Wilezol: Is College Worth It?

I’m at Barnes & Noble, killing time in the education section before the 2:45 p.m. showing of Iron Man 3.

I glance through a brand-new book, Is College Worth It?: A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education.

Bill Bennett, the former secretary, now hosts Bill Bennett’s Morning in America, a nationally-syndicated radio show. David Wilezol serves as an associate producer.

“Students pay $100,000 or more for what they could get for almost nothing,” the authors write. “With new technology and online breakthroughs, you could get a better education in a coffee shop or your parents’ basement than you will get at most colleges.”

The “ivory tower” is no longer the only mecca for acquiring knowledge—nor is it the best. Harvard may have the largest academic library in the world, but even with its rare and precious collections, its holdings pale in comparison to the variety of sources freely and readily accessible online. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, provide free courses to anybody with sufficient motivation and an Internet connection.

I reach out to Wilezol and cut straight to it. I ask if a liberal arts degree is worth it.

“I think there is a good bit of value in studying the liberal arts, not only for the sake of gaining knowledge and to understand our own culture, our own values, our own time, but also, I think there can be a practical dimension to liberal arts education,” Wilezol says, noting that many employers like recruiting people with varied skills.

At first, I’m taken aback by Wilezol’s response. He seems to contradict the message he and Bennett convey in their book—that knowledge can be acquired online, free of charge, and how in many instances college can be overrated, damaging and unnecessary.

But as I speak with Wilezol, I get the sense that he’s in fact frustrated with higher education’s failure to inform students of the marketability of certain degrees.

We speak about the Occupy Wall Street supporters.

“A lot of these people have a grievance because they didn’t know what they were getting into and felt like I can go borrow $80,000 for my PhD in cultural anthropology and here I am, and I don’t have any job prospects,” Wilezol says. “When push comes to shove, I think colleges and universities should have been doing a better job of educating their own students about the real world and about what their degrees can get them.”

Wilezol makes a great point. I also worry that high school counselors don’t do enough to inform students of pathways to employment, including vocational school.

“Now, we’re realizing that by foregoing training a generation of electricians and plumbers and welders and skilled laborers, we’re having a harder and harder time finding people to fill those jobs, which are going vacant in the large part,” Wilezol says. “These are not jobs where you’re not going to make any money. If you’re a good electrician, you can be making into the six figures.”

My chat with Wilezol inflames my growing frustration over well-meaning adults who pressure all types of students to attend college, in the hopes that they will blossom into “leaders,” however defined.  I think of my recent conversation with Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts.

“There’s an expectation that everybody should be a leader,” Cain says. “It’s kind of like, ‘Well, why? Why does everyone have to be a leader, exactly?’ I don’t think we’re designed that way. I think if you look at many of the great thought leaders and political leaders in history, they were not the ones who were leaders in the classroom.”

Wilezol strengthens my convictions, telling me that about 50 percent of students who enroll in a four‑year college fail to graduate within six years. I cringe when I consider that amount of wasted money, putting young people in serious debt—and without a degree.

“What we’re saying is, ‘wait a minute, there’s other educational alternatives out there that can serve you maybe just as well, if not better, than a traditional B.A.,’” Wilezol says.

I ask Wilezol why he thinks college has become so expensive. Over time, he says, schools increased the price of admission to coincide with an indicator of quality.

“They’ve raised their prices and with the endless government spigot of money to keep up in the form of student loans, we’re just on a crash course,” Wilezol says. “Now, we have a trillion dollars in student loan debt, and the average student loan amount is $25,000. They’re trying to prestige themselves to death, really.”

Before we part ways, Wilezol clarifies his views on whether college is in fact worth it.

“College can still really be a valued proposition for a lot people,” Wilezol says. “I think our book is getting wrongly cast sometimes as saying it behooves people more to just go right into the workforce out of high school than go to college. It’s not always true. As things are now, I think some form of post‑secondary education is really the best course for everybody, unless you have really developed a skill that is marketable and will pay you a good job at the age of 18 or so.”

Wilezol tells me he wants people to read his book with an open mind, and to question life after high school with a lot more nuance. At long last, I hope this message gets across.

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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