10 Reasons Not to Go to College

Ashley Thorne

“One of the most damaging messages of educational romanticism has been that everyone should go to college.” – Charles Murray

There has recently been a small swell of published doubts about whether college is really for everyone and, if not, why not? Some of these have appeared on our own website, but venues like the New York Times and the Atlantic have also been giving them notice. What follows are highlights of some of the arguments for the idea that college may not be for everyone. 

  1. The Murray argument: ability varies
    Charles Murray, Real Education, page 17: “All of us have known since our earliest memories of elementary school that abilities are real and that they vary.”

Murray, page 83-84: 

Should all of those who have the academic ability to absorb a college-level liberal education get one? If our young woman is at the 80th percentile of linguistic ability, should she be pushed to do so? She has enough intellectual capacity, if she puts her mind to it and works exceptionally hard 

The answer is no. If she wants to, fine. But she probably won’t, and there’s no way to force her. Try to force her (for example, by setting up a demanding core curriculum), and she will transfer to another school, because she is in college for vocational training. She wants to write computer code. Start a business. Get a job in television. She uses college to take vocational courses that pertain to her career interests. A large proportion of people who are theoretically able to absorb a liberal education have no interest in doing so. 

  1. Your high school may not have adequately prepared you for college-level academics.
    Leonhardt, Economix blog, NYT: “a significant number of high school graduates are ill-prepared for college, and it doesn’t make sense for them to enroll (unless they are going to receive intensive remedial work as part of the equation — which most will not).” 

Commenter, NYT: 

I am a college professor at a good quality satellite campus of State University. I have been teaching here for 38 years and it’s been clear to me for all that time that some (not most) students do not belong in college. You are correct in that many of them are ill prepared for college. They lack essential academic skills and either do not have the necessary desire to acquire them in college or lack the mental ability. The latter group have been passed forward through a school system that has failed to realistically assess their abilities. 

  1. If you don’t finish, it’ll be a waste of time.
    Jacques Steinberg, reporter, NYT: “Perhaps no more than half of those who began a four-year bachelor’s degree program in the fall of 2006 will get that degree within six years, according to the latest projections from the Department of Education.” 

  1. You’ll incur a lot of debt.
    Daniel Indiviglio, blogger, Atlantic: “By plowing more money into an education, many students incur incredible amounts of debt before they ever get their first paycheck, or maybe their parents spend savings that would have helped their retirement. That adds to the nation's debt problems.”

  1. Even the few students who don’t incur a lot of debt usually pay too much for too little (i.e. much of college education today is merely a bestowal of politically correct jargon and therapy – is this worth thousands of tuition dollars?).
    Peter Wood, Minding The Campus:

We are, in other words, spending too much on too little. This phase of the student loan crisis is a collective declaration by the markets that a college education in its prevailing form is overvalued and overpriced. The next phase may be a harsher judgment on the institutions that fail to heed the warning. And any college or university that is now licensing the sustainability zealots to indoctrinate students in the residence halls or the classrooms is making a doubtful guess about its future. 

Indiviglio, Atlantic: “The value of a degree has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: it's become worth so much because people assume it should be.” 

  1. You’ll delay your opportunity to earn income.
    Indiviglio, Atlantic: “Then, there's the opportunity cost of the time spent studying instead of working.”
  1. You can get a great, well-paying job without going to college.
    See “The Best Career Opportunities, College Degree Not Required.”
  1. There are viable alternatives.

    Steinberg, NYT:  

While some educators propose a radical renovation of the community college system to teach work readiness, Professor Lerman advocates a significant national investment by government and employers in on-the-job apprenticeship training. He spoke with admiration, for example, about a program in the CVS pharmacy chain in which aspiring pharmacists’ assistants work as apprentices in hundreds of stores, with many going on to study to become full-fledged pharmacists themselves. 

Carol Iannone, Academic Questions, NAS: Diane Auer Jones: “For some students, an apprenticeship program, a certificate program, or a combination of programs may best serve their interests, needs, and learning styles; and there may be some efficiencies achieved and cost savings realized with these other models.” 

Commenter, NYT: “Join the armed services in a non combat role and over six years you'll get much more training and mature much faster than wasting time and money in college and you'll do something good for the country.” 

Open-source online classes
Ashley Thorne, NAS: 

Yet all in all, we see open education as a more or less beneficial trend, similar to Wikipedia. It may not possess the scholarly qualities of the original but it is helpful when you need it. And while most of our members prefer the traditional classroom setting, we do think education should be accessible to every curious person who wants to learn. 

  1. College culture can produce toxic habits in a young adult (i.e. binge drinking, hooking up, etc.).
    Tom Wood, NAS*: “Findings from five national data sets are in general agreement that approximately 40 percent of U.S. college students engage in heavy episodic drinking—sometimes called binge drinking, often defined as five or more drinks at a single sitting.”

Agness, NAS:  

As a result, feminism has played a large part in the continued rise of the hookup culture and decline of traditional dating on campus. Hooking up—engaging in a physical relationship with no intention of forming an emotional relationship—can be especially dangerous for women. Aside from the risk of pregnancy, women are more likely than men to contract sexually transmitted diseases, which can potentially cause infertility, cancer, and even death.  

  1. When higher education is for everyone, it loses its “higher” qualities.
    Peter Wood, NAS:

But do we really want to do to higher education what we have to K-12 education?  The prospect would seem to be of a system of derisory standards and profound institutional decline.  We might achieve the hollow boast of the most college-credentialed citizenry in the world who also happen to be among the worst-educated. 

This list is based on the following recent articles and other NAS analysis: 

Is College Overrated?” by David Leonhardt, New York Times, May 19, 2010
Should More People Skip College?” by Daniel Indiviglio, The Atlantic, May 17, 2010
What’s a Degree Worth?” by Floyd Norris, New York Times, May 17, 2010
Plan B: Skip College” by Jacques Steinberg, New York Times, May 14, 2010
For Members Only: Feminism on Campus Today” by Karin Agness, National Association of Scholars, May 6, 2010
 “Expanding Enrollments, Declining Standards: American Higher Ed Prepares to Take the Plunge” by Peter Wood, National Association of Scholars, March 10, 2010
Open-Ended” by Ashley Thorne, National Association of Scholars, August 12, 2009
Old Ills, New Remedies: A Conversation with Diane Auer Jones” by Carol Iannone, National Association of Scholars, June 29, 2009
 “Is College Driving Students to Drink?” by Tom Wood, National Association of Scholars, September 11, 2008
Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008), Charles Murray
What Does Sustainability Have to Do With Student Loans?” by Peter Wood, Minding the Campus, May 14, 2008 

*In articles published at the NAS website, Tom Wood has expressed his objections to Murray’s arguments. His articles include “Is the B.A. Degree Meaningless?” “Education and Intelligence: A Response to Charles Murray” and “Charles Murray and Progressive Education,” Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Image: Pexels

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