If You Want to a Degree in Religious and Women’s Studies…

Don’t borrow $100,000 to attend NYU.

That’s the bottom line of this New York Times article about the overwhelming debt one graduate took on to go there.

This is exactly the kind of thing that happens when kids are told they are special and should study whatever their hearts desire – the money will come later. That’s fine: as long as you don’t have to pay off student loans.

Is the school at fault for allowing the student to amass such a huge debt with such a degree? In this case since the school knew the total of her debt and counseled her to go deeper into it to finish her degree, absolutely. But the truth is that had the student graduated with a degree in one of the hard sciences, math, compsci or even pre-law she would be able to justify the debt.

Her problem, abetted by the idiots at the NYU financial aid department, was that she didn’t think long term and ask herself: Why am I going to school for four years and accumulating this debt? What makes this education worth the effort and expense?

I am no expert in education, but two decades in the private sector makes me suspect that an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies isn’t worth four years anywhere let alone at NYU. For the wealthy, perhaps. Or if the student wanted to go to graduate school and end up teaching the subject in academia sometime. At the very least had she studied at a state school she would not have accumulated a debt that cost $10k/year to service.

But the bigger problem that her situation highlights is that most degrees offered by colleges are a waste of money. A liberal arts degree is interesting and challenging. Getting one or two of them is great – if they are free or you have cash to burn. Just don’t expect an employer to offer you a job that pays much above minimum wage.

You don’t need a college class to learn about anything. There is no reason that the NYU grad couldn’t have studied women on her own. Since graduating I’ve taught myself several subjects the old fashioned way: by reading books. Some of these books were even used in college courses, but I didn’t need to pay tuition to learn what was in them.

Now don’t get me wrong: there are important reasons to go to college. Colleges have access to laboratory facilities that the layman doesn’t. It’s nearly impossible outside of a college or university to achieve the required level of learning in fields like law and medicine. But then again, that’s why we have law and medical schools. Colleges are just weeders for pre-law and pre-med who can’t hack it and study something else, like women.

Colleges have become baby sitters for kids who don’t want to grow up. That’s fine if they are willing and able to pay for it, but if neither is possible, then it’s time to get a job that pays the bills and grab a book that expands the mind for a much lower price.

Glenn Reynolds weighs in.

8 Reasons College Tuition is the Next Bubble. What’s interesting is what is going to happen when there are more students like the NYU student in the original article posted above. Having been in debt most of my life what I’ve learned that they don’t teach you in Economics 101 is that debt limits your choices. It chains you to a job that you don’t like, or a house that you can’t afford to leave, and prevents you from doing new things: switching careers, say, or leaving town and moving across the country to start fresh. You can’t do those things when you have to cut a check on the first or fifteenth of every month. Of course with college you can always get your loans suspended if you go back – which means going deeper into debt. To quote Admiral Akbar, “It’s a trap!” and a particularly insidious one at that.

Update 3:
The LA Times notes that 7 of the 10 fastest growing employment sectors do not require college degrees.

“People with bachelor’s degrees will increasingly get not very highly satisfactory jobs,” said W. Norton Grubb, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Education. “In that sense, people are getting more schooling than jobs are available.”

He noted that in 1970, 77% of workers with a bachelor’s degree were employed in professional and managerial occupations. By 2000, that had fallen to 60%.

It also mentions that well-paying white collar jobs requiring degrees – like computer programming – are vulnerable to offshoring. Heh. Yep.

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  1. Watcher of Weasels » Council Submissions June 2, 2010:

    [...] The Razor – If You Want to a Degree in Religious and Women’s Studies… [...]

  2. Scott Kirwin:

    Posted from Facebook:

    Agamemnon writes:

    I have to disagree with you on aspects of your article. Although I don’t disagree with your overall conclusion (that the degree just wasn’t worth the tuition paid), I have problems with your reasons for getting there.

    I think liberal arts is exactly the sort of thing that should be emphasized at college, not relegated to adult self-study. I think we have suffered as a result of the basics being de-emphasized on campuses. Directed study of the liberal arts should teach one how to think and reason in an effective way, preparing students for either more in-depth research or study at the graduate level, or for careers the business, government or academic worlds. My History BA (from a relatively inexpensive state university), for example, gave me the intellectual skills needed for my graduate work and subsequent private sector experience in international trade and my later government career. Learning the historical method taught me to not take things at face value and my study of languages (including Latin at SLUH) has aided me throughout my career. (I can’t tell you how many times the study of Agamemnon has helped me navigate interoffice politics!)

    The problems faced by the woman in the article (and many people I know personally) is a reflection of the general lack of basic financial literacy in society. Perhaps her problem could have been nipped in the bud if she had simply taken a basic Econ course in her first semester. Maybe there she would have learned about cost analysis.

  3. Scott Kirwin:

    I don’t regret my PoliSci degree that I got from UC San Diego and left me only $12k in debt. And the best course I ever took in terms of my IT career has been the study of Logic, a freshman philosophy class. But I could afford the liberal arts study because I studied at low cost state schools.

    My first year at Loyola I studied Finance. Had I continued with the degree I could have justified staying at Loyola because the starting salaries for that degree ranged from $60-80k. But my true love was Political Science, so I couldn’t justify spending $12k a year on a degree that would have left me saddled with debt and limited job prospects after graduation.

    Philosophically, I agree with you on the importance of liberal arts education. Unfortunately the private sector doesn’t attach that much importance to the degree as we do. This leaves a student with the following choices:

    1. Study liberal arts at a private university. Unless their parents pay for this education, they will graduate with a dangerous amount of debt and limited capacity to repay it.

    2. Study liberal arts at a public university like we did. Low debt with low starting salaries but long term moderate-high earning potential made this an optimum choice for us. Unfortunately I’m not sure students have that choice today thanks to the budget problems states face and the cost of education that outpaces inflation every year.

    3. Don’t study liberal arts at a college – or do so later in life.

    What else can a student do?

    One reader noted that after her debt and housing payments she still had $850 left over. That’s a lot of money for a single person, so perhaps her situation isn’t that dire.

    But allowing her to default on the loans or blaming Citibank for giving her the money is wrong. My wife has $200k in education debt that she has started paying off and allowing students to default so easily on their debts isn’t fair to those of us who write $1,666 checks to AES every month.

    Second, Citibank only funded her loans because it was a safe investment. Make default easier and private banks will avoid student loans. This will make it more difficult for thousands of other students who need the money.

  4. Bookworm Room » Watchers Council nominations:

    [...] The Razor – If You Want to a Degree in Religious and Women’s Studies… [...]

  5. donald:

    reading this article makes me think The WSJ reported on July 17, 2008 about the declining value of the four year college degree in the U.S. According to the article, the degree is less of a guarantee for pay advances as it used to be in the past. However, compared to the average person with a high school diploma, someone who has a four year college degree still makes about 75% more on average.

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