The Scam Problem

ScamMan

“For many people, college is a scam,” writes journalist John Stossel. In a piece he wrote for Townhall.com he explains that:

Today all kids are told: To succeed, you must go to college. Hillary Clinton tells students: “Graduates from four-year colleges earn nearly twice as much as high school graduates, an estimated $1 million more.”

It’s true. But it leaves out some important facts. I spoke with Richard Vedder, author of “Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much,” and Naomi Schafer Riley, who just published “Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.”

Vedder explained why that million-dollar comparison is ridiculous: “People that go to college are different kind of people … (more) disciplined … smarter. They did better in high school.” They would have made more money even if they never went to college.

The problem with this is that if you say “the average college graduate earns $1 million more than the average high school graduate” over a lifetime, that statement is not disproven by pointing out that perhaps smart college graduates might have earned just as much if they never went to college.

There’s not much new information here, except for the use of the red letter “scam.”

College is overpriced and oversold. People sometimes talk about college as if all degrees (associate, bachelor’s) were golden tickets to wealth and prosperity. The benefits of college are often overstated, especially since at this point it’s merely a necessary condition for young people to obtain most professional jobs.

This is perhaps a little unfair but let’s operate in the real world here: John Stossel, who went to Princeton, is the host of Fox Business Network’s “Stossel.” How many Fox Business Network producers didn’t go to college?

College is really not a “scam.” College would only be a scam if people didn’t learn anything at all there or going to college didn’t lead to any improvement in job prospects. And these things just aren’t true. Students may not learn as much in college as one might hope, and they might get some pretty crappy jobs early in their careers, but let’s be careful with terms.

A scam is a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation. Something that’s merely inefficient or too expensive is not a scam; it’s a problem to correct. Calling college a scam detracts attention away from real, systemic problems in higher education.

“We need to wake people up,” Stossel rights. I agree, but let’s wake people up to real problems, not overstate problems to the point of ludicrousness.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer