Avoiding the College Trap

A college degree guarantees you nothing. It could, in fact, ruin your future.

There was a time when having a college degree almost guaranteed you a “good job,” certainly one that pays better than those not requiring a bachelor’s degree. Parents then determined that the costs involved added up to an investment in their child’s future—an investment that would undoubtedly pay off. The general public soon grew so assured of the value of a degree that it grew acceptable and common to borrow toward that investment. Today, student loans are the rule.

This entire process assumes several things, all of which might have held true at one time or in limited circumstances, hardly any of which remain true today or in general. Yet a blind faith that includes all of these assumptions rules the day for decisions about higher education. The results are disastrous.

Example: meet Miss Courtney Munna. She is 26 years old and has proudly fulfilled her and her mother’s dream of graduating from NYU, a second-tier private school. She is now the proud owner of an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in religious and women’s studies. She also owns a $97,000 student debt.

Let’s evaluate the value of Miss Munna’s education: In the job market, a bachelor’s in either religion (from a liberal university) or women’s studies adds little to nothing to her marketability in the real world. An “interdisciplinary” degree—half one and half the other mixed together—actually reduces the value. A degree like this only has value in the academic world, and there it only holds value as a stepping stone to an academic teaching career. But this requires a Master’s degree (at least two more years and more debt) and almost always a Doctorate (three further years in the US, and more debt). For all practical purposes, Miss Munna’s degree has zero economic value.

But worse, $97k in debt has a value of, well, negative $97k; plus interest, part of which is at an adjustable rate (it will go higher). And this, not even for a marketable skill or knowledge, but merely a degree in religious and women’s studies. And what does such a degree provide?… Nothing more than a group of feminists’ assurances that all religions are equal and women should be in charge of all of them.

So Courtney has essentially paid over $100,000 in order to be propagandized with a message she could just as easily have gotten from a $1.25 bumper sticker.

Courtney’s mom helped finance this “education.” She herself now faces a tough time financially. She’s afraid she could lose her bed and breakfast business. And herein is the great joke. This woman owns a business. She should know something about finances. What on earth made her think a dead-end degree like women’s studies was worth selling her and her daughter’s soul? She should have known better.

She should have kept her daughter at home, trained her in the family business, marketed it, taught her how to keep it profitable, and lived a moderate middle-class life.

If after that she had a desire to learn “women’s studies,” she could easily have sated such a perversion without debt. She could have Googled “women’s studies reading list” and then selected one of several links from a major university, like this link: twenty-two pages of women-as-victim and women-as-equals screeds. Forget NYU, forget $97k. The New York Public Library is free. Free public libraries are all over the place. Even major universities will give full access and lending privileges for a small fee (for example, I just bought such at Emory University for $100/year—well worth it for projects I’m currently working on). For hardly any cost at all, Courtney could spend her free time indulging in all the feminism and gender diversity she could stand—and make money instead of borrowing it.

This reminds me of the famous scene from Good Will Hunting: Will, played by Matt Damon, is a genius held back by emotional issues. He works as a janitor at MIT. During a trip to a Harvard bar, Will’s uneducated friend [Ben Affleck, of course], while chatting with a Harvard girl, get harassed by a grad student for obviously aiming out of his intellectual league. Will comes to the rescue, confronting this hot-shot grad student’s arrogance, showing him up intellectually with page number and footnote. The kid had plagiarized everything he said. What’s worse, Will concludes, “You dropped 150 grand on a **** education you could’ve got for a $1.50 in late charges at the public library” [warning: very brief adult language in the clip.]

The lesson should be clear, very few if any jobs require a degree from any of the liberal arts fields. A degree here is nothing much more than a hobby—an expensive hobby. A very expensive hobby. Unless you have a guaranteed career waiting ahead requiring and helping fund such a degree, a wise person would avoid the trap. And even upon deciding to take such a degree, never do so from an upper-tier school because of the exorbitant expense. And never put yourself in debt in order to do so.

