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I Asked Academia's Most Vocal Critic Why College Is a Waste

"There was a time when the university was a place of the mind where you expected academic freedom, where if you graduated from that university you'd actually be an educated person. Those things aren't necessarily true anymore."

Allie Conti

Allie Conti

Thumbnail image via Flickr user DonkeyHotey

I graduated from college in 2011, right in the middle of the recession. I also went to graduate school at great financial cost, which is something I will have to reckon with for the rest of my adult life. While I believe that higher education is valuable, I also did not pursue a PhD because it seemed like a fool's errand. Adjuncts live in poverty in hopes of getting a tenured position that is almost impossible to obtain, and the Science Wars of the 90s, which culminated in a physicist trolling a post-modern academic journal by publishing a fake paper, strongly influenced my decision to stop at a Master's.

Meanwhile, Charles Sykes, an author and senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, has spent most of his life railing against the academy and has written multiple books about how college degrees have become increasingly worthless. It's not hard to see his point when graduates are saddled with student loan debt and many people with Bachelor's are taking barista gigs or moving back in with their parents. I spoke with him about his latest work, Fail U (out August 9 on St. Martin's Press), which explores many of the issues facing students and universities today, including the education bubble, as well as if going to college is worth it at all. As Sykes describes the text, it's an "I told you so book," since a lot of the criticisms he laid out in his first book on higher education published in 1988 have not only gained mainstream acceptance, but the issues have actually gotten worse.

I spoke to the author about why fewer people should be pursuing four-year degrees, the fallacy of college for all, and how all of his fears about the state of higher education have come to fruition in the latest stage of America's culture wars.

VICE: Your book delves into the education bubble, the concept of microaggressions, and the so-called "kangaroo courts" that deal with allegations of on-campus rape. Is there a thesis that ties it all together?
Charles Sykes: Yeah, basically it's that college costs too much, takes too long, and offers dubious value to too many students. That would be the short version. Higher education has been able to get away with this stuff because people were willing to pay anything. And I think at a certain point––like when you've got $1.3 trillion in student loan debt––people are starting to ask, "What am I getting for these dollars? What's going on there?"

You've been writing about the same topic for decades. How has your thesis changed since you wrote your first book?
[Fail U] is a labor of love, because it's kind of an "I told you so" book. It's a revisiting of something that I wrote 28 years ago. The background is that my dad was kind of a maverick professor and a recovering journalist. And back then he wrote an article for a magazine that I was editing about professors who didn't teach that much, and the kind of bizarre, unreadable research that replaced actual teaching. It was kind of a funny article, but it was very punchy.

So we published it, and out of that article came my first book, ProfScam, which talked about the flight from teaching, the abandonment of undergraduates, and the fact that colleges had become too fat and bloated. And back then I thought, "People are gonna want to address this, people are gonna want to reform this, there's gonna be real change." And of course that was incredibly naive and nothing really changed. But it started an interesting debate, and this was my chance to look back 28 years later and say, "Why is every single thing I wrote about in that book worse [today]?"

You wrote your first book before the Sokal Affair happened, right? How validating was that, and do you feel like the scientific realists lost that battle of the culture wars given the proliferation of postmodern academic gibberish that comprises many people's dissertations?
You have no idea. When the Sokal thing took place, that academic fraud, it was one of those moments that every author has where they go, "I wish I could have included that in my book." It validated everything. It answered the question of, "What would happen if I wrote a paper of absolute gibberish? Would I be able to get the academy to take it seriously?" And we all know what happened.

It's an ongoing fight, although I do think that the Sokal scandal left a real mark. There's no question about it. But you do have these pockets in academia that can go on without being held accountable, because they can. It was a moment where you kind of turn on the spotlight and reveal what's going on, and it's actually kind of hilarious. No one ever gives up anything in academia because they all have tenure and they all have their own journals. As long as they get published, they're gonna continue to do it. But that was kind of a turning point.

