The "Education bubble", Business Majors, and the Failures of Higher Education

There's an article from TechCrunch that's been going around for a while now on Peter Theil's description of a "Higher Education Bubble." it's been all over the Internet, and so you may have read it by now, but if not, go take a moment to peruse it. His premise–which I am very much simplifying, so please go read the article–is essentially that a college education has become overvalued, and that it is taboo to even question its value. From the article:

Instead, for Thiel, the bubble that has taken the place of housing is the higher education bubble. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

Thei's solution to this problem has also been getting a lot of press.

The idea was simple: Pick the best twenty kids he could find under 20 years of age and pay them $100,000 over two years to leave school and start a company instead.

It's an interesting idea, to be sure. What intrigues me though is this implication that having a degree may be seen as useful to society, but that nothing valuable actually happens at a college or university. When I was in graduate school at a large public university in New England, I was walking to class with a professor for whom I was a TA, and we were gently mocking the writing capabilities of our students, in the way that educators do, to maintain their sanity. One comment of his has remained with me: "I swear, within 10 years, somebody is going to graduate from this institution and then promptly sue us, because they are functionally illiterate, completely unemployable, and tens of thousands of dollars in debt." Granting him some leeway for hyperbole, his point stands. Depending on one's major, it is entirely possible to survive on a diet of giant lecture classes, piecing together barely-legible assignments, and graduate.

Of course, as a proud proponent of a liberal arts education, I knew that could never happen within my field of study. Every hIstory or classics professor I knew had at least a modicum of integrity and rigor in their courses. I knew that my professor was really talking about those business majors, the vocational students of the 21st century.

And I was right.

David Glenn, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (via The Quick and the Ed), writes that business majors work less than their peers in other fields.

Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement: Nearly half of seniors majoring in business say they spend fewer than 11 hours a week studying outside class. In their new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that on a national test of writing and reasoning skills, business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college. And when business students take the GMAT, the entry examination for M.B.A. programs, they score lower than do students in every other major.

Granted, these studies are certainly challenged by others, but I think you would be hard-pressed to talk to anybody in college right now who couldn't provide at least anecdotal evidence to back that up. The one business course I took as an undergraduate contained by far the least amount of professor engagement and interaction, particularly as compared to my history and classics courses.

Considering that business is by far the most popular major in America, it is fair to highlight them as symptomatic of these larger problems. If, as the article states, the benefits of a business major are the internships and the networking that is facilitated, how is $50,00/year to attend college possibly justified?

But again, I'm one of those annoying people that won't shut up about the value of a liberal arts education, so what do I know? I am in debt from six total years spent studying dead people and dead languages.