We Don't Need No Education
“We don’t need no education” —Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who had dropped out of Regent Street Polytechnic in London, originally intending to become a mechanical engineer
I have worked in education for the past decade, and while it’s fascinating to see the heady brew of misinformed hot takes and “back in my day” fallacies online, it’s not useful—not for educators, not for executives hiring recent graduates, and not for students considering their paths in life.
So, this week, we are taking on 5 myths about higher education in the United States—lace up your Oxford shoes and let’s jump in.
Myth #1: You can pay for in-state tuition at your state school with a summer job
Reality #1: Even with recent wage growth in some industries, overall...hahaha, nope
Twenty years ago, if you were a traditional college student coming straight from high school, you could get a summer job at the Federal minimum wage of $5.15. It would take 725 hours of work to pay for the in-state tuition at your median local college.
Today’s Federal minimum wage is $7.25—so that same job as a lifeguard or doling out Dole Whip would require 1600 hours of work for the same freshman year. That’s before spiking housing costs and $80 clickers you wouldn’t have needed in ‘02.
In other words, the math doesn’t add up. The next time you hear this Boomer Logic, you’ll be prepared with this takeaway: the same product is wildly more expensive, so you’ll have to either set aside more as a parent for your kid, seek out scholarships, or consider alternate paths to State U if you’re middle class.
Myth #2: The country’s very wealthiest don’t see the value in a college degree
Reality #2: The higher up the income distribution you go, the more likely you are to go to a tippy-top college
A common LinkedIn meme is to cherry-pick some billionaire—usually in Silicon Valley and over 40—and if he dropped out of school (same as Roger Waters, nota bene that it is very rare that they never stepped foot on a college campus at all…), point to that as causative of his financial success.
Not only is this ignoring survivorship bias (even most top school graduates aren’t billionaires, and correlation is a far cry from causation), this ignores incredible education stratifications among even the elite. While 30% of the children of the top 0.1% (annual income: $2,808,104) go to a top-100 college, less than 10% of the children of the top 10% ($158,002, and that extra $2 matters, dangit) do.
I attribute this myth to availability bias. If you’re a six-figure, upper-middle class professional working as a mechanical engineer or product manager or even a professor at a mid- or top-tier college, almost everyone in your social circle probably graduated from college. You probably don’t know that many Crazy Rich People, so you latch onto a factoid about an exception, not the rule, which is mo’ money means mo’ fancy-schmancy degrees in the U.S.
Myth #3 The United States has the best (or worst) education in the world
Reality #3: The U.S. is fairly middling among developed countries
I will admit, this was an area where my own instincts were fuzzy. I have worked with students from a variety of countries, where their secondary systems were different enough that it’s difficult to compare a Mexican manzana to an Indian santara. The United States does well on some things in education, terribly on others, but the overall picture is that we’re doing just okay, and there's a widening gap between haves and have-nots.
First, high schoolers in the United States perform MUCH better in reading skills than in math, both in absolute and relative terms.
Girls are outpacing the boys by a mile on reading comprehension in literally every OECD country surveyed (I think this is one area where the conventional wisdom—that women excel in language skills earlier and oftener than men—seems to be statistically correct), and the U.S. is #7 in the world. Reports of American students’ illiteracy seem to have been greatly exaggerated.
When it comes to math, on the other hand, the US is not #1—or even average. Boys have a slight edge here in most countries except many in Scandinavia. The post-Sputnik push for better STEM results in the States seems to have let up, and students in East Asia and Western Europe are dominating math tests.
What can be done to help students increase their performance? This is a contested arena, and finger-pointing and hysteria abound. Two takeaways I would recommend from my time as an educator:
Stop instilling math phobia in your child. It’s socially acceptable to say you’re “bad at math” in a way that I would have thought went out with Math is Hard Barbie, especially from and to American women. Research out of Stanford shows that attitude indeed plays a big role.
Fill your home with books. My parents were not well-off—usually, they were broke—but my mom was an avid reader, and I would often check out a pile of books from the Holladay Library that was taller than I was as a child. Turns out, this association meant that not only was I a stronger reader, my number sense was increased.
Myth #4: Out of state students are flooding state universities, jacking up tuition
Reality #4: The situation is more nuanced than that
Higher ed wonks such as Aaron Klein of the Brookings Institute have investigated the phenomenon dubbed The Great Student Swap. Compared to twenty years ago, 48 of the 50 state flagship universities saw a significant increase in their share of out-of-state undergraduate enrollment.
