In my undergrad, I read a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen. The basic premise of the book was that American history is full of lies that we tell ourselves that create false ideas about history and serve nationalism more than truth.
As I reflect on my 15 years in higher education and the many conversations I have with students who are disenchanted with their degree training, I’ve come to see that we also regurgitate a lot of lies about higher education itself.
These are lies about the value of college, the purpose of the university, and the role of education in our lives that benefit everyone in the existing system, but that often hurt students.
So in the interest of speaking truth about the experience many students have as they go through higher ed and come out the other side lost, these are 7 lies my university/ies told me.
1. A degree is always a good investment
“Nobody can take this away from me,” my spouse said to me, shortly after she walked across the stage to receive her diploma. And it’s true, nobody has.
But also, nobody cared about it. Her undergraduate degree in social work lead to 0 job opportunities, she wasn’t qualified enough for most good social work jobs that required a master’s. She eventually went for a postgraduate diploma at a community college in an attempt to make the degree functional.
Somewhere along the line, we started telling ourselves that a degree is always a good investment. I have seen people justify dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt for exactly this rationalization.
Simply put, a degree is not always a good investment. Nor does adding more letters to an existing degree cancel out the fact that it was a bad investment. Just ask my PhD in religious studies.
As Kevin Carey wrote in a piece for the Chronicle, “According to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, there are over 780 institutions where fewer than one-third of students have annual earnings above $25,000 six years after beginning college… raise the standard from one-third to one-half, and hundreds of public institutions, mostly community colleges and regional four-year universities, enter the mix. At Eastern New Mexico University, only 46 percent of students exceed the $25,000 earnings threshold.”
No, a degree is not always a good investment. In fact, as Carey argues in the piece above, it’s not really clear why we call a degree an investment. We can’t resell it. It’s not fungible. And most students at 17 can’t understand the math to judge whether a degree is a good investment. (If they can even find it.)
And institutions lie about the value of a degree or sell them with the abstract language of passion and purpose.
Predatory degree programs of all types leave students mired in debt for life with a degree they can’t really use. Just look at the Wall Street Journal’s exposé on the way many “elite” schools used their name to create worthless master’s programs with jaw-dropping price tags and 0 market value (MFA anyone?).
The ruin that these degrees expose people to should not be understated; imagine how hard it will be for that 35-year-old with an MFA and $200,000 of debt to climb out.
I’ve often quoted the research that shows that degrees do give a bump in earnings. But an extra $215/weekly for, say, a master’s in history that cost you tens of thousands to get is likely a bad investment.
And in a tight labor market, where employers are looking beyond degrees as minimum thresholds for hiring, and when Google and Amazon are making their own training in lieu of a bachelor’s, it seems likely the value of a degree will sink further.
A degree is not always a good investment. Often it’s a bad one.
And until we break this mythology to keep people from doing degrees they don’t need and sinking into debt they can’t afford, we will keep replicating this mistake.
2. The university is a safe haven from capitalism
“The world out there,” my humanities professors would say, “is obsessed with exploiting people to make money.” These professors taught me implicitly and occasionally explicitly that the university was either a safe haven from capitalism or else that they were in a noble battle with the evil “admin” class of higher ed who wanted to turn higher ed into a business.
News flash, higher ed (at least in the U.S.) is essentially a business. It has been for a very long time. Sure, higher ed institutions are usually non-profit, but they still must generate revenue, sell their product to “customers,” and pay for enormous operational expenditures.
And their business model is a doozy.
Marx famously wrote that capitalism exploited the working class, whose pay never reached the real value their labor produces. It’s ironic then, in this sea of idealists, that I’ve yet to see a worse case of capitalist exploitation than the university–specifically at the graduate level
These “anti-capitalist” professors, who blush at the word “business,” seem to have no issues accepting mountains of cheap, exploited laborers in the form of grad students, adjuncts, and postdocs to maintain their status quo. Many equally seem unbothered that their students undertake 5-10 years of nearly free labor, only to drop off into obscurity when the promised tenure-track position doesn’t materialize.
The fact is, under the guise of “training,” free and unrecognized labor isn’t just given, it’s expected.
The workers are completely divorced from the benefit of their work, it is given to others with higher prestige for pennies on the dollar. Professors take their labor, happily put their name as principal authors on works they didn’t write, and present their students’ work at conferences where they receive accolades.