Universities are willing to charge [students] as much tuition as they're willing to get out of them, but undergraduate teaching is just not a priority, and hasn't been one for a very long time—Charles Sykes

In your book, you talk about how cash is becoming scarce at universities and that some of them are shuttering. How is that possible when tuition is now basically the cost of a house? And how do operational costs increase as the number of underpaid adjuncts soars?
Well that is the heart of the book. Students are being asked to pay more and more, and the quality is increasingly questionable. What was most eye-opening, even for me, is that more than 70 percent of people teaching in academia today are part-timers or part of this academic underclass. And I think it's because universities are just not that focused on students. They are willing to charge them as much tuition as they're willing to get out of them, but undergraduate teaching is just not a priority, and hasn't been one for a very long time.

I think that's why there is the moment where we might possibly be able to reform higher education. Because of exactly what you said––we have this massive bubble, and people are going, Wait, wait wait. I'm basically spending $50,000 a year on tuition and I wasn't getting many real professors in the classroom. What's that about? And it goes to this academic culture of hiring and promoting teachers not by the quality of their teaching, but by research, some of which is quality and some of which is just junk.

How did we get to the point that an emphasis on teaching is considered professional suicide?
What happens in higher education is that the lower-tier schools want to raise their prestige by becoming the Harvard of North Dakota, and the way that we do that is by emphasizing the research as opposed to the teaching. So you have the kind of pressure that you used to have at the big research universities not being put on the professors at schools that used to pride themselves on teaching students.

So how do we reverse the course to get the emphasis back on students?
That's the big question. I thought that when I wrote my first book that there would be pushback by students demanding better quality education and that people would realize at some point that the pendulum has swung too far away. But nothing happened. How do you turn a battleship in a bathtub? When you think about how technology has changed every other industry––entertainment, the media, transportation––I want to know why we still have brick-and-mortar colleges that operate the way they did in the Middle Ages. Is it possible that students could use new technology to complete a college education in two years or three years as opposed to four years? What's sacred about four years? I think part of it is that students need to stand up for themselves, and parents are going to have to stop writing these giant checks, and trustees are going to have to say that these universities are going to have to start paying more attention to the education they actually provide, as opposed to just building more Taj Mahals.

Can you address some of the proposals from the left on how to deal with rising student debt, like the idea of debt-free college?
There's two really huge underlying problems here: The cost of education, and the value that students get for it. The problem is that the free tuition doesn't fix anything. If history is any guide, bailouts make problems worse. Higher education is so expensive because they get the free money that gives them an excuse not to fix anything. So ideas like free tuition would shift costs to the taxpayers, many of whom don't have college educations. And I think, quite frankly, it will make higher education more expensive. Because the track record is that the more free money they have, the more they spend. But in terms of debt reduction, I think we should explore refinancing student debt and making it easier to repay. The free tuition idea, though, I think would backfire badly. It would pump a whole bunch of students into college who don't need to be there or belong there. And it would take [the university] off the hook because we're picking up the tab.

This whole idea of "college for all" is basically a hoax... and I think many students have been conned.

Should fewer people be going to college, and is the root of the problem an inability or unwillingness to accept that not everyone's kids should wade into academia?
Yeah. And politicians don't want to say this––although I will give Hillary Clinton credit for saying in her speech that not everybody needs to have a four-year college degree. She's absolutely right. This whole idea of "college for all" is basically a hoax. First of all, not everybody needs a college degree. Not everybody can do college work. There are a lot of people who would be extremely happy doing other things. We have too many students going to college. There are millions of students who have gone to college, who are not academically prepared for it, who have taken on debt, who have then dropped out with the debt load, and the wage premium for those students is absolutely zero. And I think those students have been conned.

