Who Needs College?

So yesterday Marilee Jones, the Dean of Admissions at MIT, resigned after 28 very successful years. Why? Because word leaked out that she never graduated from college herself and had falsely claimed to have three degrees.

Of course it is wrong to lie about your credentials like this. Having said that, it is also remarkable that this "uneducated" person managed to work for decades at the very heart of American higher education - without anyone suspecting she had no diplomas of her own. In fact, by all accounts Jones had exemplary job performance and even co-authored a book about the college admissions process.

The question naturally arises from this: just how necessary is a college degree? It wasn't at all important for Marilee Jones. The important point was that people think she had a college degree so that she was able to hold the position she did. Perception matters more than the reality.

I have argued that you can do just fine in life without a sheepskin on the wall. Many people do. Ask the next plumber or electrician who comes to your home about his career. I can assure you he probably makes far more money than the typical holder of a B.A. in Sociology, and is probably a lot happier with his life.

Now before you say I must have sour grapes, I happen to hold a master's degree myself from a prestigious university. It was instrumental in getting me my first real job - not because of any useful knowledge I gained from it, but because my employer was a graduate of the same prestigious university. Having that credential opened a door for me. Afterward it was irrelevant.

This, I think, is the primary value of a college education today. Forget about learning anything useful in college; you are there to get your union card. Holding a bachelor's degree opens up opportunities for you that are not available to other people. What you do with those opportunities is mainly a function of your personal character and dedication - not any particular knowledge you gain while acquiring your degree.

I realize this is quite a radical view, and I concede there are exceptions. Technical and scientific knowledge are harder to acquire on your own, so those who wish to be engineers, physicians, and the like will find college is necessary. But even for them, the real education will take place in graduate studies. The undergraduate experience simply lays the foundation.

The problem is that many college graduates think getting through all those lectures and research papers means that society now owes them a fat salary. It does not. So they become bitter and cynical, with good reason; they - and their parents - were sold a bill of goods. They could have done much better things with that time and money.

I highly suggest you send this post to any young people you know who are headed to college, or to the parents who are about to make a very bad investment. You will be doing them a big favor.


Jayson said...

I've been hearing folks say for years that a college degree isn't "necessary." And yet it's obvious that one's chances at getting a genuinely good job (i.e., one that pays *real* money as opposed to being a de facto serf or slave)improves with a college degree.
Folks like Bill Gates (or this MIT dean)are more the exception than the rule.

Patrick said...

True enough, but I suspect many of these same people would have got better jobs anyway, even without college. Correlation does not equal causation.

My deeper point was that the knowledge, if any, that you gain in college is probably not the most important factor in career success. The character traits that are already present in any given individual are at least as important as the formal education.

As noted in the post, the contacts and credentials gained in college are also of prime importance. Ms Jones demonstrated this is the case even if the credential is really false. Here is someone who was obviously capable of doing the job at hand, but had she been honest about her education she would never have been given the chance. I think this probably happens regularly. Employers gripe that they can't hire good people, but they rule out thousands of otherwise qualified people simply because they lack a degree.

Anna said...

My husband has not used his University degree at all (he majored in Philosophy). After four years of dead end customer service positions and data entry he finally followed his true calling and went to a technical college and became a Train Conductor. He is now making more money than ever before and he is happier. Unfortunately we still have student loans to pay back. We will probably finish paying for a degree he never used just in time for him to retire.