President Obama has called on every American to receive at least one year of higher education or vocational training by 2020. For most young people, that means heading to campus in the pursuit of a college degree. But for a small, influential group of educators and economists, pushing the college experience is wrong. A recent report from Harvard backs them up. It found that only one-third of future jobs will need a bachelor’s degree. The report’s researchers said it’s time to offer stronger alternatives. The debate over the value of a college degree is not new, but the current economic crisis has renewed discussions. Diane and her guests re-examine the “college for all” movement.


  • Claudia Dreifus Co-author of "Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It"; adjunct associate professor at Columbia University; science writer for The New York Times.
  • Jeffrey Selingo Editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • James Altucher New York-based venture capitalist, and the author of the new book “How To Be the Luckiest Person Alive,” which includes the chapter: “8 Alternatives to College."
  • Nina Marks President of Collegiate Directions Inc.; principal of Marks Education.
  • Jan Bray Executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE).

Program Highlights

Is College Worth the Expense?

A growing group of educators and economists say paying increasingly high rates for college and racking up thousands of dollars of debt does students a disservice – especially in a down economy, when even having a four-year degree from a prestigious university can’t help boost graduates’ job prospects the way it might have in the past.

“We’re basically graduating a generation of indentured servants. I think this is the downfall of the American dream,” said New York-based venture capitalist and author James Altucher.

Jeffrey Selingo, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, said he thinks that there has been too much emphasis on the 4-year B.A. program, when many students don’t stop to consider certificate programs, 2-year programs, and other alternatives to the more traditional (and, arguably, expensive) college path.

Student Options as Costs Skyrocket

“When I left high school in 1954, less than half of our graduating class went to college, and yet them seem to have done fairly well,” Diane said. “What’s the difference between back then and now?”

Altucher said that because a lot of employees in hiring positions are college-educated, they tend to trust prospective employees who are also college-educated. Back in the 1950s, Altucher said, there seemed to be greater opportunity for career success among those who were not college-educated, especially if they were “achievement-oriented.”

“The big deal is to focus on some sort of credential,” Selingo argued. “The fact is that a high-school diploma doesn’t cut it in this day and age. The types of jobs going to be created within the next 50 years – we have no idea what they’re going to be,” he said.

Do Degrees Translate Into Jobs?

“When I left high school in 1954, less than half of our graduating class went to college, and yet them seem to have done fairly well,” Diane said. “What’s the difference between back then and now?”

Altucher said that because a lot of employees in hiring positions are college-educated, they tend to trust prospective employees who are also college-educated. Back in the 1950s, Altucher said, there seemed to be greater opportunity for career success among those who were not college-educated, especially if they were “achievement-oriented.”

“The big deal is to focus on some sort of credential,” Selingo argued. “The fact is that a high-school diploma doesn’t cut it in this day and age. The types of jobs going to be created within the next 50 years – we have no idea what they’re going to be,” he said.


  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Close to 70 percent of high school graduates in the class of 2011 plan to go to college. For a majority of students, heading to campus has become part of the American dream. But a growing group of educators and economists think pushing college does students a disservice. Joining me to talk about whether college is for everyone, Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan Bray of the Association for Career and Technical Education, Claudia Dreifus, she's co-author of "Higher Education?"

  • 11:07:48

    MS. DIANE REHMAnd from a studio in New York, James Altucher, he's a critic of higher education. We are going to take your calls 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.

  • 11:08:17

    GROUPGood morning.

  • 11:08:19

    REHMJames Altucher, if I could start with you. Do you believe too many students are urged to go onto college?

  • 11:08:28

    MR. JAMES ALTUCHERAbsolutely. There's this mythology that you somehow have more opportunities or a better chance of being successful in life if you go to college. I just don't think that's true, particularly with student loan debt now higher for the first time ever than credit card debt and homeowner debt. We're basically graduating a generation of indentured servants instead of the entrepreneurs, innovators and high achievers that we used to graduate.

  • 11:08:53

    MR. JAMES ALTUCHERI think it's a travesty, and it's the downfall of the American dream, the fact that we have this -- this mythology is so pervasive at this moment.

  • 11:09:01

    REHMClaudia Dreifus, do you see it as mythology?

  • 11:09:04

    MS. CLAUDIA DREIFUSWell, I agree and disagree, in that I think every young person in this country could do Plato and enjoy school and learn the ideas of our ancestors in a wonderful way. This is not happening though, and the indebtedness crisis is a terrible, terrible thing.

  • 11:09:25

    ALTUCHERI agree.

  • 11:09:25

    DREIFUSI went to school when it was wholesale or free. So if a young person didn't finish, it wasn't a tragedy, they could return ten years later when they'd found themselves. And now there is this enormous pressure with six-figure debts that, I agree, turns our young people into the educated indentured class.

  • 11:09:48

    REHMJeff Selingo, we have seen, however, an increase in the enrollment, have we not?

  • 11:09:56

    MR. JEFFREY SELINGOYeah. I mean, we have about 16 million people now enrolled in undergraduate higher education in the U.S. And I think to answer the two previous guests, I think that when we talk about college, we need to talk about post-secondary education. And I think the problem is, is that people think, oh, I have to go to a four-year college. Well, there are many options out there for folks. There are two-year colleges, there are certificate programs, there are non-profit institutions, there are for-profit institutions.

