Not everyone should go to college

I am teaching while working toward a PhD (one chapter left!) at an enormous flagship state university. It is not top tier, but reasonably good. More sports crazy than physics crazy, but tons of great students and faculty. Quite similar to Ohio State.

I went to an Ivy League for undergrad. The top 10% of my current students would easily flourish there. I’m guessing that the academic-success-focused social culture of an Ivy League would influence maybe the top half of my students, and they would also do reasonably well there.

But then there’s the bottom 10-20% of my students. Their papers are often unreadable. Seriously. I actually cannot make out what on earth they are trying to say. Their ability to detect good or bad arguments for a position in academic writing, even in that intended for undergrads, is next to nil. They have absolutely zero intrinsic interest in what I am trying to teach. They come to class, seem absolutely miserable, and zone out completely. They might well be more interested in other academic subjects than philosophy, but I can’t imagine that their writing and academic reasoning ability wouldn’t hold them back in any area of study. They have GPAs below 2.5. Because they are in my classrooms, the rate of my teaching and grading is slowed down, and grades of the top 80% are inflated as a result.

When you talk to the bottom 10-20% one-on-one, many of them are quite intelligent. Or certainly not stupid. They may not have good academic reasoning ability, but most of them have perfectly good practical reasoning ability. I don’t get the sense that there is a yawning emptiness in their lives that only academic study can fill, and that I just need to wake them up to it. They are uninterested, don’t have a particular talent for it, and are uninterested in developing a talent for it. There are many other things in which they are interested, and if not talented, at least interested in developing skills. Why aren’t they doing those things? Why are they in college?

Apparently, my university rejects over half its undergrad applications. If the rejected applicants are going to other colleges, I can’t imagine it’s going well for the majority of them.

Not everyone should go to college. Not everyone benefits from a liberal arts education. A life without studying philosophy, or English, or physics, can be a life full of meaning and happiness and insight. I would love a world in which everyone who does have the inclination and ability gets to go to college. But that isn’t everybody.

I am with Joe Klein here. Bring back voc-ed! Have it be skills-based. Many of my worst students would totally thrive in a more hands-on practically-oriented program. I could teach my academically-inclined students better. Win-win!

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I was just thinking about this the other day. At my old practice, I knew of another pediatrician in the same state whose shtick was to exhort all of his patients to get PhDs. (I have no idea how this memory came to be on my mind.) And that’s just such an elitist, idiotic stance to take. Even for kids who thrive as undergrads, plenty aren’t cut out for the drier work necessary to get a doctorate.

    Conversely, whenever I ask my adolescent patients what their plans are after high school, I always make sure to encourage those whose plans are to pursue a trade. It’s good work, and Lord knows the country can’t thrive without them.

    • Time changes people as well. Not everyone is ready for college right away.
      All I wanted to be in high school was Ace Frehley. I didn’t go to college until I was in my mid-20’s, and I did quite well.

      • Me too. So glad I did. There’s no way I would be in academia now if I did the four-year-plan straight out of high school.

          • My biggest worry, now that I’ve decided to become a philosopher is: “what if my university doesn’t accept me?”

          • Murali, do you mean the university at which you are a student? Or are applying to?

          • Any of the universities which I hope to apply to when I finish my phd. I’m doing my masters in one of them now. Working in an overseas university is not really an option for me. Which is why I think Yale NUS is a good idea. With a more robust libeal arts programme, it should probably mean more place open for phd-s in philosphy

          • Can you go straight from the Master’s into the PhD there?

          • No I can’t. Also if I did do my Masters and PhD in Singapore, the likely-hood of them hiring me as an assistant prof drops precipituously (Too much in-breeding apparently). I’m aiming for University of Arizona to do my PhD. With PhD from Arizona, I get a far better chance of getting a job in at least one of the available philosophy departments here.

          • Arizona is a great program! Good luck!

  2. If we want those smart, ambitious, but non-academically inclined students to go to into skilled trades, we should make sure there are good union jobs for them.

