Friday, July 12, 2013

Is "Is College Worth It?" worth it?

"Don't flush your money away on college" is the basic message of Bill Bennett's and David Wilezol's Is College Worth It? Between rising education costs, fewer job opportunities, and the reality that most jobs do not require a college degree, ICWI makes a compelling argument that you very well might be better off foregoing college and learning a trade, participating in online education, or simply entering the workforce.



Overall, ICWI Is very a worthwhile book.

First, it is by and large well-written and a quick read. The exception to this rule is that from time to time the flow gets bogged down a bit in statistics (which is a drawback I list below as well), but as far as I could tell none of the statistics were superfluous and it wasn't distracting enough to make me want to set it aside.

Second, ICWI is brutally honest about the increasing financial cost of a college education compared to the real-world opportunities-- opportunities a college education doesn't really open up at all, despite the common cultural belief that if you don't go to college you've somehow failed at life. To repeat: college does not guarantee you a good job and a happy life. People who say otherwise are either ignorant, liars, or university recruiters.

Third, ICWI puts a positive spin on online education and MOOCs that is refreshing amidst all the standard  gloom and doom predicting the demise of liberal learning at the hands of internet profiteers. Not that I necessarily agree with such optimism, but I at least enjoyed reading something a bit more sunshiny in an otherwise generally glum world.

Fourth, ICWI does a good job of highlighting some of the causes of the current educational crisis in higher ed. Namely, the failure of the public school system to adequately educate many, many children; but also including rising administrative costs (often disconnected from any increase in quality of education); federal intervention (through student loans); political correctness funneling cash into ridiculous programs; and so on. While it doesn't go in depth into any one of these-- that's not the point of the book anyway--all the appropriate nods are given.

And of course, it answers the question of whether college is worthwhile--and does so in a surprisingly nuanced way (given how short the book is, there wouldn't seem to be much space for nuance). If you care about the question at all then this is a useful book to read.  
Overall, the strengths pretty solidly outweigh the drawbacks, of which there are only three and a half:

First, it's the sort of book that's only going to be read by someone for whom it is too late. That is, someone who already has a college degree. Part of the reason for this is that at times ICWI is a bit statistics-heavy, such that one nearly needs a college degree to follow all of the details. But even beyond that it's just not the sort of book that high school students are likely to pick up and read. While a handful of guidance counselors out there might, for better or worse it's still likely only to be influential on those who have already gone through the system.

Second, some of the scenarios at the end of the book are quite frankly hilariously ridiculous. For example, one student considering college is described and offered advice like this:
You never took high school that seriously and did just enough to graduate. Everything was hard or boring. A year later, you're still living at home and working as a roofer... After work, you like to come home and watch UFC and smoke pot with your bros... VERDICT: Take a hard look at the military... And stop smoking pot or you won't be eligible.  (213)
They don't go quite as far as to say "get a haircut, hippie!" or "get off my lawn!", but the crotchety old man definitely comes out to his porch and yells a bit here and there throughout the book. (Which I think is actually kind of awesome, such that I almost put it in the "strength" column, rather than the "drawback" column.)

Third, at the end of the book is a list of the schools that are worth attending, if you can get in. This is not a drawback in any specific sense (so far as I know all of the schools listed really are quite good), but in the more general sense that such a list will of necessity exclude schools that are quite good and worthwhile, while over time good schools will go into decline. For example, there are any number of state schools that are both affordable and offer a solid education (most of the Western state schools fit this description quite nicely), but don't make the list simply because the authors aren't familiar with them. On the other hand, I will be very surprised if ten years from now some of the smaller liberal arts schools have the same reputation for excellence and affordability. With that said, I suggest that if they haven't already, Bennett and Wilezol set up a website (or use Bennett's existing website) to keep a running tab of schools that can be edited as needed. So I guess by "drawback" what I really meant in this instance was "I'd like to see more on this matter from Bennett and Wilezol."

Objection 3.5 is a quibble, but given the nature of the book review program I participate in (see disclaimer below), I should point out that there's nothing particularly Christian about this book. Despite being published by Thomas Nelson, this is a political, social, cultural, and policy-oriented book, and has nothing to do with religion. Like I said, a mere trifle of an objection not even worth a full number of its own...

Even with these three drawbacks, ICWI is a well-written and interesting book and worth a once-over.

Recommended for those interested in the state of higher ed, and of course for those considering college.

Disclaimer 1: I Received this book free from the publisher on the condition that I write a review. I was not required to write a positive one.

Disclaimer 2: I am friends with one of the authors of this book (not Bill Bennett, though no doubt he's a decent guy as well), which I don't think colored my analysis, but very well might have. 

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