A bachelor’s degree in engineering, accounting, hard sciences, or as a stepping stone to med or maybe law school makes much more sense, but even then you can do it without debt.

Most business and economics courses are taught tenured academics who have never run a business.

Gary North has offered seven steps to getting a bachelor’s degree for around $15,000. I personally completed my undergraduate a few years before he published this list. I was pleased to see that I anticipated six of his seven tips, finished for well under $15,000, and had no debt. Since I was awarded a full scholarship for seminary, I can say I actually spent less than $15k on all my higher education including my M.Div.

There are hidden costs, of course, such as lost income during periods of working part-time (in order to take a full course load, moving your family across country, a feeling of rootlessness, and the price of family stress while living in small apartments as daddy studies all day and works all weekend and sometimes night. These costs add up and must be taken seriously. I dare speculate that many seminaries have produced more strained families than good pastors. But that’s a whole different topic.

I have also found a major international university that will flex some of its doctoral programs to work as “distance” education, though they can’t legally call them that. Due to currency exchange rates, and with some dedication, I can finish a legitimate Ph.D. in Theology in two years and well under $3,000. And unlike American programs, it does not require two years of coursework: rather it’s a full research degree. From start to finish, my entire higher education will have cost less than $15k. That’s not bad. In the future, as more institutions implement online features, I expect it to get even cheaper.

Meanwhile, so few people 1) can see the worthlessness of most academic degrees, 2) exercise the mental fortitude to think critically through the illusions of a college education, and 3) have enough economic sense to do a cost/benefit analysis of the situation.

Besides, even discounting nonsense degrees like women’s studies and many others, college is not for everyone. Many people would do well to go train under an entrepreneur or get a marketable technical skill. When I was in high school I worked part-time at a pizza joint. One of the other cooks was in his late twenties and had not pursued college. “You gonna cook pizza all your life,” I asked. “No. I want to learn how to fix air conditioners.” He skirted traditional college and enrolled in a vo-tech college. Graduated with a B average, no debt, and went from six bucks an hour to about $35k a year. Within a few years, with some experience, he was making more.

Many great jobs come this way, with technical training in real-world careers. Welders, auto mechanics, small engine repair, diesel mechanics, etc., will all always be in high demand. This is true especially during a recession when people quit buying expensive new things and try to make old things keep running. It’s cheaper to repair than buy new, and good repairmen are hard to find. A good skill and a good reputation are far more valuable than nearly any Ph.D.

I remember one of my professors in college. He was in his first year after receiving his Ph.D. in Philosophy from a reputable State University. He was an adjunct in my local community college, maybe making around $2–3k per course. I looked him up out of curiosity. Today, ten years later, he’s still an adjunct but at a different community college, teaching the same few courses, and unless he found some unusual sweetheart deal, still the same low pay.

So what is a Ph.D. in philosophy worth? Not much, unless you’re a shoe-in for a tenured position. Such positions are very rare and highly competitive. Gary DeMar tells me the story of an old college buddy who completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy. He responded to an open position at a major private school. Amazingly, they chose him. There had been 100 applicants.

Do the math: that means 99% of Doctors of Philosophy went home with no job and probably still thousands in debt.

In today’s depressed market, a job at a mere community college is liable to draw that many applications.

Meanwhile, the air-conditioner repairman makes more money than the B.A. in women’s studies, the Ph.D. in Philosophy, and most of their peers. And for now, Miss Munna herself has learned the lesson. She now works in a field that has nothing to do with her degree: she aids a photographer for $22/hour. At that rate, I doubt she will ever pay off her debt; and Federal law makes it virtually impossible to assuage it through bankruptcy.

And it’s not just her. Students all over the US graduate with pointless degrees, no experience, no real training, no job prospects, and thousands in debt. The median, according to FinAid.org, is about $24,000 per graduate today. This only counts graduates, not the 50% who don’t even graduate and still have thousands in debt.

