Are colleges over-promising?

Jeff Dieffenbach


EdSurge Higher Ed (No. 192 | November 22 2019) posed this question: Are colleges overpromising?

Here’s more context and my response (a version of which was published in No. 193 | November 29 2019):


“If our career aspirations surpass the available opportunities, and our self-perceived talents exceed our actual talents, we are surely destined to be miserable at work, and perhaps this explains the prevalence of low employee engagement ratings despite more and more money being devoted to giving employees a consumer-like experience. The equivalent in the world of love would be if everyone aspired to date movie stars like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie: the result would be an epidemic of single people.”

—Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Becky Frankiewicz, both executives at ManpowerGroup, in an op-ed that argues colleges overpromise and set up unrealistic expectations for students

We’re curious what people think of this argument. Are colleges overpromising? Shouldn’t students aim high?

With the caveat that my experience attending college is now decades in the rear view mirror, and that my visibility into my sons’ much more recent experiences was limited, the short answer to the “Colleges over-promising?” question is no. At least, I don’t see colleges making the explicit, tactical pitch to the effect of “Come to Wonderful U, launch a wonderful career.”

More broadly, though, I think there *IS* a general “in the ether” perception that college is the golden ticket. And historically, that’s been true, at least from a lifetime earnings perspective.

In an era with much less granularity of information, the college degree was for employers the best signal going. It just wasn’t necessarily a very good signal. With at least the potential for much higher resolution around competencies that job candidates offer and that job functions require, we can do better at making an effective match. And that “better” may result in a college degree meaning less than it did in the past.

The new mantra must be “always learning.” It’s not so important where this learning comes from as it is that this learning is integrated with, valued by, and at least partly paid for by work. That no longer needs to mean beginning at age 22 with a degree (and a big stack of debt) in hand. Why not start at age 20? Or 18? And with the mindset that it will come in smaller chunks, just-in-time, and lifelong.

The case against the case against “The Case Against Education”

the-case-against-educationI beg forgiveness for jumping into the Caplan-Ubell debate uninvited. But it’s such a great topic. And if nothing else, it’s such a great blog post title.

In a recent EdSurge article entitled “Why college is not an employment agency,” Robert Ubell, vice dean emeritus of online learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, takes George Mason University professor of economics Bryan Caplan to task for the latter’s book, “The Case Against Education.”

A caveat: I haven’t yet read Caplan’s book. If I were on balance agreeing with Ubell, I’m not sure that that would be fair. But since I’m on balance agreeing with Caplan.

My comments on Ubell’s article are in indented green below. 

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Why College Is Not an Employment Agency
By Robert Ubell | Feb 6, 2018

A new book makes “The Case Against Education.” It’s decidedly not something to give to a high-school junior looking to get into college.

College is important. It’s important because of its cost. And because of its opportunity cost. Anyone planning to attend college should do so with fully open eyes. I encourage readers to use the comments section of this post to indicate whether they would have done their college experience any differently. I know that I would have. At the time of my application to college, I was fortunate to have sufficient resources both to make the decision and to pay for the decision. And even still, I didn’t make the decision well. Because really, how many 18 year olds have the perspective to make such a decision well.

The author, Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, draws a picture of college as a bleak and miserable place, a Dickensian ordeal, peopled with distracted students, taught by mediocre faculty who, apart from mathematics, science and English, have nothing worth teaching their bored and listless students. In his telling, higher education is all a big, expensive scam—such a dark place that you imagine that students are housed in a prison, not on campus. “The harsh reality,” argues Caplan, “is that most students suffer in school. Nostalgics who paint their education as an intellectual feast are either liars or outliers.”

It’s not clear to me the extent to which Ubell’s description echoes Caplan’s book or caricatures it (I know, I know, I need to give it a read …). If anything, college, at least for many, leans more Hedonistic than it does Dickensian. Are students distracted? Most likely–that’s a worthy problem to address. Are faculty mediocre instructors? It would be more accurate to say that they too often fail to receive training in and be measured on instruction. Is higher education a big, expensive scam? Well, it’s certainly expensive, as is screamed by the US’ nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt (almost twice that of US credit card debt).

