Naomi Schaefer Riley

My husband and I occasionally employ a handyman by the name of Joe. He is a master at what he does, which is everything: carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, and painting. He is a man who after years of experience and training can take one look at whatever is wrong with our house, craft an elegant solution, and then execute it so well that no one will be able to tell there was a problem in the first place. So far as I know, Joe has never spent a day in college. I also have a relative named Jody (whose name I've changed for anonymity), a young woman who is about to get a bachelor's degree from a well-established small Catholic college with a decent reputation. She has studied to be an elementary school teacher, but her spelling and grammar are deplorable and she cannot understand the plot of texts that many students are assigned in high school. She will probably spend next year getting a master's degree.

The problem with higher education today is the tale of Joe and Jody. Joe doesn't need college. He has made a good living; his skills are always in demand; he has even put his own daughters through college. He goes on fishing trips in Alaska and takes his wife to Las Vegas. Jody, on the other hand, will have a great deal of trouble getting a job.

College has become the automatic answer for young people today.

We tell them that they will earn more with a college degree -- and on average, they will. Even bartenders with college degrees earn more. What does that tell you? Not that they teach bartending skills in college -- ha-ha -- but that a college degree has become the easiest way to signal to employers that a person is reasonably hardworking and will show up on time. That's an awfully expensive signal mechanism.

We tell young people that college is their ticket to the middle class. But we are not concerned with the content of that education -- students leave without mastering basic skills we used to expect from high schoolers. There is no guarantee that they have gained a foundation in history or economics or mathematics. We write enormous tuition checks, but what we are buying is a credential. And, as employers often complain, many recent graduates cannot seem to write an E-mail that will not embarrass the organization they work for. Meanwhile we have all but closed off any other options for the Jodys of the world. Vocational education is encouraged only for the worst students. Apprenticeships have all but disappeared from our economy.

So is a college degree worth it?

Until we come up with alternative ways to train people for employment, yes. But you'll probably learn more from four years of watching Joe.


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You Can Lead Kids to College but You Can't Make Them Learn