Rethinking College

One of the ways to deal with the angst over college debt is to not go to college. More to the point, one good way to deal with it is for employers to eliminate a four-year degree requirement for jobs where it’s not needed — which is to say the vast majority of them.

On his first day in office, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, eliminated the degree requirement for 92% of state jobs. A handful of other states have done that as well and more are considering it. Local governments and private employers should not be far behind, if they’re behind at all.

This is a good thing in at least four ways.

First, we’ve got a labor shortage and foregoing college or picking up a two-year degree gets more people into the labor force faster.

Second, it could bring down the cost of college. It’s a case of supply and demand. With more young people deciding they don’t need college it should make college administrators respond by doing all they can to recapture their market — including slashing prices. (This assumes that there is a single college administrator who thinks like a capitalist. Okay, so maybe I’m wrong about this one.)

Third, it could make colleges more responsive to the labor market and to the career needs of their students. Again, this requires an entrepreneurial spirit which may be both foreign and offensive to people who run institutions of higher education. But over time things can change. Administrators who turn up their noses at becoming “trade schools” will move on eventually and, just maybe, be replaced by managers with a more practical view.

And fourth, it might result in a new way of looking at the non-degreed, which is to say not looking down at them. People without four-year degrees are the majority — about 70% — of American adults. Educational snobbery is a particular affliction of liberal elites and in college towns like mine it’s everywhere. That is somewhat understandable. This is a company town and we feel threatened when anyone suggests that our company’s products (education and government) aren’t needed as much as we think they should be.

Grayson Hart rejected college. He runs a youth theater project. “I can figure this out.”

Some of this reconsideration of the value of college comes as a result of the pandemic. Millions of kids who would have entered college in 2020 and 2021 didn’t. They delayed entry or they took online courses. And they looked around to do other things.

The other day the Associated Press ran a story about some of these kids. One is Grayson Hart who lives in Tennessee. To quote the story:

A year after high school, Hart is directing a youth theater program in Jackson, Tennessee. He got into every college he applied to but turned them all down. Cost was a big factor, but a year of remote learning also gave him the time and confidence to forge his own path.

“There were a lot of us with the pandemic, we kind of had a do-it-yourself kind of attitude of like, ‘Oh — I can figure this out,’” he said. “Why do I want to put in all the money to get a piece of paper that really isn’t going to help with what I’m doing right now?”

A “do-it-yourself attitude” and “I can figure this out.” That’s refreshing. If he had gone to college — and maybe he still will some day — he may well have been taught that he was “privileged” or he may have discovered that he was actually a victim of something or other. In either case, he would have learned that he had little or no control of his destiny. He was either guaranteed success or doomed at birth. They may well have beaten the “I can figure this out” out of him.

The AP story revealed the bias of the journalist and his editors (bias has been creeping into the once objective AP stories more in the last few years) with this:

What first looked like a pandemic blip has turned into a crisis. Nationwide, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022, with declines even after returning to in-person classes, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The slide in the college-going rate since 2018 is the steepest on record, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

A crisis? Why is this a crisis? As noted above I think it’s just the opposite. The story goes on to quote labor economists who note that those without a four-year degree earn about 75% as much as a college grad over their careers. But that’s largely because so many white collar jobs required a degree to get in the door. As more employers drop the need for the paper that gap should close substantially.

Let me finish with a word about college versus an education. Some of the most educated people I know didn’t go to college, didn’t finish their degree or did pick up a diploma but without showing up at a lot of classes. Education is mostly just reading, being curious, and knowing how to distinguish a good argument from a hare-brained one. To the extent that college helps hone those skills, it’s a good thing. But those abilities can be established well before college (they usually are) or they can be picked up later. We shouldn’t think of college and education as synonymous.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

4 thoughts on “Rethinking College

  1. When I got my first job out of college as a reporter/photographer at the NBC affiliate in Rockford I could only think of 2 or maybe 3 classes I took that taught me anything I needed to know in the job, and by the end of my first week on the job I had learned about five times what I learned in 4 years of college. But I needed that “sheepskin” to even get an interview.


  2. Dave, I think you nailed it. I have long believed that a 2-year associate’s degree from the local technical college is of greater value, dollar for dollar, than the corresponding four-year degree in the same field. Four-year programs appear to be clogged with “required” courses that are not relevant to the specific job or career that the student is seeking. In addition, there are “core curriculum” courses that bear no relationship to the field that the student is attempting to enter.

    Four-year degree educational institutions have become over-priced and are overdue for reform.


  3. Your suggestions will leave the training of Social Justice Warriors with the high schools and trade schools. While many are already picking that up, it is a huge responsibility.


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