Book Review: Is College Worth It? By William J. Bennett and David Wilezol

Bennett, William J. and David Wilezol. Is College Worth It? Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2013. 278pp.

As a university professor and as a political, social, and religious conservative, I often feel that I occupy a space between two worlds. On the one hand, some of my colleagues and friends on the Left continue to extol the virtues of higher education as a near-panacea for intellectual, social, and career development. On the other hand, some of those on the Right have become distrustful of higher education, partly because of a perceived “liberal bias,” but even more so because of the high cost and resultant student debt. Given the abysmal career prospects for young people since the recession began five years ago, questioning the value of a degree that comes at such high cost and so little possibility of a reward has become even more common.

<i>Is College Worth It?</i> by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol

Is College Worth It? by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol

Enter former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and his associate David Wilezol, who in an interesting (though sometimes repetitive and occasionally contradictory) book, ask the question Is College Worth It? Like me, both of these men seem to be caught between conflicting loyalties and ideals. Both highly educated and fond of the “life of the mind,” the authors are nevertheless troubled by the poor return some students are getting on their investments in tertiary education. Though there is some talk of “liberal bias,” the authors seem more troubled by lowering academic standards and profligate spending (whether real or perceived) by colleges and universities. In the end, the authors answer their question with “maybe,” depending on career choice, finances, aptitudes and interests, and other considerations. Let us explore just briefly their ideas and arguments.

Before beginning the major content of the book, the authors list facts and figures that are quite damning to our higher education system. Minus one small critique of “nonsense” teaching in some programs, most of the negative points have to do with high costs. This theme is present throughout the book; while the authors are critical of programs that they believe to be of low academic quality or reflect significant political and social biases, on the whole they retain a certain fondness for academia and seem disappointed that, for many students, the benefits of tertiary education do not justify the high costs—or the high debt loads. This is where the authors begin with the first chapter, “The Borrowing Binge.”

The first chapter opens with several “sob stories” of individuals with extraordinarily high levels of student-loan debt and either no completed degree or at least little hope of obtaining a job with the kind of remuneration needed to manage that debt. The problem is cross-generational, with some accumulating and retaining student-loan debt for so long that “we’ve got Social Security checks being garnished” (5). Why are students going into debt to go to college and having no job prospects to show for it? The authors blame an economy that continues to produce few jobs and a “college for everyone” mentality that encourages all students to enroll—at any cost—whether or not they have the necessary interests and aptitudes to succeed in higher education. They lament both high tuition costs and “the unseen costs” of delayed major purchases in later life due to student loan debt. The question is, if tuition rates have become so high that debt loads are unmanageable, how are colleges and universities able to “get away with” this? This question is addressed in the second chapter.

The second chapter occupies fifty pages, yet its contents can be summarized very briefly. In “Creating a Financial Monster,” the authors blame “easy money” lending policies for the tremendous rise in tuition rates. This, of course, is simple economics: if you want to create a market for something, subsidize it. Knowing full well that the federal government will offer subsidized student loans to almost any student, in almost any amount, colleges and universities have had little incentive to lower prices. Even further, with students now demanding increasingly posh amenities, institutions are eager to provide luxurious dorms, exercise centers, dining opportunities, and other “perks,” and indeed have to do so in order to compete with peer institutions for students. These things cost money, as well. Administrative bloat is also mentioned; I will address this topic shortly. Although they do so only briefly, the authors fault state governments with the same greed for student loan dollars as college administrators. They lament the slashing of higher education budgets in recent years, as costs that were once borne by the states are passed in increasing measure onto students and their families. All of this adds up to a “perfect storm” of uncontrollably rising costs, and the result is amazingly high levels of student debt.

Given the high costs, in the next chapter the authors ask “Is it Worth It?” They return to the almost universal perception that attending college will inevitably lead to higher lifetime earnings, but only acknowledge the truth of this with serious qualifications. For one thing, some majors lead to more and better-paying jobs than others. A musician (to use an example close-to-home) will earn less than a petroleum engineer, making the tuition rate that is “worth it” for a music major to pay much lower. Moreover, students that are academically unprepared for tertiary education will likely emerge a few years later with lots of debt, no degree, and no better job prospects than a high school graduate that never attended college. Meanwhile, well-paying jobs in technology and skilled trades that require some postsecondary training but not a four-year degree go unfilled; very likely many of these students that lack the preparation or disposition for higher education would do well in these professions. The authors suggest ending the “college for all” mentality, promoting postsecondary training in skilled trades, and even retooling the high school curriculum so that some students can pursue a “career track” rather than assuming that everyone needs to pursue a “college prep track.” Besides some majors leading to greater lifetime earnings, degrees from certain schools also have a reputation for generating greater incomes. Given the high expense of some of these schools, one might consider pursuing an undergraduate degree at a less expensive institution and then the graduate degree at a larger and higher-cost one with more prestige. (Having pursued a similar path myself—and emerging with no student loan debt after three degrees—I can personally commend it.) Lastly, the authors consider the military—a fine option for many young people—and alternative career paths such as engaging in entrepreneurship right out of high school. The latter path is probably best reserved for only the very brightest students, but it is an option.

