What you call someone who graduated last in their class at med school: doctor. If that gives you pause, note that medicine is one of the few disciplines, along with science and the teaching profession itself, in which a strong case can be made for higher education’s value.
College has grown over the white-collar working world like kudzu since the first university was founded in Bologna, Italy, in 1088. Within a century, the antecedents of the Sorbonne were established in Paris in 1150, and Oxford was close behind in 1167. From there, 900 years of burgeoning biz in higher education has brought us to today’s $18 billion market.
Half the occupations in the U.S. require a college degree. Yet 450,000 jobs in cybersecurity, as one relevant example, go unfilled, as they tend to exclude applicants without degrees. There is an artificial gap between needs and manpower. The question is whether a college requirement makes sense for many jobs.
In my experience in challenging white-collar roles, my best employees were those either with no college or who attended schools whose rigor was fairly mortis. Notable college dropouts include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
What college grads do get is a mountain of debt. The average cost of college is almost $36,000 annually. Students pay off college debt over an average of 20 years. As I noted in a recent column, higher education costs — adjusted for inflation — are now 500 percent of what they were.
A college degree is often neither necessary nor meaningful. Progressive companies have begun to soften or drop altogether their degree requirements. Fully half of jobs at IBM don’t require a four-year college degree. At Accenture, nearly three-quarters of the positions for software quality assurance engineers don’t have a degree requirement. Accenture established an apprenticeship program in 2016, from which 1,200 employees have graduated, as it were — 80 percent of them without a four-year degree. Accenture’s revenue in 2022 was $62 billion, $10 billion more than the prior year. They don’t appear to be suffering varsity blues.
College requirements are an easily correctible, major factor in keeping Black Americans out of white-collar jobs. A Harvard Business Review study in 2018 showed Black employees making up less than 8 percent of the white-collar workforce — half their representation among the general population. Census Bureau data from 2019 reveal that 40 percent of white Americans possess a college degree, while only 26 percent of Black Americans can make this claim. You do the math.
In a great number of cases, a cost-benefit analysis would raise questions as to whether higher education is worth it at all. Community college, bootcamps, tech schools, military service and apprenticeships such as at Accenture can be viable alternatives. Though I graduated university, I spent a decade paying down student-loan debt. And it was arguably the first-year training program I entered at Time-Life that shaped my approach to journalism and a broader skillset than my hard-won summa cum laude degree. I did get that neat Phi Beta Kappa key.
I in no way regret college — I’m on a first-name basis with Samuel Clemens — but many do. Inside Higher Ed examined surveys of college graduates, and found that two-thirds now concur with the damning statement that “higher education is not worth the cost to students anymore.”
Can we dislodge the college gravy train ridden by the ed biz and stop subjecting our young people to extreme debt as well as associated racial inequities? As a proponent of the liberal arts and humanities, it pains me to say that the societal and cultural values sought back in 1088 are hardly in evidence in 2023. We are not seeing in the electorate much manifestation of a sophisticated — or even basic — understanding of history and civics which might inform our elections and cultural consumption. The lowest common denominator rules our statehouses, Capitol Hill and the airwaves, and newspapers and books lose mind-share to TikTok and videogames.
George Santos felt it necessary to make up a college degree to fool voters. Knowing that, Kevin McCarthy still admitted him to the congressional club. A fake degree will do. Let’s all just claim we went to college and save the time and money. Should some still go? Of course. But far fewer and for more defined purposes. As the end-stage of American infantilization of youth, college requirements by employers are a losing proposition. We would be better off using four years and $144,000 training how to learn on the job to enable America to better compete in a world economy.
For cultural and political literacy, read a newspaper. Devour books. It worked for Lincoln. Whether you need to enroll at the University of Bologna — a still-thriving institution of higher learning all these centuries later — for most of us, that’s a lot of baloney.