  • 11:10:25

    MR. JEFFREY SELINGOI think the mistake that we have made in this country is to talk too much about the bachelor's degree as the key to success. Not everybody is cut out to do that, and I think that some students maybe are better off getting a credential, or having some sort of post-secondary education credential.

  • 11:10:43

    REHMJan Bray, as executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education, should fewer students be going to college?

  • 11:10:57

    MS. JAN BRAYNo. And I -- actually, I think our question is wrong. It's not whether it's college, one year, two year, four year. We've lost track of the individual. I mean, we have a very changing and evolving workplace, a dynamic workplace, and what we're trying to do is push all students through this very narrow pipeline without any thought or regard as to what they want to do, where their interests are, where they'll be successful.

  • 11:11:26

    MS. JAN BRAYAnd so we're raising a generation of people that we're saying, you're either gonna be a scientist, engineer, doctor, or lawyer, and go to a four-year program, or you're a failure, when there is a whole plethora of jobs out there. There are all kinds of technicians. If we don't begin to help students from the time they're in elementary school all the way through their work life begin to explore what are their strengths, their interests, their talents, what kind of education is required?

  • 11:11:56

    MS. JAN BRAYIf somebody wants to be a wind technician, a welder, a chef, what kind of education is required, what kind of experience is required, and help them on that track, rather than push them through this narrow pipeline.

  • 11:12:09

    REHMJeff Selingo, do you believe that Jan is focusing where the focus ought to be, rather than on four-year college education?

  • 11:12:22

    SELINGOYeah. Again, I think the big deal here is to focus on some sort of credential, a post-secondary education. I mean, the fact of the matter is that a high school diploma doesn't cut it in this day and age, and that some people need some sort of post-secondary education. And the other thing is that this idea that people go to college to get a job doesn't really matter in the long run anyway, because the types of jobs that are going to be created in the next 20, 50 years, we have no idea what they're going to be.

  • 11:12:49

    SELINGOSo people need to get some sort of further education to learn how to learn in order to evolve in the workplace over time.

  • 11:12:54

    REHMYou know, I want to pick up on something you said, and ask you, James Altucher, about this. When I left high school in 1954, less than half of our graduating class went to college, and yet they seem to have done fairly well. What's the difference between back and then now? Can you comment, James?

  • 11:13:27

    ALTUCHERWell, I think a lot more employers are college educated, so they trust hiring other college-educated people to be their employees. So it's been this kind of self-perpetuating scam, I would say, that basically the college-educated employers are sticking -- are keeping to their own, whereas that didn't necessarily happen when you graduated, Diane. I think there was a lot more opportunity for people of all sorts of educational backgrounds to have any kind of success, particularly if you're achievement oriented.

  • 11:13:59

    ALTUCHERAny young person who is ambitious, intelligent, and achievement oriented, in other words, the type of person who would go to college, will benefit from having a five-year head start over their similar peers who decide to go to college who then get into massive debt. And by the way, this is not just for the students, but for the parents. Many parents right now, particularly with this financial crisis, are in enormous stress, financial and psychological, because they have to save and build up this savings to send their kids to college even with the debt. Because there's all these extra costs.

  • 11:14:34

    ALTUCHERI think we can have this enormous relief countrywide if this wasn't a kind of perceived necessity that students have to go to college to learn how to think or to get a job or whatever.

  • 11:14:46

    REHMIt's so fascinating to me that this Pew Research Center has just put out a finding that more than half of U.S. adults say higher education does not provide students good value for the money they and their families spend, and obviously, the debate over higher education has to be in part because of tough economic times, Claudia.

  • 11:15:22

    DREIFUSWell, I think the problem is we're conflating the whole question of costs with the whole idea of whether or not kids should get a good education, or any of us should, and they're not the same issue. The fact is, costs have expanded in the last 30 years, where it's the largest single purchase a family will make except for their home and sometimes larger. And the system of indebtedness has increased all of that and made more money available, and there's always been this sense that young people will pay.

  • 11:15:54

    DREIFUSNow, the question of what they're paying for is a whole other question. And that is something we all should be addressing. Is this education that they're getting worth it whether it's free or not? We think it's not, but it could be. We think that even a plumber could learn Plato for four years and come out and be a better plumber. Both my partner and I, Andrew Hacker, we've taught kids from very humble backgrounds, and saw what they were capable of, but they need good teaching. They need professors that care about them, and they don't need football stadiums.

  • 11:16:32

    REHMBut plumbers may say, you know, I'm not really interested in learning Plato. What I am interested in doing is being the very best plumber I can be, Jan.

  • 11:16:45

    BRAYWell, Diane, the thing is, learning -- learning is never bad.

  • 11:16:48


  • 11:16:48

    BRAYWhatever you're learning, I mean, you know...

  • 11:16:49

    REHMWhatever, as long as you're interested.

