The education bubble

Welcome to another school year. It’s been about a month, so I hope things are settling down into a comfortable routine. Some of you are new to college, for others this is the beginning of the end of your journey. The University of Minnesota is a great school, a so-called “Public Ivy” that receives many superlative accolades from important sources. You are attending a highly respected public institution with some of the best research and academic programs available.

Congratulations. Now please, I beg you, drop out.

But not all of you. Let me clarify. If you are in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics field, or a professional program specifically aimed at giving you the skills for your desired career, you can stop reading. In general, I am addressing this column to my brethren in the College of Liberal Arts. If you’re studying psychology, philosophy, English, sociology or anything with the word “art” or “studies” in it, you need to drop out. And soon.

Before we get too far in this discussion, I have to warn you a column is simply not enough space to present my entire case, so I must refer you to either Glenn Reynolds’ “The Higher Education Bubble” or the book “Worthless” written by University alumnus Aaron Clarey, for more information. But I can give you an outline. The argument is an economic one. The benefits of a Bachelor of Arts degree is now well below the costs to students. I’m not just talking about your tuition. College is four years of lost work history, opportunities for advancement and experience.

The tuition itself is a larger problem than you think. Student loans have interest, and that interest compounds. A $40,000 loan can easily cost $60,000 or more to repay when interest is taken into consideration. A liberal arts degree will no longer deliver the kind of comfortable middle-class existence your parents enjoyed. The truth is, our economy is going through a difficult transition. Companies are downsizing, and technology is taking over roles normally reserved for those college graduates who didn’t like math. If you’re not already a high-value employee — and trust me, you’re not — then your best hopes are going to be getting an entry-level position in a large company and staying there. Just ask the millions of people with degrees who are unemployed or working jobs that don’t require a degree. The old numbers showing a college education increased your earning potential are obsolete. The world has changed.

The other argument against a formal liberal arts education is related to information technology. One hundred years ago, it made sense to have a population of well-educated professors spread throughout the country delivering lectures to rooms filled with young learners. This is no longer the case. The Internet and other information technologies make it possible for professors to deliver lectures to tens of thousands of learners, of any age, on any topic, at the learner’s own pace. There are many options. I prefer Khan Academy, supplemented with video lectures from the for-profit Teaching Company, sold under the brand name The Great Courses. The motivated self-learner has no need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to acquire the knowledge and perspective of a liberal arts education.

The counter-argument here is the fact some students aren’t motivated to learn on their own or that the guidance of a professor is necessary to navigate the liberal arts. And I admit, some topics, especially in philosophy, require guidance.

But thanks to the Internet, there are places to seek help. Discussion boards, blogs, Twitter; these technologies allow you to track down and ask questions of people who will more often than not help you understand difficult topics and guide your pursuit of a classical education. For those students who lack self-motivation and need a push, I do not wish to pull you back into ignorance. I wish to push you into educational programs that will help you earn a living. Once you’ve found some financial security, by all means, educate yourself in the liberal arts. But first, do your research. And this goes for all of you; find well-sourced and up-to-date numbers showing which degrees will significantly increase your earning potential over the course of your lifetime, and pursue that degree. Or just drop out. You can always come back later.