Participation Trophy College

The previous post brings to mind discussions I’ve had on the topic in the past. In one such discussion, a person asked:

So, do you want to be the one who tells someone they can’t go to college?

It shows how much of a pedestal we’ve put college education upon. Like home ownership, it’s now a dream, that everyone is entitled to.

In home ownership, we forgot that renting was a good option for many. With college education, we forget that people without college education do fine, too.

Do I want to be the one who tells someone they can’t go to college? No. If I did, I’d apply to be a college admissions officer.

But telling people they can’t go to college or people deciding for themselves that it isn’t for them isn’t bad. How’s it any different from telling people they didn’t get a part in a movie or people deciding that pursuing their dream of acting isn’t panning out so they should try something else?

How’s it any different from kids in sports not making the team or deciding that a certain sport isn’t for them?

The question also shows how unimaginative we’ve become. It’s college or else. We can’t imagine alternatives. Yet, there are many.


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8 thoughts on “Participation Trophy College

  1. I would carry the analogy between home ownership and college a bit further. Not only is renting (an alternative path akin to apprenticeship) a viable option for housing, but some of us (hopefully) learned that in order to successfully buy a home and make the payments (or go to college and successfully meet the demands of real classes), one must actually be qualified. It’s not enough to look the other way and say someone is qualified simply because of their skin color, sex, etc. In order to actually succeed and benefit from college or home buying, one must be able to meet the demands required. If we bail these people out either with artificially inflated grades or easy course or with forgiveness or their loans or subsidies, we have not only done them no permanent good, we have cheated some deserving applicant out of his or her opportunity. The unqualified applicant had a much better chance of success if he or she had taken the alternative route rather than being lied to – for the sake of diversity, multiculturalism, equality, political correctness, etc. – and thrown into a raging river that was over his head.

    • Agreed. It is a pet peeve of mine when people look at a statistic — like lower home ownership among some group of people — and decide that the best way to improve on that is to lower the standards, rather than encourage and teach the behaviors that result in real success.

      I realize, that thought process relies on such people believing that inherent in those behaviors is some hidden injustice or barriers that can’t quite be pointed out. However, even with that, I think such folks have spent too little time studying the people in their favored groups who made it.

    • But, I also think we tend to define things like home ownership and college education as “success” or the “American dream”, which I find snobbish.

      Not only is renting viable as a precursor to home ownership, but in some situations it is always preferable.

      Also, I know so many people who have done well without a college degree, that I think that defining college as the only viable path to success slaps those people in the face.

  2. Hi Seth – Two thoughts on your replies:

    It’s not only that the people that look at the disparity as being an “injustice” or “unfair” or, to quote the new leftist catch phrase, “a denial of access” that they think should be eliminated, but as you point out, their means for correcting the discrepancy doesn’t work. One of my econ professors distinguished between “appropriate jealousy” and “harmful envy”. If you’re at a party and you see a man chatting and flirting with your wife, you might naturally come over and place your arm around her to make your “ownership” clear. That’s appropriate jealousy. When Smith sees that Jones has a big house and rationalizes that it’s because Jones is unworthy because he got a break in life or he must have cheated on his taxes, etc., that’s harmful envy. What Smith should do is ask himself how he can emulate Jones’ good traits that allowed Jones to afford the big house – that’s appropriate jealousy again. Simply taking – or having the govt steal on his behalf – many from Jones so that he can buy a bigger house leaves society poorer.

    In that regard, you might find this interesting (and disheartening):

    The one concept they got right was that a more equal society will necessarily be a poorer society. I wonder if those who say they would prefer (to use Smith’s terms) a more equal and poor primitive society instead of an unequal and opulent civilized society, would actually feel that way after they were subjected to mover poverty and more primitive conditions.

    As to your second reply, when “we” define these (home ownership, college degree, ect) labels of success as necessities or things that everyone “deserves” and then lower the bar to attain them, we make them less valuable (literally and figuratively).

  3. I see a fundamental societal problem here and see a few options emerging.

    The fundamental problem is that Big Education has become a vested interest that dominates the national dialog, perpetuating the myth that a college education is some kind of golden ticket out of poverty, or a minimum rite of passage for the middle class. As so many have discovered, this is a false promise, but since it has become ingrained in our national consciousness as truth, they blame “the American dream”, capitalism, or some other phantasm for their disillusionment. We have failed to hold the colleges to account when their expensive products turn out to be a worthless lemons. Big Edu has programmed us so well that the idea of holding a college responsible for over-selling a worthless degree doesn’t even appear among the options for discussion.

    I see a few possible solutions:
    1) Put colleges at least partially on the hook with student loans. If 25% of defaulted student loans came out of a college’s bottom line, the college would have a huge direct incentive to track the post-grad success of their students.

    2) Promote and publicize rival success paths to compete with the “college-first” narrative. Most of these already exist — technical trade school programs, apprenticeships, on-line low cost degree programs, entrepreneurial pipelines, etc. If a few robust studies could show a superior ROI for certain individuals compared to the college alternative, it will start changing the national dialog and hopefully bust the college bubble.

    3) The college bubble reduces perceived opportunity for poor kids. Military college programs offer an opportunity path to overcome this, but wouldn’t it be cool if larger businesses had similar programs? They could recruit bright high school students to work (paid, not an internship) for 2-4 years and simultaneously earn an education benefit similar to the GI Bill. It opens up numerous opportunity paths that aren’t dependent on government largesse. Many large companies probably already do something like this; they have internships, scholarships, or apprenticeships. But these opportunities are not broadly publicized as paths to wealth that could compete with colleges.

    Bottom line: I think we need to stop sparing colleges when they oversell bad products, and we need to introduce some serious competition into the mix.

    • Adam – I see the problem as being one of government involvement. Government subsidies are responsible for the high tuition costs. Unprepared kids are more than willing to spend OPM (other people’s money) on worthless courses. If it was their own money, they would think twice about the cost and the benefits. Market forces would force colleges to either lower prices or improve their product or some combination thereof. This does not rule out alternative paths – they have their costs and benefits also. Without government subsidies distorting the market, we would have a number of choices (apprenticeship, trade school, low tiered colleges, prestigious universities, etc.). Buyers and sellers, acting through the free market, would set the appropriate price for each of these options. END OF PROBLEM.

    • I think you are both right. I think the reasons government has been so heavily in college education driving the tuition prices up are those laid out by Adam.

      And, Adam, I think you correctly identify a couple of the feedback problems in the system. Colleges have a weak stake in the success or failure of their graduates. Certainly, over time, their reputation will be harmed but there never seems to be a shortage of marginal students willing to take a risk with them, especially when the student’s themselves can default on a student loan and let taxpayers bail them out.

      • Seth, I agree. It’s paradoxical that because the government’s subsidies and it’s diversity policies have respectively raised the cost and decreased the quality, the benefits of a college education that it has touted for many years is now outweighed by the increased costs.

        As long as students continue to demand entrance to colleges, colleges won’t worry about the quality of their product and when the government is subsidizing the tuition, students worry less about what will happen if the distant future than if they were footing the bill themselves. If students had to truly bear the cost of a bad education – crappy job and no safety hammock – they would demand more quality for fewer dollars (or some combination thereof on the price/quality spectrum).


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