  • 11:16:50

    BRAYAnd there's never -- it's never wasted. It's never bad. And I think that's important to state. However, we still all -- we need a population, a citizenship that can support themselves, can be productive and add revenue back into this economy which is desperately needed, which means they need to have job skills. And so while it's great to read Plato, and I realize we're picking on Plato, but while it's great to read Plato, unless you're planning to teach Plato at the school, which is fine, then you definitely need it, you need a job skill.

  • 11:17:22

    BRAYAnd some of challenge from when you graduated and I graduated high school, is the nature of the jobs have changed. I mean, to be an automotive technician today, I challenge anyone -- most of your listeners, to be able to read an automotive manual. I mean, it's Greek to me. I will say that I can't even change the stations in my car. Someone told me you don't change them, you reprogram. You take away the steering wheel, the brake, and the gas pedal, and you're sitting in a computer.

  • 11:17:49


  • 11:17:49

    BRAYSo automotive technicians have to have strong IT skills. So all of education, the content and the focus needs to change from early on through higher ed, and higher ed hasn't really changed over the years.

  • 11:18:03

    REHMJeff, how much does a four-year college education cost on average today?

  • 11:18:11

    SELINGOWell, on average, a public four years about $7,600...

  • 11:18:14

    REHMA year.

  • 11:18:15

    SELINGO...a year. And average private is about $27,000 a year.

  • 11:18:19


  • 11:18:19

    BRAYAnd that doesn't include...

  • 11:18:20

    SELINGOIt's a lot of money. Now, I want to go back to the debt thing that people were talking about earlier.

  • 11:18:23

    REHMBut you're gonna have to wait...

  • 11:18:24


  • 11:18:24

    REHM...until after we come back from a short break. I promise to come back to you. We'll take your calls, 800-433-8850.

  • 11:20:03

    REHMWe're talking about the value of the four-year education of college, higher education as it is called, whether the value is still there. When indeed individuals are looking for jobs whether they're educated in the right way for the jobs they may wish to pursue. Jeff Selingo is editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education and you wanted to say something just before the break.

  • 11:20:39

    SELINGOYes. I was going to talk about student debt. Student debt is a huge problem...

  • 11:20:42


  • 11:20:42

    SELINGO...I'm not going to deny that. But, you know, about 40 percent of students who get their undergraduate degree have no debt when they graduate, according to the College Board. So, you know, 60 percent due and that's a big problem, but it's not as bad -- it's not as many students taking out debt as people claim to be.

  • 11:20:56

    REHMOkay. So...

  • 11:20:56

    SELINGONow, one other thing, too, the survey that we just reported on today with (sounds like) PEW, 74 percent said it didn't delay some life decisions like buying a home, those students with debt. Now, when you looked at income, college graduates below 30,000, there were a lot of delays in life decisions such as buying a home, starting a family, and things like that. Again, I think this is a big problem and growing, but I don't think it's as big as people sometimes make it out to be. We tend to read stories about students in 200 and $300,000 in debt and we conflate those to be equal to everybody. But they're not equal to everybody.

  • 11:21:32

    REHMGo ahead, Claudia.

  • 11:21:32

    DREIFUSI think it depends on the social class you come from and then we're talking about access. The student debt is terrible for poor and working class people because they almost have to finance 100 percent of their education, whereas middle class people don't. And so that's where the lever of social mobility is coming from. But the problem is you can't know what's going to happen in this economy. And we say to our readers in our book "Higher Education?" try to go for a value with as little debt as -- or none as possible. Therefore, don't go to the prestige schools. There are good schools everywhere. Community colleges, state schools value them. It's better to graduate without debt than with a prestigious degree.

  • 11:22:19

    REHMJames Altucher, is money the primary factor as far as you're concerned?

  • 11:22:27

    ALTUCHERI would say money is one of the primary factors. And, again, it's not just the students that are graduating with debt. It's also their parents. And the parents, let's not forget -- I feel for the parents. They've been through a lot in the past ten years. You know, the housing crisis, the financial crisis. Now there's essentially a student loan crisis. The parents are taking on a lot of the burden of this debt as well, and they're stressed about it. And they're going into their retirement years, they would like to, but they can't. There's this enormous student debt.

  • 11:22:55

    ALTUCHERBut also, again, in terms of what type of quality of life you have, what type of jobs and success you have, I don't think having that four or five-year education -- you know, the average student takes about five, five-and-a-half years to graduate. I don't think having that basically increases your chances of success. Again, if you have a five-year head start, you could replay it all you want in your spare time and still the traditional methods of learning a job and a skill is to find a mentor, to be an apprentice. Mentorship is still a common way...

  • 11:23:27


  • 11:23:27

    ALTUCHER...for most of people's work life, how they get educated in their career. I would say that's 95 percent of their work life is getting educated from a mentor. So I don't think...

  • 11:23:35

    REHMJames, I gather you went to Cornell; isn't that right?

  • 11:23:41

    ALTUCHERYes, yes.

  • 11:23:41

    REHMAnd you have a degree in computer science.

