Is college worth it? Author Interview

I really enjoyed reading Is College Worth It? by Bill Bennett and David Wilezol.  It delivers a fantastic word of caution in a day when too many assume college is for everyone, even as a soft economy has left many under-employed (or unemployed) graduates saddled with a mountain of debt.  It’s a very balanced book: Bennett and Wilezol paint an accurate picture of what things make college worthwhile and what factors might compel a person to take another route. (At the end of the book, the authors apply their perspective to twelve divergent scenarios, offering advice on whether or not the person should go to college, and if so, to what kind of college.)

I’m delighted that David Wilezol, associate producer for Bill Bennett’s Morning in America and a graduate student at Catholic University in Washington, DC, was willing to answer a few questions for us about the book.

What prompted your interest in this topic?

As a liberal arts graduate with student debt who was laid off from my first job during the recession, I had begun questioning the value of my degree shortly after graduation. More recently, Bill and I had both read a number of stories in the news about the high levels of debt and unemployment or underemployment among recent graduates. So we wanted to address this problem from a public policy perspective, but also wanted to write something of a guide for parents and students that encouraged them to think more carefully about the financial consequences of a college degree.

Which undergraduate majors are currently in high demand?  Which aren’t?

The majors with the highest demand right now are STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines, particularly for jobs in the oil and gas services sector. Health sciences (including nursing) and IT are also pretty in demand. Liberal arts and social sciences, as usual, are less desirable. Some recent surveys of CEOs have said that they like to hire liberal arts majors for their critical and creative thinking skills, but hiring managers toward the bottom of an organization don’t want to take chances, and can be more choosy about who they hire in a down economy.

Surveys show that students going to college are primarily motivated by the hope of making money and getting a “better” job.  Have they always been thus motivated?  Why such a trend?

I think people have always recognized the financial benefits of higher education, even going back to the G.I. Bill after World War II, which really set in motion the higher education juggernaut we see today. And the numbers do quite convincingly show that , on average, more education produces a better chance of employment and better earnings. The problem is that these are just averages, and that many people are hurting themselves by believing they need a B.A. when they have more inclination and skill for other kinds of professions that still pay well but don’t need a B.A.

Is getting a high-paying job the only reason for going to college? You seem to (conditionally) celebrate the liberal arts tradition. 

Getting a high-paying job is not the only reason for college, but 88% of students replied that it was a motivation for being in school. We do celebrate the classical liberal arts tradition because it is (in my view) the best set of disciplines for understanding the human condition. Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, etc. do reveal human nature in ways that we can’t always see for ourselves. The problem is that the humanities have become professionalized and dominated by the idiosyncratic research interests of the professors teaching them. So they create meaning in texts where it is often not found, or make them inaccessible to people because of “avant-garde” interpretations.

(note from Alex: One of the places you can see this 88% figure is on page 4 of The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2012 survey.)

Bill Gates and Gov. Scott of Florida have both suggested that state universities consider lowering tuition for those pursuing STEM fields. What do you think of this concept? 

I think it’s a great idea for getting students to study things that can help them get jobs and help the country recover economically and compete with the rest of the world.

Wouldn’t it exacerbate the dilemma of a liberal arts graduate—a double whammy, she pays more for college, and has lower earning potential upon graduation?

Liberal arts graduates have traditionally earned less, but people studying English or history or philosophy do it for the love of the material. It’s all a question of expectations and tradeoffs: what are you willing to live with? And there’s no rule against double majoring or minoring in a subject if you’re concerned that your classics major won’t make you enough money.

You seem to commend students pursuing community colleges and four-year, state universities in order to lower their expenses. What do you say to the argument (advanced by Archibald and others) that these institutions have been grossly underfunded, particularly in the wake of the recent economic recession? 

States have hard decisions to make with their budgets. Medicaid costs are, and have been, putting a strain on things for a while. In reality, states should consider diverting more money to community colleges and away from four year schools. I would be more sympathetic to complaints that four year state schools are underfunded if the schools themselves were better stewards of the funds that they already have. Too much is being spent on professors who pursue their own research to the exclusion of teaching, massive administrative bloat, sports programs that lose money at most schools, and fancy amenities for students.

You criticize the ascendancy of postmodernism in the liberal arts departments of many colleges, but you also advise students to attend a big-name school (e.g., Harvard) if they’re lucky enough to be admitted. Explain this apparent tension. Are you suggesting that big-name schools have not bought into postmodernism?  Or that career prospects make some mumbo-jumbo worth putting up with?  Or?

I would say yes, that excellent career prospects that come with an Ivy League education (because of the brand, not the in-class content) are worth putting up with some indoctrination. But if a student is sensitive to concerns about indoctrination, and passionate about learning, or doesn’t feel that that is the best use of their dollars, then that might not be the best fit for them. Again, it’s a question of tradeoffs. There’s no uniform answer.

What would be the least controversial, yet meaningful reform that higher education policy makers should adopt? The “lowest hanging fruit” if you will.

Federal student lending should be tied to academic persistence. Your performance in the classroom should help determine the amount of loans you are allowed to take out. It’s no different than car or home loans – people with bad credit can’t get loans for those products, so why should a bad student get a loan for an educational product? This would help protect poorly performing students from borrowing, for instance, $75,000 for an anthropology degree.

Your last sentence brings to mind: Should federal student lending also be tied to the marketability of the student’s academic major?

I think that we should have that conversation, but I’m a little conflicted. A good student shouldn’t be punished with having less ability to pay for school just because they want to study something that is less likely to get them a good job. But at the same time, having more financial leeway for more remunerative majors, especially STEM majors, is a good incentive to get people into those majors, which the economy needs. It’s a hard question, because you’re also disregarding the extra-vocational aspect of college, which is learning for its own sake, which people still value tremendously.

After questioning your liberal arts degree and getting laid off from your first job, you’ve chosen to go back to graduate school in Greek and Latin at Catholic University in Washington, DC.  What do you hope to do when you graduate?

I’m really happy right now working for Bill Bennett, and I would like to do that as long as possible. But I’m leaving my future options open for working in education policy or government – whatever is best to help me pay down my loans! I’m a Christian, so I try not to think about the future too much and just trust that God will adequately provide for my material needs.

Thanks, David for taking the time to talk with us. You heard the man, he needs to pay back those loans. So pick up a copy of Is College Worth It? today.  It’s a great read!

3 Responses to “Is college worth it? Author Interview”

  1. Erik Haugen July 2, 2013 at 7:54 am #

    I wonder how many people who would do well, be happy, and thrive in STEM majors and jobs really need encouragement to go into those fields. I’d be concerned about the unintended consequences of artificially lower tuition for STEM majors; will people who shouldn’t go into those majors/careers and hate it?

    I’m not pretending to know the answer, but central planning hardly ever seems to turn out so well.

    • Alex Chediak July 2, 2013 at 8:00 am #

      That’s a great question. My guess would be that unprepared students would fail out (as STEM profs tend to be unrelenting in their standards), and the problem would self-correct before graduation. Even now, I think the nationwide graduation rate in engineering disciplines is something like 50%. So there’s already attrition to other majors. Perhaps that grad rate would decrease somewhat.


  1. Check out | HeadHeartHand Blog - July 4, 2013

    […] Is College Worth it? Alex Chediak interviews David Wilezol, co-author with  Bull Bennett of the new book, Is College Worth it? On the same subject, here’s Thanks for Nothing, College! […]

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