    • Yes. And I wonder if an influx of smart, ambitious, and educated-for-the-job workers would be more motivated to maintain unionization.

      • Likely not. It’s more likely that their initial experiences with a union will not be positive ones.
        Some unions are shop unions, where everyone at the shop has the same union. Others are craft unions, where the members only do one type of work. Where it gets tricky is that the two are not mutually exclusive.
        For example, the UAW is a shop union, and everyone that works at a Ford plant is a UAW member. However, they also keep a machinist (from the millwrights) on staff to repair any equipment that might fail.
        I have a friend that’s an operator, and he works at a single union shop; which means that work that a laborer would ordinarily do, he has to do himself. I’ve also seen laborers in a single union shop (producing rail equipment) that operate a hoist by themselves, rather than having an operator in the shop to do it.

        Now, to gain membership in a shop union, you get a job at the shop. To gain membership in a craft union, you apply to an apprenticeship program; or if you meet the experience requirements, you can be organized in. This is the part where trade schools come into conflict with unions.
        Probably the most prestigious trade school in the nation is the Hobart school. So say, one day one of your students says, “Screw this philosophy crap! I’m going to a trade school!” and then goes to the Hobart school and graduates. Not eligible for membership in a craft union— does not meet the experience requirements.
        A machinists recently graduated from a trade school is not going to join the millwrights. The same graduate might be eligible for membership in the Steelworkers or the UAW.

        Now, where it gets interesting is: That’s the way things stand now. Suppose we were to introduce competing unions, where every craftsman would have two or more craft unions competing for their membership.
        I think I would like that.

        • I used to work for a union. It’s where I met my husband, actually. We convinced each other to give it up and go study philosophy. It was quite an experience.

          Maybe I’ll post on it one day.

        • Thus far, my experience with unions was when I did temp work in a die-punch shop one summer. The three permanent guys were all excited one day when their union rep turned up. Here’s this sharp-dressed cat, three-piece suit and sunglasses and perfectly-gelled hair, rolling up in a Jaguar, and I’m thinking “guys, you’re all excited to see this dude and he’s sitting there in the car you bought him wearing the suit you bought him. Wouldn’t you rather just have that money yourself?”

          (The business owner drove a Toyota Camry, by the way.)

  3. Isn’t that what engineering and physics are supposed to be about? hands on, and all that jazz?

    • The physics I took in college was not at all hands on. My college boyfriend was a mechanical engineer, and he didn’t actually design a product usable by a business until his last semester in college.

  4. The one, singular, redeeming moment in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crysgallll Glarghrabghghgh is when Shia LaBeouf is telling Indy that he wants to drop out of college in spite of his mother and fix motorcycles and he end the sentence with, “You gotta problem with that??” and Indy, the college professor, shakes his head with amusement and says, “No… I don’t have a problem with that. Find something you love that you’re good at, and do that” or something to that effect.

    It’s exactly what Indy should have said. They could have bumped that line after Indy finds out that Shia is Indy, Jr., and played it up for yucks with the, “You need to go to college because you’re *my son*” baloney, but they didn’t.

    One, tiny, glittering diamond of a moment inside a giant pile of dross.

    • I didn’t see it. Sometimes I’m grateful that my children keep me from seeing all the movies I would have. Although I would have been happy to see that moment as well.

      • Sorry, there were two redeeming moments, the other one is where Indy is being interrogated by two Red Scare FBI Guys and some random general walks in the room and starts telling the FBI Guys that Indy is a superpatriot and tosses off quick descriptions of 10 or so other Indiana Jones movies that never got made.

        Sort of like rattling off the names of 5 Tom Swift books.

        I forgave a lot for that scene. As mucked up as the last Indy movie was, there are 5 others in my head now, that weren’t there before.

        • They did do a pan over of the Arc of the Covenant in that warehouse as well. That was a good moment for me.