I think I just missed the culture of microaggression by a couple of years, and I don't really understand it or where it came from. When did this phenomenon begin, and is this similar to the PC movement of the 90s in the sense that it will eventually recede?
It's a sort-of culmination of the idea that we need to bubble-wrap children. You go to a university because you want to expand your thinking. If you don't want to see or hear things that make you uncomfortable, you should go to a Trappist monastery or stay in your mom's basement. When you go to a university, you have to understand that you don't have a right to not be offended. You don't need to go into a safe room to watch a movie about puppies because someone is giving a speech that you disagree with. So I think this is one of those things because the university is a hermetically sealed bubble, we've multiplied administrators and created these programs––but I do think there's a backlash.

How does this digression about microagressions fit into your larger point? Do you think that because today's students go unchallenged, it makes their degrees more worthless?
I don't want to be misunderstood that the point of college is to get a good job. That's not my point. I actually believe in the humanities and developing the life of the mind. So the question is, at the very moment when people are questioning the value of a college education, what happens is that you have this outburst of sort-of ideological conformity, the searching out of microaggressions. It's sort of ironic that tolerance has taken on this new meaning. So that just reinforces the doubts about the wisdom and the value of what's passing for higher learning.

I'm not that old, and this wasn't a thing that people talked about when I went to college. Granted I went to school in Florida, but when did this take hold?
I don't know. That's an excellent question. Part of what's happened is that the kind of people attracted to higher education and to the administration tend to be people who have either bought into a touchy-feely approach to some of these issues, or people who are either just absolutely terrified that people will be offended. But one of the things that have catalyzed this, to be quite honest with you, is the way that the federal government has forced universities to make sure they're not hostile environments in any way. Once somebody says, "I feel unsafe," that triggers a whole host of federal laws and rules and regulations. I used to be able to say, "I think you're a Fascist and I disagree with you." That was the old political correctness. The new political correctness is saying, "I feel unsafe." And then all these bureaucracies question whether that's going to trigger some sort of federal discrimination action.

I understand the educational bubble part of your book, and you've just clarified your point about microagressions. But can you explain how the bits about the panic over sexual assault fits into your thesis? It seems like a weird jag that might undermine your other points.
OK, that's a fair question. But part of it is questioning what's happening on university campuses in terms of things like due process and the pressures on faculty members and the students. If you were gonna send your son or daughter to an institution and basically be driving a BMW off a cliff every year, what are you gonna expect? In a time that people are wondering, What exactly goes on there? and What am I getting for my money? this needs to be on the table. If you've gone through three or four years before being railroaded out [on sexual assault charges] this is a legitimate question and concern. Some of the people described in that chapter are liberal feminists who realize that there are some things that you cannot say or write about on a university campus without putting your career in jeopardy.

Can you talk about why you think schools have taken it upon themselves to handle cases of sexual assault, and how that sense of policing fits into your larger point about what the university has become?
Well that goes back to the same thing––the rules and regulations being mandated by the federal government. There was that "Dear Colleague" letter that went out from the Department of Education that basically said, "You are going to be held to a different standard of sexual assault. You don't have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt." This creates a really scary environment for students who ought to be treated fairly and reasonably. I also think that for a lot of undergraduates, what happened at the University of Virginia really reflects on what's going on in higher education today.

I would think that everybody would be better off if they had the criminal justice system [handle sexual assault allegations] as opposed to bureaucrats. One of the reasons I included that chapter was because of hearing so many stories of what you call the "kangaroo courts," which lack the concept of due process. Until you experience that, you don't have the appreciation of a criminal justice system where you actually have rights, and there's actual evidence. And so we've created these islands where your life can be destroyed. And that's the reason why I included it.

How is the concept of today's university ultimately different than the original conception of it?
Today's university gives lip service to educating students. I think this massive industrial-research complex that treats students like an afterthought has been building for some time. There was a time when the university was a place of the mind where you expected academic freedom, where if you graduated from that university you'd actually be an educated person. Those things aren't necessarily true anymore.

Fail U. is out August 9 on St. Martin's Press. Pre-order it here.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.