College Is Only Good for Helping Rich People Get Richer

College: where already advantaged youths spend four years enjoying themselves and then receive considerable rewards for having done almost nothing.

A college degree is still the best predictor of wealth in America. But new data reveals a painful truth: During college, students not only do little work, but learn virtually nothing while they're there.

A recent GOOD column argues that college is overrated. Unfortunately, this is dead wrong. The economic returns to a college education are increasing. There is a wealth of academic data on this. But it’s easiest to see from the first graph in this Economix post from the New York Times. If you want to be well-off in America, college is pretty much a prerequisite. In fact, over the last 20 years, the “college premium”—or wage bump you get from going to college—has increased. The question is, why?

If you were to ask colleges, they would tell you that they are helping to develop skills and capacities—human capital—essential to a modern marketplace. This is a good story. It is a story that makes sense, and it is one we want to hear. It might not be a bad thing that the rewards of going to college are increasing. That means that our society is cultivating an increasingly skilled population that is helping to create social and economic value.

But unfortunately, this is a lie, a fable that colleges are telling themselves and that we graduates (and professors) like to believe as we pat ourselves on the backs.

The truth is something much more worrying, and even horrific. The truth is that students hardly work in college, and that they learn almost nothing while they’re there. College is a place where already advantaged youths spend four years enjoying themselves, and upon completion, they receive considerable rewards for having done almost nothing.

Don’t believe me? Well, I ask you to do two things: First, if you’re under 35, think about what you did in college. What did you learn? Do you use those skills in your job? If you’re being honest, the answer is, that you didn’t do much work and you didn’t learn very much. Still don’t believe me. Let's look at the data.

In their recent work, Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks have shown that study time of students has fallen from 24 hours a week in 1961 to about 14 hours per week in 2003. And this isn’t explained by having a job during college, choice of major, the kind of school you attend (elite vs. non-elite), or technological innovations that make studying easier. Basically people in colleges are working a lot less. Almost nothing can explain the decline in work hours except an increase in leisure.

The results of such an increase in leisure are what you’d predict. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show in their soon-to-be-released book, Academically Adrift, students in college aren’t actually learning much. Using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which evaluated 2,300 undergraduates at 25 schools in their first semester and then again at the end of their second year, Arum and Roksa find that almost half of the students have no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. That’s no improvement after two years in college.

This makes it hard to argue that the rewards of college have anything to do with the development of skills. If you’re not working, and you’re not learning much, then how, exactly, are you developing skills that help you earn more?

These findings force us to ask a host of hard, and at times, unsavory questions. What, exactly, are we doing in our colleges and universities? And given the answer—not much—why is it that people who graduate from colleges make more than those who don’t? And looking further forward, what value, either social or economic, can college graduates be adding to our society if they are neither developing skills nor learning to work hard?

I am a college professor. And as I look at such data, I cannot help but think that I am part of a great credentialing mill. As I argued in a previous GOOD post, colleges are increasingly places for the rich. It’s too simplistic, but this is pretty much the story. Colleges admit already advantaged Americans. They don’t ask them to do much or learn much. At the end of four years, we give them a certificate. That certificate entitles them to higher earnings. Schools help obscure the aristocratic quality to American life. They do so by converting birthrights (which we all think are unfair) into credentials (which have the appearance of merit).

If this sounds like an angry indictment, it is. But until we critically evaluate what is happening in colleges, we will continue to perpetuate inequalities. And it won’t be long before the effects of no work, all play, and little learning are keenly felt by our society.

Shamus Khan is an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School.

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