          • Wasn’t that same joke done in the third one as well?

            “What’s that?”
            “Ark of the Covenant.”
            “Pretty sure.”

  5. I am with Joe Klein here. Bring back voc-ed! Have it be skills-based.

    Now I’m wondering what Joe Klein thinks he’d have been good at.

  6. Hi. I’m here with some rain. Enjoy!

    1) Schools are judged on Percent going to Higher Ed and Percent Going to College or Other 4- Year degree Program. Why do we care? Because these judgements affect a variety of things from school of choice (which bring in money for the district) to grant prestige (which brings in money for the district) to property values (which affects who comes and yells at the school board). I was just in a meeting where we talked about which test scores are used by realtors in our area to rate the schools when they market homes.

    As such, schools are going ~PUSH~ as many kids as possible into Higher Ed because it looks better for them to do so. People don’t pay extra money to live in a district where 20% of the kids go on to get good jobs as skilled machinists. They pay extra money to live in one where 90% of the kids go to college.

    As long as it’s an incentive, schools will do just that: Put kids in a college prep curriculum, find ways to move them through it, and then push them into college.

    2) Many states are using ACT scores to judge schools as successful or not. A school that “allows” a student to take 2-3 truly vocational education classes is also exempting that student from more content that will be on the ACT. Doing so runs the risk of lowering that school’s overall score and risks putting the school into crisis. It is better for the school to, rather than letting that student take auto-shop, put them in an additional study class so they can have a better chance of pushing up that ACT score a few points.

    It’s simply poor management to ignore the rubrics on which you’re judged and then not do everything in your power to maximize those scores.

    3) We have a national culture that devalues skilled trades over college education. I won’t comment greatly except to point out that the kinds of jobs (landscaping, unskilled construction) that used to be common for 20-somethings trying to “find themselves” are no considered “beneath them” while they pursue other things.

    Mike Rowe says it best:

    4) There is a massive financial incentive to send kids to college. When I was a kid student loans were what you did when you were desperate because something changed, or you going into a field where you knew you could manage that debt. Otherwise you got the college that you could afford. I met my wife, in part, because her family could not afford to send her to a small private school and instead she had to “settle” on a state school. Had she had access to the kind of student loans we have today, we never would have met.

    Be that as it may, every kid who goes to school on loans is a cash cow for the right investor. I’m sure there are some who find ways to default/ not pay them back, but for the most part it’s a good investment, regardless of the earning power of kids coming out. So there is a great deal of incentive for the financial sector to see as many kids go to college as possible.

    • Teacher – thanks, I appreciate it. I didn’t think about the specific pressures on high schools to up their numbers. 1-3 really boil down to the culture of college as everyone’s ultimate good, no?

      • Yeah….

        And of course the dipping economy isn’t helping any. If you’ve got 100 applicants for 2 jobs how do you widdle it down? One easy way is to just knock out those without a college education even if the job doesn’t really require it.

  7. Rose, I’ve been thinking about this post all day and my own life. After ugh, I’d like to add to your title thesis that not everyone should go to college when they’re 18.

    If I had gone to work for a few years and gotten some maturity under my belt, it’s hard to see how it would have negatively impacted my long-term career path. ANd I would have gotten much, much more out of the experience than I did.

  8. Such great and insightful comments here. I’ve been teaching for the last 12+ years as a part-time English professor. I’ve definitely noticed a decline in the ability to write for the traditional mid-level college student. While I enjoy teaching high school students how to develop a “plan” for college (including teaching the college admissions process), I do recognize that getting a four year liberal arts education is not for everyone. In fact, I recommend that teens do some self-discovery and career self-assessment exercises first to see where there true talents and interests lie. I agree with Rose Woodhouse, “Teacher,” and others in this post who argue that we need to promote the teaching of skilled trades in this country as well. We need to stop the perceived notion that learning a trade is somehow inferior to getting a college degree and recognize that both types of eduction need to co-exist in this society for it to be great. (After reading “Teacher’s” explanation above, I guess this is easier said than done, but nonetheless, I will continue to promote skilled trades to teens and their parents if it looks like their skills and aptitude for it are a better fit.) Thanks for this post.