  • 11:23:45

    ALTUCHERYes. And I want to add to that two things. One is people say, oh, he went to Cornell so now he doesn't want his kids to go to college. Well, the fact is, I'm qualified to see what kind of education is that even among the best schools. It's not bad, but it wouldn't necessarily -- I mean, I got a degree in computer science. When I finally got a job in the real world, I had to be sent to almost a sub-training school for computer programming just to relearn the basic skills...

  • 11:24:13

    REHMThat's interesting.

  • 11:24:13 I could function at my job even though I went to graduate school after Cornell in computer science.

  • 11:24:18

    REHMAnd, Jan Bray, that's really your point.

  • 11:24:21

    BRAYRight. Yeah, you know, it's not -- it's -- I understand the debt issue. Even if the parent or the student is not in debt, if they don't know what they want to do and they have no skills at the end of that degree, they're in debt many other ways. So how are we preparing -- or they're overeducated. I know that sounds strange, but they have a four-year degree when a one or two-year program certificate would get them a job much faster. I mean, we all have people in our family who graduated from college that don't have a clue with what they want to do.

  • 11:24:53


  • 11:24:53

    BRAYOne of our members who is the executive dean of a community college in Texas told me that the fastest growing group of students by percentage were individuals with master's degrees who were coming back to learn a skill. Now, there always -- in our lifetime, we're always going to have to be retraining ourselves. Learning does not stop. It's that lifelong learning. So absolutely as the workplace changes, as industry changes, we need to come back and learn more. Not necessarily get another degree, but continue our learning.

  • 11:25:23

    BRAYBut there's something wrong when we have all these students coming out of four-year degrees that either don't have job skills to get them a good paying job or they're taking jobs that they really only needed the one or two-year degree. And so those who have the two-year degree are now taking jobs that only require a high school degree because it keeps getting pushed down.

  • 11:25:44

    REHMSo, Jeff Selingo, are we teaching kids the wrong things in college?

  • 11:25:52

    SELINGOWell, I think that's the problem, is what are students really learning in college? There was a great book, besides Claudia and Andrew's book, that came out in the last year called "Academically Adrift," which looked at 24 different colleges, publics, privates all over the country and essentially found that a third of students didn't really learn anything between their freshman year and their senior year. A third of students.

  • 11:26:12

    REHMSo what other experiences did they learn?

  • 11:26:17

    SELINGOWell, I mean, in some ways, and I think that's part of the problem here.

  • 11:26:19

    ALTUCHERWe almost can't say that on the radio.

  • 11:26:21

    DREIFUSYes -- no. You know, I think as a society, we've been using our colleges and universities, and that's one reason why they're so expensive, as kind of whelping grounds for our adolescents that we -- culturally we take them, we send them away for four years. Very expensive. They -- we don't actually require that they learn anything, but that's how we wean them from home. And this has become a manifest across the culture.

  • 11:26:51

    REHMWhen did that begin, that four-year residential model of the college experience?

  • 11:26:59

    DREIFUSWell, it certainly massified (sic) in my generation. I'm a boomer. But, you know, Americans have always built their colleges away from the cities because they historically wanted to keep the colleges from corruption and bad stuff. And to do that, you had to live away from home. But our colleges and universities are now almost like club meds. The gym is the central place where people go.

  • 11:27:27


  • 11:27:27

    DREIFUSAt some of the best colleges, 70 percent of the staff are doing something other than teach.

  • 11:27:32

    REHMAnd that is precisely, I would claim, why James Altucher is saying, why is this worth it?

  • 11:27:42

    DREIFUSMay I descent from what James Altucher is saying, because I believe that college should be cheap, it should be available, it should be good. And everyone can benefit from the knowledge of our elders.

  • 11:27:55

    REHMOkay. Now, James, would you agree with that? If it were cheaper, if it were free?

  • 11:28:02

    ALTUCHERSure. Look, college is a great experience for young kids if they're motivated and interested in reading the classics and the knowledge of our elders. I actually do think in my ideal world a child or my child will travel the world or work for a little bit or have some other experience to get a sense of, A, the value of a dollar, a sense of salesmanship, a little bit more of a sense of what they might be interested in the world. A little bit more sense of art and creativity before going back to a school environment if it's then cheap and/or free, but not pushed on them either.

  • 11:28:40

    REHMIt's interesting that there's still this stigma attached to the technical or vocational root.

  • 11:28:50

    DREIFUSAbsolutely. Yet it has also grown. There are over 15 million students in this country in career and technical education. It has grown tenfold over the last seven or eight years. So there are a lot going, they just don't talk about it. Because you'll go into career and technical education, pre-engineering, bio medical, you know, (unintelligible) programs. Law enforcement, homeland security relies very much on the career and technical education programs.

  • 11:29:18

    DREIFUSOne of the things that sets other countries apart and one of the reasons why they're catching up to us and moving, in many cases, beyond us, and this is referencing the report "Pathways to Prosperity" done by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is because their students, their young people from the time they hit high school get work experience. They get a lot of career guidance. They get work experience. And so they begin to explore firsthand what it means to be in the world of work and what they're interested in.

