Friday, July 17, 2009

College is a Scam...

My admittedly provocative title is designed to get your attention. Immediately below is a letter to the four year college I graduated from explaining why hell will freeze over before I give them any money. It boils down to: it makes no sense to give money to the rich - support community colleges instead. In today's NY Times David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece, called No Size Fits All (great title!) in which he more articulately and in a much more rational way makes the same argument.
Dear Alumni Relations Directors of Innovative Four Year Liberal Arts Colleges,
Thanks for the invite to the alumni event and your kind offer to take me to lunch to talk about the College at which the subject of my contributing to the alumni fund will doubtless be discussed.

Here's the thing - I totally get your need for money and I have absolutely every confidence that you are still a good place for nice kids with nice ideas who maybe are a little off beat but very smart and I believe the world would be a better place if it saw education in ways that I think you do. That said, private colleges can (I think) without stretching, be described as related to, or even directly themselves, elite. That is, despite the financial aid and other assistance they provide, private college "customers" are (economically) in the top one tenth of one percent of the world's population (even the poorest students). Even if that were not reason enough not to give money - why give it to private colleges? How about to new and interesting charter schools in low income urban areas? How about to promote the growth of community colleges? How about to support early childhood education because if you cannot read by the third grade - you are probably lost in this world. In the hierarchy of education need around the world, fancy pants colleges do not seem to rank as needy or even worthy of "charity". This does not make them unworthy- just unworthy of charity.

By the time kids walk through your doors they are basically already fully baked (in terms of who they are as humans). I know some kids who went to college and are new grads - same great kids they were before they went to college. They have some new friends and they had a lot of fun and they learned stuff - yup - that's life - it goes on, here or there or this way or that, elite and privileged by world and other standards or not - life goes on.

And you should be given more money why exactly? I know your standard answer - financial aid - I do not believe that argument - I think its a ginned up rationale for growing your endowment and keeping you on par with your competition. Colleges should all give their endowments to a centralized fund that makes low interest loans and grants to students of need regardless of which school they go to. Colleges should live on tuition (paid by students of means and by the central fund) and manage your costs. This competition thing over money among colleges is total bullshit and its driving people nuts and is idiotic and makes no sense and you know it. Oh and by the way - the education colleges provide is OK at best - not really very good or original - ask anyone who has gone to Harvard - if they are honest.

And here's another thing. I know not all colleges have the biggest endowments on the block but the notion of giving college endowments more money to invest in private equity and hedge funds is nuts to me. I am always amazed when rich people give money to other rich people. Yet people do it - that leads me to wonder why? They have fond memories? They liked the school? What is that all about? First of all - my parents paid tuition, the college charged a fee for service and they paid it. I mean I like my plumber, Rich C, a lot but all I do is pay what he charges. I do not give him more money to support his "mission". And speaking of tuition - the amount that colleges charge in tuition is nuts and the out distancing of the CPI that tuition has risen borders on scandalous.

I hope this does not offend you, I get all the reasons why some people would feel differently than I do and think its a worthy cause to support . But believe me my not agreeing does not at all reflect any lack of respect for you and what you do or for the college and what it does or for the faculty and staff and students there. All really nice people doing good stuff. I wish the college all the best. - Your former student and graduate.


  1. Germain, interesting letter. I give because to my alma mater, a private liberal arts school, becase my gift is an investment in the students now attending. Through supporting their education, I may be able to help them solve the problems and inequities that exist in our world.

  2. Q, I understand your sentiment. I like the idea of giving to students because as you say - they are the future. What I do not understand is why you give to the students who happen to go to your school. As a private liberal arts college its demographic is not among the most needy. Giving to the general fund of a liberal arts college means directly supporting wealthy students. Why not give instead to a community college to help with outreach to students who normally stop at the high school level. Or to a school in an inner city - there are a number of private schools in Harlem that struggle financially to provide a quality alternative exclusively to low income kids who otherwise will not make it through high school. In other words, what's so special about your alma mater other than that you went there that you choose to invest in its students rather than in a school where your contribution will not be just a drop in the alumni giving bucket why not find a school that really needs it and serves a more needy (if not more deserving) population. I think this is a serious question. I understand people feel loyalty to their schools but I question that stance.

  3. On a slightly different note, the liberal arts education, in a small or large institution, in fact may have a more important role, worthy of support, if not financially, at least in solidarity, than we may offhandedly assume. I know it is easy to bash the elite nature of a liberal arts education. But taking the economics aside, this country is anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-historical and is in many ways, moving in a fundamentalist direction. Universities and colleges are bastions of the scientific method, of historical analysis, of attempting to study society in a serious and honest way. Without these bastions of science, history, literary criticism, art history, political science, economics, etc. these fields would dry up. I think there is a crucial role for the academic, intellectual tradition carrying on, even if it can appear to live only in an “ivory tower”. The ideas and analyses generated in academia have real value, not just in the obvious areas of medicine, or engineering, but also in the pursuit of understanding being human, and in that understanding, working towards a more humane world. The serious study that takes place in colleges and universities may have more value than we might give it credit for.

  4. I did not mean to be making an anti intellectual argument. I think all your points about the importance of academia are legit. I'd like to see us tilt more towards public than private education and financially I was arguing its better to tilt than way than to give to ones alma (especailly if one's alma mata is a school like Harvard whose endowment is larger than the national treasuries of most countries. While colleges that serve less elite students may not have the intellectual horsepower of Harvard - they are (in my opinion) more closely aligned with the needs of working class students. Harvard (and schools like it) generally serve to repopulate the power base with new generations of leaders - society needs them as well as a professional class. Not necessarily a bad thing but not a priority of mine with my limited charity dollars.

  5. I agree to a degree. College is what you make of it. If you take the time to soak up as much as you can than you will be a better person. It is about becoming an expert according to your particular field. We live in a credentials based society so a degree will only add to your options. I talk about it at great length in my blog. Visit my blog and read "The Tragedy of the College Dropout" I guess you can call it the ying to this writers yang.

  6. College is a scam it's true. You can join the forums at

  7. College is a scam it's true. You can join the forums at



Add to Technorati Favorites