Is College Worth It? by William J. Bennett & David Wilezol

I have read my fair share of books critical of higher education. Disparaging colleges and universities is a national pastime, it is as American as apple pie. You can find critics of higher education in the 1700’s. Books criticizing higher education are a dime a dozen, however, the book Is College Worth It? is not even worth that dime (or 1/12 that dime if you compare it).

I typically do not write overly belittling or nitpicking reviews. I attempt to remain as unbiased as possible, review the details of the book so a future reader can make up their own mind. In this case, I cannot show such restraint.

I expected a lot from this book. I picked it primarily because it is written by a former Secretary of Education (I did not know about Bennett’s tenure, his politics, or which president he served under; to me, that information should remain irrelevant when looking at the book).

I don’t know how to adequately formulate my response, so I decided to present each issue separately and briefly. I knew this book was going to be rough when I came across this quote in the introduction, “The world’s most talented students will be successful no matter where they go to college or if they don’t go at all.” I had to read that paragraph over and over again because I just could not believe it. The idea that a kid living in government housing, eating off food stamps, attending an underfunded high school has the same opportunities as the kid who drives a new BMW to their private high school is just downright asinine.

I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe is fiction. Almost every critic of higher education likes to cite this book as if it is a documentary on modern college life. Here’s another news flash, Animal House and Old School, though probably based on real experiences, are not reality.

Though they use some data, the authors rely on a lot of anecdotal stories. In one narrative, they quote a female, “How could I consider having children if I can barely support myself?” Two problems with this. First, I find it interesting that the idea of starting a family is only mentioned during a female’s story. Is a female’s value rooted in starting a family? Second, I want to see these authors write a book entitled Are Children Worth It? From a financial standpoint, children have a horrible return on investment. Perhaps having children, like getting an education, should not be valued only in dollar amount. (The authors do touch on this slightly, but the main theme of the book is economic worth).

Like other critics, there is a frustration at the inherent caste system in higher education. Students and parents fight for spots at elite, Ivy League schools. I agree that elite colleges are overvalued, however, we can argue that the market dictates the price. The authors appear to like the idea of a free market however they also want to control pricing. It leaves me confused. What steps should we take

Yes, taxpayers are subsidizing higher education. They like to repeat that multiple times as if it’s a new concept. I will give the authors some credit, they do disparage high school education. It is nice to see someone recognize that higher education is trying to pick up the slack. How do we fix higher education when we have not fixed high schools?

Apparently, students are living like kings and queens on their student loan money. Just like people living off welfare that eat prime rib and champagne every night. Neither of these statements supported by facts. I’m sure there are people abusing the system, but I do not see evidence pointing to widespread abuse.

The authors argue “colleges should think hard about eliminating trendy majors that consistently do no demonstrate their intellectual rigor, fiduciary worth, or ability to produce employable graduates.” So who gets to decide this? Who gets to predict the future? With technology moving so quickly, it is impossible to predict where the economy will go. Do you think college presidents and provosts knew social media would change everything? Economists cannot predict the market, yet somehow colleges should know who will be employable next year and the next decade. That is ridiculous.

I know what you are thinking…yes, they do mention the infamous rock climbing wall. I think is mandatory for the rock climbing wall to be cited in every book about higher education.

I know there is a difference between street smarts and book smarts. Colleges are no averse to street smarts. In fact, most schools provide some sort of activities or programs that promote holistic development. Those who value street smarts over book smarts should consider a different form of education.

There are plenty of job opportunities in the United States that sit vacant because there are not enough trained professionals for those positions. This is classic supply and demand. Some fields grow so quickly that the supply cannot keep up with demand for a bigger workforce. However, the point they tend to gloss over is when these specific markets crash and the supply is bigger than the demand. Then what? Are these students capable of adapting? Petroleum engineering, for example, is booming. With oil profits soaring and fracking technology developing, petroleum engineers are in high demand. Fifteen years ago, newly minted graduates in petroleum engineering were in trouble. Where will they be fifteen years from now?

You cannot discuss education in purely consumeristic terms. You do not just pay someone and in return get a valid degree. You have to pay someone, work really hard, and in return get a valid degree. It’s like going to the gym. You have to pay, work out, and then you get into shape. That middle step is crucial.

Apparently, according to the authors, students do not major in STEM fields because students are too interested in their dreams. I kid you not. That is one of their arguments. Here is a quote: “The problem is that easy loans empower the student to pursue degrees that are perhaps more personally interesting and fulfilling to them but have little economic value.” Following your dreams are completely worthless unless you make a lot of money.

Okay. I am going to stop there. Those are my thoughts on the first one hundred pages. That’s right, there are another one hundred pages that I could critique for you but let’s be honest, if you disagree with me you stopped reading this long ago. If you do agree with me, then hopefully you don’t need more proof.

I am sure someone will read this and label me into a box. So let me do that for you, I am a believer in higher education. It has its flaws. It should be criticized regularly and fixed frequently.

This book is simply just not worth the time. I don’t think it has well-reasoned arguments.