  • 11:29:49

    DREIFUSAnd if I can make just one comment, one of the things that's my pet peeve, is we in this country do not value work. We value certain kinds of work. So if you say you want to be a welder, if you want to be a construction worker, a carpenter, an automotive technician, that's not good. I mean, that's work and that's, you know -- so it's -- we've put a lot of the traditional career and technical education, even though it's very rigorous and very advanced and more advanced than many other programs that you need a four-year degree for, we put that into a box and say it's less than. It's really not. It's work.

  • 11:30:27

    REHMAnd, Jeff Selingo, President Obama has now called on every American to receive at least one year of higher education or vocational training by 2020. Do you believe that that's realistic?

  • 11:30:46

    SELINGONo. It's probably not going to happen. And in our survey that we did with PEW of college presidents, more than half of them think we're never going to reach that goal. And...

  • 11:30:55

    REHMWhat is a realistic goal?

  • 11:30:57

    SELINGOWell, I don't know if -- I don’t know if you should set necessarily a goal at the top there. I was looking at majors for example, fastest growing majors, slow growing majors. And what I realized in looking over that list is that we actually have -- this goes back to an earlier point -- we actually have students studying things that, to be honest with you, are not growing in this country. I think of my own profession, journalism. Journalism is still incredibly popular major in colleges, even though as we all know, journalism on all fronts is falling apart.

  • 11:31:25

    SELINGOMeanwhile, we need many more engineers in this country. We need many more in healthcare field. And those fields are actually not growing as fast as they need to be to fill the jobs. This kind of goes back to this disconnect between the labor market and what higher education is producing.

  • 11:31:41

    REHMSo in these tough economic times, with that kind of disconnect, do you see the whole college landscape changing, Claudia?

  • 11:31:53

    DREIFUSNo. One of the things we found in the book -- in the year our book has been out and we've been traveling colleges, is that the system actually is just doing more of the same. It's a lot like the financial system. No one's learned anything and people are just doing what they've always done. There's a lot of new fad expenditures. They've moved to what's global education, which is going to be very expensive, which is a fancified junior year abroad. That's the new fad and it's going to cost plenty and people are going to get more and more indebted to do it and it's going to become routine.

  • 11:32:28

    DREIFUSBut the new expense of accoutrements that make college such an expensive experience are just accelerating. What isn't happening is that -- people are concentrating on making the freshman courses interesting and good so you don't have a high dropout rate. What isn't happening is getting good people to teach at that level, forcing, for instance, the status professors to each freshman courses. What isn't happening is that kind of change.

  • 11:32:59

    REHMAnd that's the voice of Claudia Dreifus. She's co-author of "Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money, Failing our Kids and What We Can Do About It." She's an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University and a science writer for the New York Times. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Joining us now is Nina Marks. She's president of Collegiate Directions, Inc. and principal of Marks Education. Good morning, Nina.

  • 11:33:43

    MS. NINA MARKSGood morning, Diane. Good morning, everyone.

  • 11:33:44

    REHMWhy do you think a student should go to college these days?

  • 11:33:49

    MARKSWhy do I think a student should go?

  • 11:33:52


  • 11:33:52

    MARKSWell, I -- you know, I -- like Claudia, like other people I think who've chimed in from the college side, I see great merit in a college education provided the student is eager to acquire that experience. I come down in some ways exactly where other people on your panel do but perhaps from a slightly different angle. At Collegiate Directions we work exclusively with low income first generation to college kids.

  • 11:34:24

    MARKSAnd Claudia's point that we need to have options, community colleges, trade opportunities, as well as four-year experiences is of, course, exactly right. But we have to look at the critical imbalance ever increasing and equal access to those options. And so to go to some very specific points that were made just a few moments ago, a 2008 chronicle study highlights that at the 146 most selective four-year colleges in this country we had, at that point at any rate -- I have no reason to believe it's any better today -- 3 percent of the students on campus from the bottom economic quartile versus 74 percent from the top.

  • 11:35:12

    MARKSWe see low income students, of course, disadvantaged in terms of very typically lacking the better college preparation and the direction toward college or whatever that post secondary experience might be, but we see them also lacking two other critical things. Some, your panelists have highlighted absolutely, the money and the mentoring. And the money relates to a point that several people have mentioned, the community college option. A terrific opportunity, you would think, much, much more difficult for our most at-risk students. Community...

  • 11:35:51

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:35:52

    MARKS... I'm sorry.

  • 11:35:54

    REHMLet me ask you whether you think colleges are preparing people for work.

  • 11:36:06

    MARKSI think they're preparing people sometimes directly for work. I do think that preparing the engaged student, particularly the one that gets some mentoring, we -- I could not agree more that that's an issue that needs seriously addressed.

  • 11:36:21

    REHMBut not everybody is going to get that mentoring.

  • 11:36:25

    MARKSWell, as it is -- what we see is you get mentoring, indeed, from the faculty, incredibly and most significantly, I think, important. But you also get an enormous amount of support, in our experience, from your other people in your college network, from your friends, from your classmates, from all kinds of other people whom you meet in the course of a two or a four-year experience.