Caplan says that a college degree is largely useless, claiming that it does not show that students learned anything useful for their future in the workplace. “We have to admit,” Caplan assures us,” academic success is a great way to get a job, but a poor way to learn how to do a good job.”

College degrees are far from useless, but at the same time, they are ripe for improvement. If nothing else, college degrees are a signal to the workplace of effort and completion. They are not, however, a signal of competencies gained.

Companies take it on faith that that a college degree is worth the handsome salaries graduates command; in contrast, dropouts suffer with little to show for their aborted time in school.

Craftily, Caplan pretends to discredit education because it’s a worthless training ground for industry, but his aim is more insidious, making the case for the withdrawal of state support from public education. “Stop throwing good money after bad,” he commands. “Cut education budgets. Shift the financial burden of education from taxpayers to students and their families.”

Here is where I depart from Caplan and side with Ubell. Higher education can be a better “training ground for industry” than it currently is. But in parallel with this improvement, the state should be doing more to support public education, not less [The crazy notion of free college].

Caplan, a conservative libertarian, doesn’t demand the same austerity from private or for-profit schools, but instead, he targets the very place where students from families without means can achieve something and can go on to live decent, fruitful lives. Caplan would deny them that opportunity.

In his argument against the efficacy of education, Caplan marshals impressive-looking pseudoscientific bar charts on almost every page, standing like tall, upright soldiers defending his claims. But in his unsupported case for privatization, curiously, his armor disappears. Not a single chart or graph is displayed showing the benefits of defunding higher education. That’s because the actual data would undermine his case.

I love Ubell’s turn of this phrase: “Caplan marshals impressive-looking pseudoscientific bar charts on almost every page, standing like tall, upright soldiers defending his claims.”

The nation has tried for-profit higher education and it failed.

The excellent documentary “Fail State” makes this case in compelling fashion.

“Publicly funded education has an awful track record,” Caplan claims, “wasting hundreds of billions every year.” However, shutting down state education is a disastrous idea, not only for reasons of ensuring equity in education, but also for its long-term effects on the economic health of the country. Universities are among the key driving forces in our thriving state economies—in California, Texas, Florida, New York and elsewhere—where colleges are the vibrant intellectual centers driving research and business development.

While Caplan dismisses the possibility that universities offer society any real economic benefit, data shows otherwise. After studying new data from UNESCO’S World Higher Education Database, covering 15,000 colleges and universities across 78 countries between 1950 and 2010, Anna Valero, a London School of Economics scholar, found that “the expansion of higher education from 1950 onwards was not just the product of growing wealth, it has also helped fuel economic growth around the world.”

Take a look at the 20 finalist cities in Amazon’s search for a second headquarters—universities are located at the heart of nearly every one. “All these places have something in common—nearby reputable universities that can churn out the young and the hopeful straight into Jeff Bezos’s welcoming arms,” observes Chris Matyszczyk, a consultant, in Inc.

America is supposed to be the Land of Opportunity, where a son of a Jewish tailor from an impoverished shtetl in Poland—as well as millions of other children from immigrant and other poor families—can go to college and learn “useless” things like poetry and art history, as I did at Brooklyn College, then a free city school. Neither poetry nor art history—a waste of time for Caplan—will get most graduates a job after graduation, but we should be proud of a society that educates its citizens broadly and not just trains them as docile workers.

Many other economists tell us that the solution to the coming crisis in the workplace is more education, not less. As Harry Anthony Patrinos at the World Bank reports, “Post-secondary education graduates are at the lowest risk of losing to automation. Those with high levels of education are less likely to be in automation-prone occupations. ”

But Caplan believes that the university fails completely in preparing students for jobs. His assumption is that higher education is the place where students should gain the skills they need to get them good jobs. But universities are not employment agencies. His mistake is that he confuses procedural with conceptual knowledge.

Here is where my pendulum swings back toward Caplan. While I love the idea of the luxury of spending four (or six, or ten) years in the full embrace of learning, we simply can’t avoid the practical impact of spending a quarter of a million dollars on a college education. For most people, higher education MUST prepare students for careers (which aren’t quite the same thing as jobs).