  9. A thought: you’re always going to have a bottom 20% no matter how selective your college is. That bottom 20% is always going to be slower and less bright than the top 20%. If you have 100 students now, and could weed out 20 of them, you’d have 80 left and 16 of them would be your new bottom 20%. Also, we’re talking about adults here, young immature adults for the most part but adults all the same. You are not responsible for their bad decisions, unless you unfairly shield them from the consequences of those decisions. One of those decisions is to go to college when that’s not really the best choice for them.

    With that said, I think your basic point is right — some of those students ought not to be there. I’m not sure that in the situation you describe, though, that fault rests with the institution for being insufficiently selective.

    • BL, I think she may be hinting that the admittance criteria was altered for those students. True, there will always be a bottom 20 percent. But there’s a huge difference between the bottom 20 percent in a (for example) an accredited law school, where everyone is academically competent, and in a state undergrad. I know because I went to both. At the state school, it wasn’t a matter of subtle degrees. The difference between the bottom 20 percent (or so) was an alarmingly steep cliff.

      • I didn’t mean to imply anything about admittance criteria, because I have no idea what goes on there. But Sheila is right about there being a steep drop off between top 80% and bottom 10-20%. If it were not unethical, I would cut and paste some of the written work I’ve received. I am not exaggerating it when I say it is near indecipherable. A student at bottom 30th percentile has basic writing and comprehension skills down.

        I wasn’t advocating much of anything, really, in terms of policy. I was mostly just wishing that college was not seen as an end-all-be-all for all 18 year olds. I have never once actually said to one of my students they don’t belong at college!!

    • Sure, you’re always going to have a bottom 20%. But that means something different when the bottom 20% gets a B-plus on their own than it does when the bottom 20% requires 80% of the teacher’s time to get a C-minus.

  10. I completely understand the benefit of waiting a few years to start college; however, if in those few years you acquire too many responsibilities, you may not get back to school.

  11. I agree with you completely- not everyone should go to college. I have been reading “The User’s Guide to Being Human: The Art and Science of Self,” by Scott Edmund Miller and he points out that everyone is good at something and it is just a matter of one finding what that it… some are good in academia type positions, others are better at being mechanics, etc. We need all of these types of people in the world and one career is not better than another- they are all worthwhile. It was a great eye opening book, and has really helped me discover my own inner strengths/talents as well.

  12. “Why aren’t they doing those things? Why are they in college?”

    Well, as far as my college-level English classes were concerned, I was in those classes because they said I had to be, and all I had to do was enough to get a B, and given the dullards in the class with me I was pretty well assured of that as long as I didn’t mis-spell anything, used reasonably-close-to-correct grammar, and occasionally quoted the text we were talking about.

    To be honest I didn’t get anywhere with critical writing until I started arguing with people on the internet. (stop snickering, you!) To the extent that I’m able to form an actual argument, supported with examples and reaching a non-fallacious conclusion, it’s from being flamed for failing to do those things.

    • Heh. Yep, arguing with libertarians on the Internet has sharpened me up a lot. Seriously, I don’t agree with them much but I sincerely appreciate that they have forced me to really figure out why I believe the things I believe.

    • That makes perfect sense to me. I am sure there are some excellent college writing courses. But in my courses, I usually set things up so students have to hand in a paper, I make comments on it, and then they have to revise it in light of my comments. I can’t tell you how upset some students get when I point out flaws. At least one evaluation comment per semester is “She’s so mean and she makes you feel bad.” I’ve had students break down and cry in front of me. (Interestingly, I get many more positive ones that appreciate being pushed hard). Just so you don’t think I’m telling them they’re stupid or something, the kind of comments are things like asking them to consider a counterexample to a point they’ve made. For example, if someone says “The definition of ‘art’ is something done purely for artist’s satisfaction” I will point out hat a) it’s quesion-begging to have “artist” in a definition, and b) I will say that I, say, paint my toenails for my own satisfaction, but would be hard pressed to say that’s art.