  • 11:36:51

    MARKSWhat I was going to say that one point regarding community colleges that I just wanted to reinforce for economically disadvantaged kids is think about if it's difficult enough to get funding as an entering freshman, how difficult it is when you transfer as a junior to pick up whatever crumbs are left at the end of the financial aid budget. So we really have to be honest about, you know, what we're offering students who might have the desire to go to a four-year college, but not yet be able to afford it.

  • 11:37:23

    REHMNina Marks. She's president of Collegiate Directions, Inc., principal of Marks Education. Thank you so much for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, it's time to open the phones.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. I promised to open the phones. Here we go. First to Santiago, Chile to -- sorry, Bill, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:17

    BILLHi, thanks for taking my call. I agree with quite a bit of what your panelists have said about the value of college and colleges' inability to prepare students to work and participate and succeed in today's society. I don't think that colleges should be job-preparation centered. They should be put in place to help students think and to explore the world.

  • 11:40:52

    BILLThat being said, the cost to get that done is outrageous and it just perpetuates -- I think somebody used the term scam. It perpetuates the scam from both the college side and from the financial institutions that fund colleges. From the college -- I think the professors and a good deal of the staff at college perpetuate a system of influence pedaling that to make them the arbiters of who will succeed and who won't succeed.

  • 11:41:29

    REHMWhat do you mean by -- excuse me, what do you mean by influence pedaling?

  • 11:41:35

    BILLSo, for instance, if I wanted to get into a Harvard or a Yale or a Stanford or a Duke and I'm from North Carolina. One, my grades would not be enough. Secondly, it would be based on who I knew and how well I was thought of by them.

  • 11:41:57

    REHMWhat do you think, Jeff?

  • 11:41:58

    SELINGOWell, I'm not -- it is hard to get into college. It's harder than ever.

  • 11:42:03

    DREIFUSThe elite colleges.

  • 11:42:04

    SELINGOTo the elite colleges, yes. I mean, they have more applications than they know what to do with and, I think, to be honest with you, that's part of the reason why many of these colleges don't want to change. They don't have to change. There are more students applying to them every year. They’re accepting fewer of them and those students that they accept are coming. So there's no reason for them to change.

  • 11:42:23

    DREIFUSAnd let me say, then anybody who gets accepted to those colleges has been training to get accepted since they were prenatal. They've been getting coaching, they have been getting coaching on how to do the admissions essays. They've been working with lepers in Nicaragua when they were 12 and then writing essays about how it changed their life and made them into a good person. They've been taking studies on how to take the SATs. It's like Olympic training.

  • 11:42:50


  • 11:42:51

    BRAYBut boy, I mean, I got to say, this conversation really bothers me and the caller really bothered me. You know, so we're telling all of our young people you must go college. We're preparing them or we're doing curriculum in high schools that are preparing them to go into these elite programs and unless they get into elite, they're not passing in high school. Not they get into the elite, but that what's we're attempting to do.

  • 11:43:13

    BRAYAt what point do we tell these people or help these people get job skills? I mean, if we have to wait until they're after four years and whether they have debt or not and then they have to go back more. So that's why we have over 2 million jobs that are going unfilled in this country, for lack of skilled workers. I mean, I think something's really screwed up with our values.

  • 11:43:34

    REHMAll right. Let's take this call. From Reston, Va. Claudia, you're on the air.

  • 11:43:41

    CLAUDIAHi, we paid for my daughter's community college and then we paid for her four-year university and after that my daughter was on her own and she's gone off to vet school and she's getting ready next month to start her last year and her clinical trials at Columbia University.

  • 11:43:58

    CLAUDIAAnd she has already amassed, in this short amount of time, $400,000 in debt and she probably end up owing a half of a million by the time she's done. And it just stuns me. I am, you know, worried about...

  • 11:44:11

    REHMStuns me, too.

  • 11:44:13

    ALTUCHERSo here's the person...

  • 11:44:14

    REHMGo ahead, James.

  • 11:44:16

    ALTUCHERHere's a person then, this young lady who's obviously incredibly intelligent, ambitious, achievement oriented, who could potentially start companies, you know, really achieve the American dream. What really started out as the American dream, but instead she's going to owe a half of a million dollars in debt to the banking industry and what we are doing to, not just our students, but our country when that happens.

  • 11:44:40

    REHMOkay. But, James, she said she wanted to be a veterinarian.

  • 11:44:45

    SELINGORight. I mean, there is some student choice there. I mean, we can't -- we have to put some, no offense, to the caller here, but at some point, we have to...

  • 11:44:50

    DREIFUSBut it shouldn't be $500,000.

  • 11:44:52

    ALTUCHERRight. It shouldn't be $500,000. It wasn't -- it's not her choice. She wants to be a veterinarian.

  • 11:44:56

    SELINGOI think you can become a veterinarian for a lot less than $400,000 in debt.

  • 11:45:00

    REHMYes. Claudia, why -- can you explain why she amassed such huge debts?

  • 11:45:09

    DREIFUSWell, let me -- sorry, other Claudia.

  • 11:45:11

    REHMGo ahead, Claudia, on the phone. Go ahead.

  • 11:45:16

    CLAUDIAWell, I don't know how it happened. I mean, this is just the amount she had to borrow to get into this school. I mean, she's gone to Roth. She's had a great experience there. It’s been wonderful. I mean, that's how the loan was. She has to pay for housing in a really expensive place down there. I mean, this the cost for the school. This is what it costs to go there.