And what’s all this “education” worth anyway? As I’ve mentioned, most degrees guarantee nothing. Many are utterly pointless beyond a personal hobby. Some are a complete waste of time. “Education” comes from the Latin, E (“out”) + ducare (“to lead”), meaning “to lead out.” The question with “leading out,” of course, always involves: 1) who’s leading, 2) “out” of what, and 3) leading “to” where? The educators intend to lead us out of ignorance, ostensibly, but the truth is well known that the university system has long been a bed of leftist indoctrination. Some modern references to “E + duce” worth considering include the Italian version, “Il Duce,” and the German equivalent, “der Führer.” Be careful whom you choose to lead you.

Jacques Ellul considered the point long ago in his book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes: generalized education rarely produces true critical thinkers. It produces indoctrinated dupes who truly believe they’re critical thinkers but aren’t. Lenin, apocryphally but appropriately labeled them: “useful idiots.” We place a value on literacy, and rightly so. But we fail if we don’t move further. Literacy makes readers, but the exaltation merely of reading leads to an exaltation of the printed word. It takes on an authority, and this leads to a casual submission, or at least intimidation, before anyone who has written anything.(1) “Author” becomes “authority,” and professors and grad students love that role.

Useful idiots believe they’re critical thinkers because they were told they’re critical thinkers and were handed a degree as certification of the fact. But rarely if ever do they think critically. In fact, Ellul notes, the intellectual is the first to fall for propaganda, and this is normal. Why? He answers, “Because he is convinced of his own superiority, the intellectual is much more vulnerable than anyone else in this maneuver.…”(2)

This is one reason I wrote Biblical Logic: I wanted to show Christians the scriptural and theological mandate for being critical thinkers, and how only based on God’s word can we be truly critical (“critical” from the Greek kritikos: “able to judge”). See my article on The Bible and Critical Thinking.

A college degree is certainly no guarantee of this ability, and in many respects is a great hindrance to it. It certainly won’t guarantee a job or even marketability.

So many young people fall for the illusion that a college degree has value. It’s an enormous deception, and parents will do well to insulate themselves and their children from it. This takes discipline and commitment to values, because the deception weighs powerfully on the ego and sense of destiny. It inflates hopes that may not materialize, and it caresses fond hopes of glory that lay in seed form in every depraved heart.

I know the power of that temptation. When I graduated seminary I took a long shot, just for my dreams’ sake. I applied to a single graduate school for a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies. Most aspirants will apply to several hoping one will accept. I narrowed my chances and applied only to one: Edinburgh. I didn’t expect to be selected. To my surprise, I was accepted and was offered a scholarship covering all the main tuition. Problem: the scholarship did not cover the “outside the UK” part of the tuition which amounted, due to exchange rates at the time, to about $10k per year. Add to this living expenses in a relatively expensive city. I figured the total bill at roughly $75k over three years.

It was the chance of a lifetime for a young scholar. It was my dream. I would have studied under a world-renowned and leading NT scholar Larry Hurtado. But $75 grand? Was it worth the price?

I tried hard to raise money. I was offered donations from some private parties, and interest-free loans from others, but in the end would have still had to borrow $50-60k. Nevertheless, the draw of that Ph.D. from a prestigious University of International reputation pushed me to the edge. I almost bit, even knowing it was not the wise thing to do.

I went into the president at my seminary—a man of sound financial sense and thrift (“cheap,” he would say)—knowing he would tell me not what I wanted but needed to hear. I told him, “I need you to tell me, ‘Don’t accept the offer to Edinburgh.’” He obliged: “Joel, I can’t advise you to borrow eighty grand for a Ph.D.” The words still echo like a peal of thunder in my mind and a bolt of lightning in my heart; and I’m glad they do.

Many people should embrace these words even before they pursue a bachelor’s degree, let alone a Ph.D. And everyone should embrace them before going into debt for any purported education.

The library card is cheaper. Go into business, marketing, engineering. Make money, don’t borrow it. Then read some good books on the side. Start with mine. Then, from the thousands you save, you can make a donation to American Vision.

  1. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, trans. by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner (New York: Vintage Books, 1973 [1965]), 108.()
  2. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, 110.()
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