Demystifying the Cult of Higher Education

Review: Lies, Damned Lies, and College Admissions

Lies and College Admissionsjpeg

In the tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, two self-described tailors persuade a vain ruler that they can make him a fabric so light that stupid and incompetent people cannot see it. Then, when the con men create nothing, people still proclaim its beauty for fear that not doing so would be an admission of incompetence.

As the emperor sits in his procession, one lone child cries, “The emperor is naked!” Upon realizing the truth, the chorus of the crowd echoes, “The emperor is naked!” but he continues on as though there were no problem.

Substitute much of higher education in the United States and elsewhere for the invisible fabric, and you have your analogy. The tale’s theme also matches that of my favorite book on the topic, Lies, Damned Lies, and College Admissions: An Inquiry into Education by Arvin Vohra (2012, 200 pages). We met at the 2012 International Students for Liberty Conference, and I was glad to have him on the show soon after. You can hear that interview here (41 minutes_.

Vohra, an educational entrepreneur and author of The Equation for Excellence, leads into his exposé with the admissions process. He cites the lack of objective and transparent criteria (with racially motivated origins), superficial and irrelevant essay questions—usually not even written by the applicant—and rampant dishonesty.

The admissions process, he says, is “like one of those minor surface flaws that indicates a deeper cultural rot.” As a Brown University graduate and professional tutor for college applications and standardized tests, he observes this rot in a variety of forms.

He believes the cost, for example, is totally out of proportion with the education on offer and the underlying inputs. The waste and inflated prices—usually more than $100 per hour of class time—are hard to deny when one can hire college instructors one-on-one for the same price or less than the college classes.

His point reminds me of when I first came to the United States to attend Boston University. While I was on an athletic scholarship, most students were paying between $35,000 and $40,000 in tuition, and tuition hikes were a frequent topic in the student newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Such articles, however, would always be accompanied by the standard administration refrain that affordability was still their priority.

“We understand that this tuition increase is a burden for many families and we continue to focus on maintaining access to Boston University for students with varying economic means,” says the president. Right, as though the annual $40,000, even with the variety of “financial aid” programs, enables access for those with varying economic means—not to mention the immense costs of textbooks and mandatory on-campus room and board.

Such is the absurdity of college expenses, Vohra believes higher education has become a national religion in the United States—and I can attest to a similar state of affairs in other countries, particularly Canada and New Zealand. Fortunately, Vohra is not alone in making this point, and even The Onion has poked fun at how people cling to the value of their precious degrees, in the face compelling evidence to the contrary.

Man Has Alarming Level of Pride in Institution That Left Him $50,000 In Debt, Inadequately Prepared for Job Market

“The college stamp of approval has almost the same mystical and questionable value that [Catholic] indulgences must have had,” Vohra explains. “Just as the Catholic Church convinced people that they [needed] priests to interpret the Bible, colleges have tricked us into believing we need indifferent professors and inexperienced grad students to accomplish what a library card, an Amazon account, and a few tutors could do better at a tenth of the price.”

Click here for a Stateless Man interview with Duke Cheston of the Pope Center on Higher Education Policy regarding the ten strangest college majors he could find and the viability of international satellite campuses—18 minutes.

But the trick goes far beyond the stamp of approval. College administrators in the United States manage to get applicants to hand over their bank account and tax return documents before they decide what the final price will be. Vohra describes this as the dream of sleazy, price-manipulating salesmen. That way they can squeeze potential customers for as much as they can possibly pay.

Then college administrators have the gall to presume we should respect them for their practice, as though their financial aid were some kind of charitable act. Such a veneer of altruism also falls flat when Vohra explains how many academic departments deliberately adjust and update textbooks in useless ways. They do so to make students feel obliged to buy new editions, when they would otherwise save handsomely with used copies.

Such tactics have coincided with an explosion of student debt in the United States—by more than 500 percent in the past decade, beyond credit card and automobile obligations. But new students just keep on coming, with a projected record of 21.9 million in American higher education this fall of 2013.

One account Vohra offers for the growing student numbers is the way college administrators have avoided precise performance metrics. Instead they sell an “experience” and “selectivity” (elitism).

This college “experience” marketing ploy is a distraction from the purpose of higher education, where many colleges fail dismally. Further, someone could easily use the money for college to have alternative and superior life-enriching experiences. In four years, for example, one could travel the globe and learn multiple new languages and cultures, all for far less than the cost of college.

Regarding selectivity, Vohra compares college administrators to someone who jumps in front of a parade and claims to be leading it.

“‘Selective’ colleges find students who are going to do well anyway. When they do well, the colleges insist on sharing the credit for successes they had little to do with, and using that association to justify ludicrous fees.”

Elitism and experience, Vohra continues, constitute the “mystical, fuzzy name power that colleges are selling”—complete with clergy-like robes and the magical talisman of graduation. They sell these items because competitors could replicate the course material at a fraction of the price or even for free. The college atmosphere, on the other hand, defies measurement.

Although Vohra gets a little off track at times, venturing into philosophy and theology, there is plenty of valuable material in this book. And despite the inflammatory title, he does not take an all-or-nothing, dismissive approach to higher education. Rather, he acknowledges that it depends greatly on the outcome one is seeking and calls for pragmatism. He even includes an interlude on “How to do Higher Education Without College”—in other words, how to get your qualification with as little wasted time and money as possible.

Many readers will note that there has already been talk of a bubble in higher education and attempts to promote alternatives. However, the chorus of echoes, as occurs in The Emperor’s New Clothes, has yet to arrive. With so many young people giving up their formative years and crippling themselves with student debt, along with wasting taxpayer dollars, I hope people pick up this book and see higher education for what it is and not for what its purveyors claim it to be.

For a broader discussion of higher education, including interviews with James Altucher, Yaël Ossowski, and Shane Hachey, please click here.

Fergus Hodgson About Fergus Hodgson

Fergus Hodgson is an economic consultant, financial editor, athlete, and traveler. He holds degrees in economics, finance, and political science from the United States and New Zealand, and he has lived in eight countries. Follow @FergHodgson.

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