Being a zero-sum game, this means that plenty of qualified students have had to downgrade the prestige of the school they attend, go to a private school—or among the most vulnerable students, skip a traditional four-year degree altogether.
The report makes clear that at state universities—funded, of course, by the states’ taxpayers—funding fell by an average of 20% per student in this time. This has led to increased debt burdens for individual students and an increasing feeling that state universities are for those people, not the types of parents who relatively easily gained admittance to State U a generation ago.
Hasan Minhaj on his show Patriot Act did a deep-dive into the phenomenon of fancier amenities and luxury housing at flagship schools. This feeds into an idea that seats at state colleges are a precious resource, not dissimilar to the idea that outside developers are buying up housing.
However, the myth is missing some key elements. For one, a swap implies an exchange— affluent and wealthy students work with private college coaches (ahem, full disclosure, I’ve worked as one) to build long lists of dream, target, and safety schools, and a few state colleges are considered prestigious and make the rounds on these lists—U.C. Berkeley, U.T. Austin, Michigan, U.N.C Chapel Hill, to name a few. So some East Bay kids are swapping into Ann Arbor and vice versa, with less of an effect overall than might be expected (in other words, this population would go to an elite college, regardless, and are competing primarily with each other).
Additionally, it’s unclear whether the Brookings Institute researchers’ contention that out of state students are a gold mine is necessarily true. The so-called rack rate, which is the advertised cost of tuition, is not the cost paid in the end by the consumer, and as you go up the selectivity rankings, that becomes more and more true.
No, out-of-state students don't always bring in more revenue, new research suggests
What’s the real solution to this problem? That one is surprisingly easy: go back to funding state schools at the state level. If you’re a taxpayer, pick up the phone and talk to your legislators. Since the Recession, states—whether rich or poor, red or blue—have defunded state universities. This has led to these schools’ commodification.
If you want to ever have a multigenerational tailgate wearing your school’s colors and not bankrupt yourself for the privilege, we should return to the 20th century levels of funding of state schools. Consider investing in public higher education a long-term investment—the way the G.I. Bill gave federal funds to vets who previously would never have considered college—and these students will have compounding returns for their states.
Myth #5: Students force their parents to take on crippling six figure student loans to study Semiotic Basket Weaving and get brainwashed at bucolic liberal arts schools
Reality #5: Slow down, buddy, the real student debt crisis is among the working class, who took a couple for-profit college classes at night, dropped out, couldn’t pay it back, and are crippled by a few grand in debt
This is the most insidious myth—and reeks of the classism that pervades the entire discussion around education in this country.
Sure, you can find anecdotal evidence that among the privileged group of B.A. holders, a handful studied something they felt didn’t translate well into the workplace.
But, as this Urban Institute fellow puts it, “people with bachelor’s degrees are by and large fine.” It’s the dropouts: working class students, often older, often of color, usually trying to do something “pragmatic” like nursing, unlike their age-peers who go to elite universities and think deep thoughts about Balzac, who are left holding the bag on bad debt.
In the U.S., you can get a federal loan (commonly referred to with the acronym for the application, FAFSA) to attend a wide variety of frankly crappy colleges. PBS’s hour-long investigation into the phenomenon of lightly regulated, pretty darn sketchy colleges that prey on first-gen students is worth your time.
So, instead of complaining that your college-aged nephew took a guitar class instead of learning to code from his basement, consider that those who are just trying to make a better life for themselves are priced out of the elite market, don’t have models on how to pursue professional-track careers, and that a four-year university was always as much about making connections as anything else.
To recap, many of the myths about higher education come from biases of older people who don’t have a fuller understanding of the diversity of the current college experience—as Jeff Selingo put it on his most recent podcast episode of Future U, there is no true “system” of college in the United States—only a variety of state systems.
To best prepare American kids for success in tertiary education and beyond, we should start early, and improve our showing in math, especially—learning from the countries who excel. Rather than pressuring students to take on burdensome debt, colleges should invest in more high-quality work study programs.
Rich kids get endless amounts of help to go to top colleges, and we should help not-rich students understand their options, including more accessible test prep and challenging high school tracks in all schools.
And instead of yelling at the Gen Z kid who is struggling to decide their future to get off your lawn, maybe offer to let them mow it. Only 1599 more hours to go.
Edited by Rachel Swan