In my new book, Going Online, I clarify the difference:

“Procedural knowledge means knowing how to manipulate a condition or how to perform a task; for example, how to run a science experiment or solve a mathematical equation. Procedural knowledge is also a measure of our skills, tasks we know how to complete, and techniques we know how to follow. Training is designed to give workers procedural knowledge in order for them to do their jobs effectively. Conceptual knowledge, on the other hand, refers to our ability to appreciate major parts in a system, understand complex relationships, or categorize elements logically. At their best, universities are expected to equip students to excel at conceptual knowledge.”

Ubell’s examples of conceptual knowledge are of equal value to the workplace as his procedural ones.

Caplan smirks about the U.S. higher education dropout rate, arguing that his bored students are voting against college with their feet. “Excruciatingly bored students fill classrooms.” he laments. “Well, ‘fill’ isn’t quite right, because so many don’t bother to show up.”

But students drop out for all sorts of reasons. Boredom may be one, but surely it’s not the principal impediment that drives them away—a suspicious claim Caplan repeats continuously, vilifying students for slumping in their seats with ennui. But the most devastating reason why students drop out is not lethargy, but high tuition.

For most, college is a luxury product, equal to buying a Mercedes every school year at many private schools. One of the most shocking consequences of the steep price of higher education is that some 40 percent of students who actually get accepted don’t even show up because they can’t pay the admission price.

“College is a luxury product.” My point exactly.

Peterson’s college guide says that the number one reason students drop out is because of lack of funds to keep them going. “Many students take out school loans, but that isn’t always enough,” reports Peterson’s Brian Pivik. “Between the costs of classes, books, rent, and just trying to survive, students are more and more learning that while worth it in the long run, the cost of education is high.”

If Caplan’s book was your only guide to what matters in college, you’d never come across ideals that secure a more just and honorable society—that enlighten thoughtful citizens. In the brief section Caplan devotes to “values,” he dismisses them out of hand, claiming that higher education has little or no effect on conveying them to students. You’d conclude that education has no place in democracy. It’s only what you can take to the bank that seems to matter to the author. If you look up “democracy,” “ethics,” and “wisdom” in the index, you won’t find them. None of these ideas on which education has been founded since ancient Greece are even mentioned in passing.

It turns out, however, that education does play a decisive role in our democracy. Nate Silver, the data journalist who founded FiveThirtyEight, calculated the effect of voter education in the last presidential election. Soon after results were in, Silver studied all 981 U.S. counties to see how they voted, sorting the numbers by least and most educated, among other slices of the data, especially income and race. His conclusion? Education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump and who wouldn’t.

As an economist, Caplan is surely familiar with “commodification,” a concept at the heart of Karl Marx’s case against Capitalism. Marx theorized that under Capitalism, everything is measured in terms of monetary value, even knowledge. Doubtless, Caplan teaches the concept to his students at George Mason University. In The Case Against Education, Caplan has so thoroughly embraced the idea, he is convinced that hardly anything taught in today’s classrooms has any intrinsic worth. Caplan takes commodification to an absurd extreme—that only skills that can be turned into high-paying jobs after college are of any value. The rest—art, music, history, literature—he deems worthless. If it weren’t so grotesque, it would be funny, more Groucho than Karl.

My fear is that Caplan’s prescription for American higher education will not be laughed off, but will be taken far too seriously. While Caplan believes he is a contrarian, expressing views thoroughly at odds with mainstream thought, regrettably, he is not alone. Jane Karr, former “Education Life” editor of The New York Times, warns that “State funding of public universities is on a track to reach zero in less than 20 years in some states and as soon as six in Colorado and nine in Alaska.”

State legislatures are already way ahead of Caplan, savaging state support for public education, shifting the burden from taxpayers to families—just as Caplan advocates.

Higher education faces three challenges:

1. The learning experience needs to be better aligned with the capabilities that career and life demand.

2. The instruction needs to be improved and measured.

3. The cost to the learner needs to be reduced.

Caplan likely agrees with the first and second, Ubell with the third. I’m on board with all three–these are addressable challenges, not ones from which we should run.

Panel: Is the traditional degree obsolete?


I had the honor of participating in two panel discussions at the Reimagine Education conference in Philadelphia on December 4 and 5. This panel’s central question: Is the traditional degree obsolete? In preparing for the panel, I put together these notes.


