heritage. Instead, women’s studies, gay studies, black studies, rap music—areas with ZERO job prospects and a heavy emphasis on generating resentment,--crowd the course offerings, while American history (not required at all for 90% of college degrees!) and Shakespeare, to say nothing of Latin and Greek, and much more are ignored or dropped altogether.

And college has become a haven for “remedial” courses in math, English, history (only 12% of high school graduates are deemed to have an adequate gasp of U. S. history!) and more, due to the broad general failure of government school education in grades k-12. Twenty percent of all college freshman—60% in community colleges—are required to take remedial courses, covering things they should have learned in high school. The authors rightly say that no one who needs a remedial course in these areas has any business even going to college.

One growing phenomenon discussed is the rise of internet courses and degrees, where the high costs of college infrastructure—land, buildings, parking lots, stadia and sports programs—, as well as the inconveniences of re-locating to campus, don’t exist. World-wide access to education through the internet is a wave of the present, and future. Education in such a case does become what the student makes of it.

The authors fail to address a matter of first principles, namely, whether the U. S. government—already in debt $18 trillion more or less, and adding to this $400 billion per year and more—has any business at all (to say nothing of Constitutional authority) loaning money to people for any reason, college costs or otherwise. I affirm that the entire situation would improve if the government got entirely out of the tuition loan business.

And then there are the domineering extreme leftist politics and amoral atmosphere of the typical college campus today to consider before sending junior off to State U. or Private College, U. S. A.

Bennett and Wilezol will give parents and students who are planning on or considering college in the near future, as well as those who counsel people about education plans, much to think about here. Worth reading, simply because it might save you making a $50,000 mistake.

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