  • 11:45:37

    REHMAnd I am told that veterinary school is one of the most difficult schools to get into, isn't that correct, Claudia?

  • 11:45:47

    DREIFUSI believe so, but I can tell you about at lower level. The medical assistant at my doctor's office went to my alma mater, NYU. She's a young African-American woman and she heard about my book and she told me she had graduated NYU with a full tuition scholarship with $70,000 in debt, she was premed.

  • 11:46:07

    DREIFUSI said, explain to me how you did that? She explained it, it's easy. I went to NYU when I could pay for it. My family was lower middle-class and somehow you found the money because it was $1,300, not $52,000 a year. The costs keep raising, the financial aid isn't what it's said to be. You have to be a genius to read the financial papers. She wishes she had gone to SUNY Stony Brook. She may never become a doctor, as she wants to.

  • 11:46:37

    SELINGOBut there are lower costs options and I think that students -- this idea that what college is and we talked -- the first caller talked about all these elite colleges and we believe, when we talk about the college idea, we talk about these elite colleges, usually private, that charge a lot of money.

  • 11:46:52

    SELINGOThere are a lot of other options out there. We did a quick story last week on the President of the University of Southern Hampshire who wrote back to a parent who appealed a financial aid decision and he basically encouraged her to go to a community college.

  • 11:47:05

    SELINGOYou know what the parent said? The parent wrote back and said, really? You can't just give me more money? This is a parent who couldn't even afford to pay the deposit for the university. So instead, she ended up going to another private college and she's going to get amassed in all this debt.

  • 11:47:18

    REHMOkay. But, Jeff, let me ask a question that an awful of people have been asking. Why has the cost of higher education risen so much faster than any other cost we've seen?

  • 11:47:38

    SELINGOWell, there's obviously -- you have incredible infrastructure. You have technology that colleges have to keep up with. You have, you know, most of it obviously is personnel cost. You're paying these professors and others -- and obviously then you have all the stuff that Claudia was talking about, all these extras.

  • 11:47:54

    SELINGOBut that doesn't necessarily explain all of it. But the demand is there. And I think this is the part of the problem, Diane, is that students and parents still want their sons and daughters to go these colleges and there's no pressure on them, in many cases, to hold their costs down when they have all these students knocking at the door.

  • 11:48:10

    REHMThere's a -- go ahead James.

  • 11:48:14

    ALTUCHERDiane, I agree half of what Jeff says. I don't think it's -- I think it's on the demand side and not necessarily on the cost side of the colleges. The cost side sort of takes care of itself, depending on how much money the college has coming in...

  • 11:48:26

    DREIFUSNot true.

  • 11:48:26

    ALTUCHER...but it’s all price in every market is a supply and demand equation. So the -- and it comes from the top down. So, Harvard, if they were to start charging $200,000 a semester, they probably actually have demand for it because there's that universe of students out there who are still willing to pay and everything comes down from that.

  • 11:48:44

    ALTUCHERSo the demand there, it's self-satisfying because, you know, again, employers only want to hire college-educated employees and it keeps on going because college presidents are taking advantage of that.

  • 11:48:56

    REHMAll right. To Chillicothe, Ohio. Good morning, Carol, you're on the air.

  • 11:49:02

    CAROLGood morning. Gosh, there's so many things I'd like to comment about. One of the things that one of your guests said just a couple of minutes ago about jobs being unfilled, skilled worker jobs going unfilled. And I'm not sure exactly what it is they're saying or what jobs are going unfilled. I'd like to know that, but I also wanted to make a comment about my experience as well.

  • 11:49:30

    CAROLAnd I went to nursing school. I'm a registered nurse. I went to school back in the '70s when most nurses graduated from hospital programs, which were two-year programs. Now, most nurses graduate from four-year programs. And basically, in my area, in Ohio, you cannot get a nursing job without a bachelor's degree, even though I have over 30 years experience. They will hire someone right out of school with no experience over an experienced nurse.

  • 11:50:01

    CAROLAnd so anyone that I talk to that I advise about nursing, I tell them you need you a four-year degree. If you want a job, you've got to get a four-degree.

  • 11:50:11

    ALTUCHERAnd that's the self-perpetuating scam that happens.

  • 11:50:14

    DREIFUSYes, well, a lot of universities now are even – well, at least one, are doing PhDs in nursing. I mean, the increased credentialization is part of the problem.

  • 11:50:26

    BRAYBut that's also a state issue. Some states are now requiring it's licensed or it isn't just the universities to be fair. To go back to what -- I was talking to some of our members in Oklahoma. Do you know the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma is very strong going, you know, going well? They can't get skilled workers.

  • 11:50:45

    BRAYThe energy industry cannot get -- they need carpenters, they need welders, they need frontline people, they need wind technicians, they need people who can go in and drill in the oil fields who can measure. They need IT specialists. They're not there. They're desperate for people in the energy industry that they don't have those skilled workers because we're not providing that kind of training. We're closing those programs.