  • Jeff Dieffenbach, lead staff director of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative
  • Our mission is to fund, connect, and disseminate learning effectiveness research
  • Our scope is birth to pK-12, higher education, and workplace learning
  • The research addresses learning effectiveness questions at the learner, instruction, and policy levels
  • My background includes 10 years as a school board member and 15 years in educational publishing strategy, sales, marketing, and product management

The traditional degree is not obsolete

  • And it won’t be for the foreseeable future
  • A generation from now, a degree from a strong institution will still have value
  • But the value of the traditional degree HAS seen its peak

Traditional higher education faces three challenges

  • Cost
  • Ability to deliver knowledge and skills that life and the workplace demand
  • Sufficiently trained instructors

At the same time, organizations are developing ways to identify and assess talent that don’t go through a transcript. As a result, people will find increasing numbers of non-degree pathways into the conventional degreed workforce.

Consider the transcript/learning record

  • Let’s say that I take some courses at Institution 1
  • And I now want to take some courses from Institution 2
  • It’s fine for Institution 2 to ask to see how I performed at Institution 1
  • But why should Institution 2 determine which Institution 1 courses end up on my transcript?
  • It’s up to Institution 3 or Employer 1 to value my learning, which means they need to see my learning
  • The learning record (transcript) needs to belong to the learner

Thought experiment

Give an 18 year old interested in business $100k to start a small company. Take courses, buy materials and equipment, hire people. Let’s say that after 4 years, they’ve tried a lot of things, had some successes, had some failures … and lost $50k. Not good, right? But that’s a lot cheaper than a 4-year degree. And the experience might be of interest to an employer.

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Background data

  • pK-12
    • 50 million pK-12 public school students
    • Another 5 million in private schools
  • 20 million college students (up 5 million since 2000)
    • Level
      • 17 million undergrad
      • 3 million grad
    • School type
      • 2-year: 7 million
      • 4-year: 13 million
    • Public/private
      • Public: 15 million
      • Private: 5 million
    • Age
      • 12 million under 25
      • 8 million 25 and older
    • Degrees
      • Associate: 1M
      • Bachelor’s: 2M
      • Master’s: 800k
      • PhD: 175k
    • Costs: tuition, fees, room, and board
      • Public: $17k ($7k tuition/fees)
      • Private non-profit: $43k ($31k tuition/fees)
        Private for-profit: $24k ($15k tuition/fees)

The crazy notion of free college


During the 2016 US Presidential campaign, populist candidate Bernie Sanders among others notably sounded the call for free college. Voices on the right quickly and repeatedly denounced the idea. With 4-year private school tuition bills having already shot past the quarter of a million dollars mark, any program government program providing for free college would clearly break the bank.

Or would it?

To answer that question, it’s instructive to deconstruct exactly what “free college” of the sort espoused by Senator Sanders would entail.

  • Sanders were not talking about private higher ed.
  • Sanders were not talking about out-of-state public higher ed.
  • Sanders were not talking about every expense–just tuition and fees.
  • Sanders were not talking about free college for all–rather, based on need.

A back-of-the envelope calculation taking into account tuition and fees for need-based attendees of both 2-year and 4-year in-state public institutions yields an annual cost of less than $50B.

$50B may sound like a lot, but it’s less than 1% of our annual $7T government outlay. By comparison, the government spends on the order of 20% each on health care and social security/pensions respectively as well as roughly 10% on defense.

Maybe it’s not the money. Maybe it’s the notion of free. But is free education really all that radical a notion?

As it stands today, we already offer 13 years of free education. “Free college” in any practical sense merely adds another 2-4 years for a small subset of our high school graduates.

Education is the key to national competitiveness and societal advance. Investing a bit more in in effective higher education isn’t the crazy notion that it might seem.

Who will be the last to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a college education?

college-costReposted from Medallion Learning blog

At the nation’s most expensive college, a four-year education now costs upwards of a quarter of a million dollars (Northeastern, we’re looking at you). Debates about the value of this education continue to rage. Most recently, the 2014 PayScale College ROI Report [1] allows readers to rank nearly 900 undergraduate institutions based on metrics including 20 year net ROI and annual ROI.