The authors explore “The Lower Side of Higher Ed” in chapter four. Here, lowered academic standards (made necessary by the “college for all” mentality), grade inflation, novel and politically-charged departments and degree programs with few “real-world” applications, and highly-paid researchers that do little or no teaching are blamed for high costs and lagging results. The authors lament that staples in Western history, music, art, and literature are no longer consistently taught while the pursuit of “tolerance” and “diversity” are elevated to positions of primary importance. Faults in the K-12 system are also revisited and addressed.

In the final chapter, the authors advise students to consider tertiary education “With Eyes Wide-Open.” Unlike some conservative authors who observe the lamentable items discussed in the first four chapters and decide to divest entirely from higher education, the authors here remain committed to the place of higher education in society and its value for those students that have the abilities, interest, and means (which can include the judicious use of student-loan debt) to pursue it. They write,

“Despite the parlous economic, intellectual, and social condition of higher education we have documented, the situation is far from hopeless, and there are many bright spots in places of excellence and success. Many students do graduate each year and find good jobs. Some of America’s students are still some of the best-educated graduates in the world. In the classroom, not every professor is a doctrinaire liberal, and not every student is subject to social ostracism or subpar grades for expressing unpopular political views. Not every student is only putting in twelve hours of homework per week—just ask architecture, engineering, or classics majors. Not every college student binge drinks or is sexually promiscuous. Some, even many, learn, grow, and eventually prosper.” (p. 161)

Still, the authors recommend caution, encouraging students to consider skilled trades or other careers that require less than a Bachelor of Arts degree, the military, or even online education. They are optimistic but, wisely, cautious about Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs), given their recent vintage and lack of long-term data as to their effectiveness. The book ends with “Twelve Hypothetical Scenarios” of students considering tertiary education and how those students should proceed. These provide helpful applications of the ideas presented in the book. Other appendices include a list of colleges and universities that the authors recommend, acknowledgements, endnotes, and index.

While I agree in large measure with the authors’ observations and recommendations, I do have a few caveats and complaints to offer. As a music professor, I am not pleased with the suggestion that students avoid fine arts majors, though given the sometimes low pay and limited career prospects, I understand their reasoning. To their credit, the authors do not advocate a wholesale dismantling of these departments in favor of a singular focus upon STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, but do want students to understand that, if they have the aptitude for it, STEM majors do normally lead to higher incomes than do those in the fine arts.

Much ink has been spilled about tuition increases outpacing inflation rates, though given how the methods of calculating the “official” inflation rates have changed in the past quarter-century (in order to generate more favorable “numbers”), I wonder if tuition rates are so out-of-control as they might seem. Between “real” inflation and decreases in state appropriations, one might argue that the hefty tuition hikes of the past decade have been necessary to maintain the “status quo.” That said, greater monetary inflation also means that students and their families have less “real” money to invest in higher education, so the negative effects of “easy money” student loan policies remain, and should be taken into account by colleges and universities when setting tuition rates.

One source of increased costs is the increase in administrative bureaucracy; the authors cite a 39-percent increase in the number of full-time administrators between 1993 and 2007, while the number of faculty members increased by far less (p. 64). While acknowledging this increase, I would point out in defense of colleges and universities that much of this “bloat” has come about not because institutions and faculty members love administration, but because increases in federal and state regulations, as well as accreditors’ requirements, have necessitated it. Regulation is never cost-neutral.

If from this review the book seems to be a bit schizophrenic, lambasting higher education on the one hand and then recommending it on the other, that is an accurate perception. Like me, the authors here are caught between a love for academic endeavor and the hard reality that our present educational system encourages too many students to enter degree programs for which they are academically unprepared and which they cannot responsibly afford. Based upon conversations with colleagues over more than ten years in higher education, I can safely say that many of us teachers both agree and lament that the “college for all” mentality has led to many unprepared students entering the university system, with sometimes disastrous results for students, their families, and the educational process. While these authors might sometimes seem a little conflicted, they are to be commended for approaching the problem in a balanced way, recognizing the value of higher education while also acknowledging that it is not for everyone, and then suggesting alternative paths to success.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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