  • 11:51:10

    REHMAll right. To St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Barry.

  • 11:51:16

    BARRYYes, I have two comments. One's on propriety colleges and one's on non-propriety. I work as a pro-bono attorney, I'm retired, for legal aid and I do family law matters. And it's amazing the number of my clients and they have $30,000, $50,000 in debt to some propriety college where they have no hopes of ever getting a job, but they can't discharge this debt and these schools are just, you know, ripping these people off. I mean, they make (word?) look like a saint.

  • 11:51:48

    BARRYAnd then, about propriety colleges, I want to say, a lot of these schools are -- they want to preserve their jobs, the professors. So they admit people, they pass them through to apply for positions where there'll never be jobs and I'm thinking of law schools. There are so many unemployed lawyers graduating law schools, wandering the streets. It's ridiculous.

  • 11:52:07


  • 11:52:07

    BARRYAnd that's my comment.

  • 11:52:08

    REHMAll right. Do you want to comment?

  • 11:52:10

    SELINGOWell, there's been a -- there's starting to be a crackdown now for-profit colleges. Although, there's a lot of debate now in Washington and I think that Washington really is starting to crack down on these colleges that are graduating students who are high in debt and have no hope of getting jobs in the fields that they're getting credentialed in. But that's where the student debt problem is even bigger, in the for-profit colleges than it is among the non-profit colleges.

  • 11:52:34

    REHMNow, here an interesting email from Jeff, sorry, from Jim in Janaway, Illinois. He says, "Our schools should be honest enough to tell students a college degree does not guarantee success in life. Though I earned two degrees from major state universities over 30 years ago, neither provided me with the expected career. Now, as I prepare to retire from a clerical job, the question of what might have been continues to weigh on my mind." Claudia?

  • 11:53:14

    DREIFUSWell, I think what we've gotten -- I think primarily from the college board and groups like this are these constant studies that say you will make so much more money that how often you indebted your -- how big the debt is, it will always pay off. The phrase is, the best investment you'll ever make. I wish we would stop talking in those terms.

  • 11:53:34

    DREIFUSI agree with your listener who said, the colleges ought to be honest. I think everyone should start saying, I'm going to school to build myself up. And nobody should be lying about what your financial prospects are because of it. You're going to learn something. The next step is get a trade.

  • 11:53:53

    SELINGOIn this Pure Research Center survey that we did, we asked people what's needed to succeed most in life, and college was actually number four. A good work ethic, knowing how to get along with people and work skills learned on the job were higher.

  • 11:54:05

    REHMJeff Selingo of "The Chronicle of Higher Education," and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Port Huron, Mich. Good morning, Matt.

  • 11:54:19

    MATTYes, good morning. I have two comments there. I graduated in '02, went to school with a lot of kids that chose to go to college and I find that a lot of them have graduated with these degrees, lots of debts and now find themselves looking for work. And I chose not to go to college. I have a stable city job and make a good living and I think...

  • 11:54:41

    REHMTell me what kind of work -- what kind of work do you do Matt?

  • 11:54:45

    MATTI drive a truck and work on a farm.

  • 11:54:48


  • 11:54:49

    MATTAnd I make a wage of about $50,000 a year and have health insurance and I find that it's a respectful, you know, real honest line of work. But I think some of the problem, too, is that everybody's talking now that college is the necessary thing when a lot of these kids come out of high school that don't know how to write a check, don't know how to manage debt and haven't been properly prepared to go to college or to get a job and have a real life.

  • 11:55:18

    BRAYIt's, you know, I'm so glad you called in. That's the value of career and technical education, actually, is that it provides you -- those students who are in CTE actually are learning those valuable life skills, work skills. They understand the workplace, the communication, the analytical skills.

  • 11:55:37

    BRAYThey really have the opportunity to explore those things that interest them and learn whether it's a trade or it's the beginning of, I want to be. We talked about veterinarian school, you know. A veterinarian technician to determine whether or not I want to go that way and this point I can also get a job to help me pay my way through college if I decide to go forward.

  • 11:55:59

    BRAYSo we've got to start at a much earlier age. Every student in high school should go through career and technical education because at some point in their life, every student's going to go into the world of work and my question is, when are we going to start helping them figure out where their place is in that world of work?

  • 11:56:18

    REHMJames Altucher, any final comment?

  • 11:56:22

    ALTUCHERWell, I think also, I agree with the fact that we need to encourage students to not always think about Plato, but to think about the technical skills they need to learn for trade vocations. But also, we're missing out on, again, the achievement-oriented people, who in prior decades might've been inventing, you know, Intel or, you know, starting great companies like Bill Gates, who chose not to finish college.

  • 11:56:45

    ALTUCHERYou know, there's a group of kids out there who would've been entrepreneurs and taken America to the next level and instead now, we're, you know, bringing them down with debt and I think that's a shame.

  • 11:56:56

    REHMAll right. We'll have to leave it at that. Clearly a discussion that raises a great many issues. James Altucher, Claudia Dreifus, Jan Bray, Jeff Selingo, thank you all so much.

  • 11:57:12


  • 11:57:13

    REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 11:57:16

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.

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