Let’s set aside for a moment the necessary simplifications embedded in the report’s methodology. Harvey Mudd College tops the 20 year net ROI ranking at just shy of one million dollars. At nearly 12%, the Georgia Institute of Technology leads the way on annual ROI. At the other end of the spectrum, Shaw University trails the 20 year net ROI pack at NEGATIVE $156,000 and the annual ROI list at -11.9%. That’s if you graduate—only a quarter of its students do.

Overall, the average 20 year net ROI for the ~900 schools comes in at about $230,000 with an ROI a shade less than 5% a year. Sadly, only half of all students embarking on this expensive path even graduate. Imagine that you’re one of these fortunate students. Just what is it that you’re getting?

The Lumina Foundation, working with Gallup, tackled that question as part of its 2013 study, “What America Needs to Know About Higher Education Redesign” [2]. The message from colleges and universities to its students rings positive—96% of chief academic officers at these institutions assert extreme or somewhat confidence “in their institution’s ability to prepare students for success in the workforce.”

Great news! Or is it? What do those doing the hiring think? That storm cloud rolling in brings the opinion of business leaders—only 11% strongly agree that “today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies that their business needs.”

Clearly, a disconnect exists between what colleges and universities offer and what employers need. What’s a poor student to do? Six figures is a lot to pay for a degree that doesn’t deliver … but don’t try getting a white collar job without one.

While it’s fair to be skeptical of Lumina’s finding that only 9% of business leaders claim “where the candidate received their degree is very important in hiring decisions” (sorry, Harvard; bad news MIT; you’re out of luck, Stanford), one cannot avoid the fact that a full 84% share that “the amount of knowledge a candidate has is very important in hiring decisions.”

Where are students turning to bridge the gap? More and more, online. Online courses and certifications offer students the chance to efficiently and effectively replace some or all of their brick and mortar “hours in the seat” with competency-based learning that appeals to employers. More than half of all employers (54% per Lumina) now report the likelihood of hiring “a candidate who has a degree from an online higher education provider OVER a candidate with the same degree from a traditional higher education institution.”

No doubt, the higher education experience offers more than just access to the workplace: a protected step away from the family home, illuminating interaction with peers and mentors, acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, well-rounding as a human being. For far too many, however, the price of that education exceeds the ability to pay. The all too common failure of that education as career preparation just adds injury to injury.

For reasons of content and cost, higher education finds itself poised on the cusp of major change. Not all that many tomorrow’s from now, someone out there is about to become the last one to pay a quarter of a million dollars for yesterday’s higher education.



Boston: the Hub of the (Education) Universe*

universePreface 1: Posting at least every other week hasn’t exactly worked out. Here’s a pledge to be better.

Preface 2: *With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes; per Wikipedia, “The Hub, which is a shortened form of a phrase recorded by writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Hub of the Solar System. This has since developed into The Hub of the Universe.”

It took last evening’s LearnLaunch January Meetup, “International Education: Opportunity Outside the U.S.,” to drive home the title point: Boston is the hub of the education universe.

“Boston is the home of more than 240 startups,” commented panelist, LearnLaunch co-founder, and Boston EdTech fixture Hakan Satiroglu. “But we’ve got more startups,” you might expect the Bay Area to cry. “And perhaps you do.” Boston (and Cambridge) venture capital to go with those startups? Check. “Yeah, yeah, Bay Area, we know.”

How about large education companies? Bay Area, nada. New York City could perhaps make a claim here, but Boston has headquarters or major presences in Cengage, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill Education, Pearson, and School Specialty. Scholastic? Not exactly, but their Tom Snyder Productions division calls Watertown home. Small and midsize players? Check: Cambium Learning Technologies, Curriculum Associates, Lexia Learning, MuzzyLane, Six Red Marbles, and many others.

On the academic front. Massachusetts K-12 education leads the nation and ranks high amongst the best nations on the planet. Oh, and just to slather some icing on the cake, let’s not forget higher education. This fact may not be widely known, but the Hub is home to one or two (or more than 50) colleges and universities, some of which you may even have heard of.

“A jaunty-looking person … said there was one more wise man’s saying that he had heard; it was about our place—but he didn’t know who said it … ‘Boston State-House is the Hub of the Solar System. You couldn’t pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crow-bar.'” -Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table