Fail U Lays Out the Path to Righting the Wrong of Higher Education

Fail UIt would be difficult to say if I spent more time reading Charles Sykes’ new Fail U: The False Promise of Higher Education in a state of anger or of depression.  The topic is near and dear to my heart for a variety of reasons, and Sykes’ book delivers on two promises: (1) An indisputable exposure of the maddening scam and fraud that today’s college ecosystem has become; and (2) A demonstration of the potential path to its real undoing.  My desire would be for every parent with children between the ages of 0 and 17 to read this book.  For those not so inclined, perhaps this review will accomplish some of the desired ends (or at least understanding).

I feel for the parents who have viewed a future college education for their kids as the guaranteed path to a life of success and fulfillment.  College has been sold to our society for well over a generation now as the assurance that life in the middle class (or better) will be the pot of gold at the end of the [drunken?] rainbow.  And like the cult of home ownership which so dominated the American psyche until 2008, it will (unfortunately) be rank economics and fiscal realities that cause this terrible cult to come to a fatal end.

The cost of a college degree has increased 1,125% since 1978, an inflation rate more than 4x that of general consumer prices.  This unfortunate fiscal reality, the source of immeasurable financial pain and anguish for millions of people, has been accompanied by not a mere dilution of the value of such a degree, but a complete and total collapse of that value.  The universities have managed to increase the quantity and pay levels of their bureaucrats, administrators, and “other professionals” several times over, but full-time faculty that actually teach their undergraduate students are simply impossible to find.  What is interesting is that no one, and I mean no one, on the other side of this issue denies any of these facts.  This suggests to me either a callous disregard for the well-being of young people, or a pathological interpretation of what is best for them.  I would be curious if any defender about the higher education culture would deny any of these facts:

  • The cost of college tuition has skyrocketed multiples higher than base inflation
  • Administrator and bureaucrat salaries and positions have exploded with these tuition increases
  • Aggregate student debt is now well over $1 trillion in American society, far more than total auto loans or even total credit card debt
  • In exchange for this massive financial burden students are receiving the thrilling experience of Teacher Aids doing all classroom work, assuming there is any classroom work
  • Average college graduate wages have declined 15%, and 53% of college graduates between the ages of 21 and 29 are unemployed or under-employed (the latter being defined as having a job that no one believes required a college degree whatsoever)

I will add as a finance guy that in the decade before the housing bubble burst the nation’s total mortgage debt inexplicably went up 300%; in the last decade our aggregate student loan debt has gone up 600% …  To believe that this is going to end well is to indicate that you will likely believe anything.

It is my opinion that the basic “business” of higher education as laid out with simple, non-controversial facts above, is perverse and unacceptable.  But sadly it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.  Once one swallows the pill that they are paying stratospheric costs for totally declining trade-offs, they also have to accept that the students are learning virtually nothing, the experience exists for the purpose of giving the students a 4-6 year span of unbridled hedonistic opportunity, the “research” coming from academia has lost any sense of utility or application, and the universities themselves have become the worst sort of coddlers of these “special snowflakes” we used to call young adults. Sykes goes to great effort to demonstrate the absurdities that take place on college campuses every single day, not as outliers, but as a core part of the normative experience in today’s academia.

I believe parents put up with this scam because there is parental pride that comes from telling their friends that their kid went to or graduated from XYZ University.  And I believe donors put up with it because their large donations serve as an existential validation of whatever it is they have done with their adult lives.  I think these are pitiful reasons to tolerate the pillaging of our young people (their wallets, their minds, and their souls), and it needs to stop.  My first wish would be that we as a society would come to the obvious conclusion that the system is broken and must change, free of a total collapse or painful fallout.  My prediction, and this is one I would bet my hard-earned lot in life on, is that it will take the financial bubble bursting.  The feds will see such unbelievable defaults in the student debt they are owed, and the write-downs politicians prescribe will be such deficit debacles, that the access to free and reckless money will dry up.  This will force universities to compete for students, driving prices down, and utterly collapsing the pig-fest of campus amenities and bureaucratic wastes of human flesh that flood their payrolls.  Then and only then will the entire delivery of advanced education be modernized, and already available technological advances be fully harnessed to provide elite subject matter expertise to those who actually want to learn and be more prepared for adult life, vocationally and otherwise.  If this sounds like wishful thinking, you are right – I wish for this, and then some.  But it is more than wishful thinking, because it is going to happen.

The unfounded claims that one in five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses bother me, but it is a symptom of the real problem, not the problem itself.  The systemic grade inflation and academic fraud discovered on a monthly basis across athletic programs (and often in non-athletic programs as well) is also a symptom, not the problem.  While I am glad to hear that Washington State has “the largest Jacuzzi on the west coast” for their student body to enjoy, and that nationally $15 billion per year is being spent on campus renovations, generally having nothing to do with education whatsoever, the fact of the matter is that even these insulting atrocities are not the heart of the matter.

The core iniquity in today’s higher education system is that it became based on a truly faulty objective a generation  ago (“get a four-year degree and you will achieve economic security”), and then to make matters worse, it hasn’t even come close to delivering on that faulty objective!  What went astray was the death of the university as the place to expand intellectual growth and productivity.  A classically liberal education that better prepares the student for the challenges of life – that stimulates their passions – that encourages them to wrestle with the great questions of life – has gone the way of the hula hoop (and it began to do this around the same decade as the hula hoop, too).  Charles Murray points out that, for now, there actually is still a compensation premium for college graduates vs. non-college graduates; the big question is WHY there is …  It most certainly cannot and will not last.  Do real employers with real experience and a real assessment of the profit/loss realities of their business actually believe that the candidates they are interviewing gained some experience in their college years that will be fruitful to that employer’s business?  Of course not!  No way.  This compensation premium will dissipate even more through time just as the gainful employment rate for college graduates has stooped to levels never thought possible.  This is not a cyclical trend; it is a structural reality.  The system needs to be burned to the ground.

And burn to the ground it shall.

In its place, a system that favors students and fiscal responsibility will be found.  The myth that every high school graduate should go to college will fall apart.  The assembly line educational model will die.  And elite professors from elite universities will re-surface, creating incredible content because market forces will demand such.  Trustees will be forced to act.  Faculty will be forced to adopt.  And parents will be forced to admit that they have passively played a role in letting this preposterous scam continue for far too long.

Charles Sykes’ tremendous book provides the case for why this must be, and that it will be.  And I cannot plead with you to read it emphatically enough.