Many grad students will labor under the false pretense that they can win this system, and when they fail, they are told “next year will be yours.”
When people who are still in this sick institution lecture me about the evils of capitalism, I find it hard to miss the irony that they are embodying the very worst of capitalism.
Academia runs on an army of invisible, underpaid workers, who don’t get to share in the rewards or glory after labor and output. Even Amazon pays their delivery drivers.
3. Education is the great equalizer
Of course it’s not.
Education perpetuates the inequalities that are elsewhere in society and arguably makes it worse.
It remains an archaic system, institutionally rooted in white supremacy, and it takes a tremendous toll on racialized individuals, just as it does with those from the LGBTQI+ community or those with disability.
Black graduates in the U.S. with college debt struggle much more than their White peers, step into a labor market that will discriminate against them and make it harder to pay off that debt. Research shows that college degrees lead to White grads building wealth while Black grads don’t.
Just jump on Twitter and you will see an army of anonymous people venting their grievances. Some, like Dr. Monica Cox, are brave enough to expose the inequities and face a personal cost to do so.
Education doesn’t bear the same fruit for everyone.
4. This prepares people
My dad was a maintenance worker in a hospital. My mom stayed home to raise five kids.
When I left my tiny mining village in Northern Canada to go hundreds of miles away to be educated, I was pretty sure that that education would help me enter adult life. It didn’t.
Throughout most of my adult life, the only adults with any education about high school that I ever encountered were teachers and professors. All of those teachers and professors seem focused on one thing, pushing me into education as a career.
The problem with a lifetime of only meeting educated adults in the education system is that many of them only really know about working in education.
As a result, I got a lot of information about and preparation for working in education.
I’m always amazed at the number of professors who swear that they’re preparing students for life outside of the university, who have NO IDEA where their past students have gone. Plus, they have NO IDEA how life outside works.
A degree definitely gives you SOME preparation for the workplace. But for many of us, it’s not enough. We’ll need to do the work of connecting it ourselves. (Hey! That’s why I started Roostervane!)
5. This will be relevant
There’s a famous cartoon of a boy doing homework, and his dad saying, “this will be helpful when algebra season comes around.” For whatever reason, your school thought that algebra was valuable and worth teaching, but personal finance wasn’t.
The joke, of course, is that you probably learned algebra but likely never learned about the math that we all encounter, yearly, for the rest of our life: taxes. If you did, congrats!
Every prof I meet thinks that what they teach is relevant.
“Yes, the rewards of a knowledge of German polka history will translate far beyond this classroom!” (that’s a little nod to Dave Ramsey)
Most of what you learned in higher ed WILL NOT be relevant. Some of it will. Cool!
I’ve seen the increase in the term “transferable skills” to talk about the valuable outputs of a degree.
And while any degree will give you “transferable skills” (much like literally everything else you will do with your life), when I hear professors of Roman banqueting talk about how their degree gives you transferable skills, what I hear is, “We don’t know what this is good for, but we’re going to teach it anyway, so maybe you can use it somehow, somewhere.”
6. This is the most meaningful
I was writing this article when I read this piece from Insider Higher Ed titled, Why We Need the Humanities in Today’s Career-Focused World. In it, the author talks about the need for the big questions that are answered in a humanities degree.
The assumption behind it is probably as old as the academy.
“What we do here is intrinsically valuable, answering unique human questions nobody else asks.”
What a load of horse shit.
The irony of academics who think that what they do is uniquely meaningful, especially on the humanities side, is that many modern workplaces engage with questions of meaning EVERY DAY.
Their judgment of academia as “the place to do meaningful work” should be viewed with suspicion–since many profs have never worked anywhere else.
When I worked in refugee policy, do you think we never asked big questions about human flourishing? At least there we just didn’t talk about it, we did something about it.
7. Good ppl find work in the academy
The final lie is one given to thousands of bright young minds as they enter PhD programs. They are undertaking a course of study that will last years. And a professor might repeat a well-worn axiom: “It’s tough. But good people always find work.”
No, they don’t.
I’ve seen a ton of different numbers on how many PhDs will ever work as tenure track professors. I’ve seen as low as 5% and as high as about 20%.
Many “good people” will never work in the academy.
I wasted years of my life chasing these lies. I believed my profs. And in their defense, they probably believed a lot of their own lies too.
But it’s over. A generation of students who are underemployed deserves to know the truth.