      Since they already should have had some writing courses by the time they get to me, I have to imagine that their arguments were not criticized, or criticized enough. Maybe the focus is on grammar or something?

      • I will say that I, say, paint my toenails for my own satisfaction, but would be hard pressed to say that’s art.

        I don’t really think you’re in a position to judge that. If I appreciate your toenails more than a Matisse, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to consider them a work of greater quality.

        • Tell the truth Russell, you painted her toenails amirite?

        • There’s a craft argument somewhere inbetween not-art and art, I think.

          Drive around the residential portion of town and you’re likely to see a goodly number of houses pained any number of ways. Light paint with dark trim being a favorite, but sometimes you see dark paint with light trim. A “safe” decision is usually earth tones but every now and again you come across a purple and pink house, or a sea foam and evergreen house, or a lilac house.

          In the usual template of “safe, not particularly interesting”, there are design choices themselves that communicate… *SOMETHING*. It’s not art, exactly, but it’s not not art.

          (The Shakers and their furniture, household tools come to mind as well. The design of a Shaker cabinet or chair is not exactly art… but it’s not exactly not…)

          All that to say: It’s not impossible to get from there to toenail painting.

          • Yes, but certainly not all instances of toe-nail painting that are done for one’s own satisfaction are art.

      • In the HS, the focus is on “What’s on the Test?”

        Critical thinking is almost impossible to grade, en masse, on standardized tests so the emphasis is on what CAN be graded, that being spelling, grammar, word choice etc. Some schools, classes and teachers DO work more towards logical arguing but it’s dying off.

        It used to be that as a Geometry teacher I got to spend 4-8 weeks on logic and reasoning. Only now because it’s so hard to teach and kids hate it and it’s such a pain to grade we’ve gutted ALL PROOFS out of geometry. Well, not all. They have to fill in the missing boxes on a small number of them in one chapter for 3 weeks.

        Logic and reasoning is a dying art, as evidenced by how often people think you can “win” a debate on the internet by posting a LolCat.

        Speaking of:

        • Only now because it’s so hard to teach and kids hate it and it’s such a pain to grade we’ve gutted ALL PROOFS out of geometry.

          You’re kidding. That is genuinely horrifying. Pretty much all I remember doing in geometry was proofs. How can you teach geometry without it?

          • Formulas. Lots of calculation and “construction” of composites. Lots of “Apply” the theorem. Oh and we do a pretty good stretch of solving triangles using Trig.

            I hate it, but I do believe (and I’ve said many times in meetings) that proofs are hard to do if you don’t DO them, by which I mean start with a basic proof on Day One and build from there. If they’re the “extra credit” problem on homework or they get assigned once a month… yeah… not gonna work.

          • That’s so sad! Not only because geometry proofs were far and away the most fun I had in math class.

          • Not only because geometry proofs were far and away the most fun I had in math class.

            Me, too. In fact, geometry was pretty much the only math class I ever enjoyed outright. (I also kind of liked trig, for similar reasons.)

          • I know.. and a lot of non-math types love Geo because it’s so NOT math as you know it.

            Me? I miss more time discussing Jeremiah and Dragons.

            Back when I first first first taught logic, a friend of mine had her heart broken by a guy named Jeremiah. So, that week I did the following example in class, and it’s been part of my curriculum every year since:
            If you are brave, then you fight dragons.
            Jeremiah fights dragons.
            Jeremiah, therefore, must be brave.

            OF course not. There are other qualities that make for dragon fighters. In Jer’s case, it’s that he’s a complete moron.

            And of course there’s the one kid every few years (well not for a few now) who will say “But I thought Jeremiah was a bull frog… how’s he fight dragons?”

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