Jewish World Review November 21, 2002 / 16 Kislev, 5763

Marty Nemko

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Consumer Reports

Beware of going
back to school -- I am a career counselor, having worked with almost 2,000 clients.

So many of my clients have been disappointed with their college and graduate school experience. They found many courses of little use. They wonder if there might not have been a better use of the money and years of their lives.

Many students never even "get the piece of paper." Nationally, only 1/3 of freshmen graduate in four years. 55% never graduate. They drop out having wasted much time, money, and self-esteem. Decades later, many of them still think of themselves as losers because they couldn't finish college.

Imagine that your physician recommends a treatment that will take you years to complete and cost you many thousands of dollars. He fails to disclose that the treatment probably won't work. What would you do if the treatment didn't work for you? Right. You'd sue, and you'd win in any court in the land. Yet, colleges routinely fail to disclose the odds of its "treatment" working yet not only do we not sue, we continue to fund colleges richly with our tax dollars and alumni donations.

Many of my clients attended college or grad school, confident that the piece of paper, if not the education, would prepare them for a rewarding career. For many of them, especially those in the social "sciences," it has not. I feel particularly sorry for those who took five, six, sometimes ten years to complete a bachelor's degree only to find an oversupply of bachelor's degree holders. That forced them to take jobs selling plumbing supplies, driving an airport shuttle bus, etc. Even sadder, many of those people, unable to land decent employment, went on for a graduate degree and were still unable to land a job commensurate with their education. Now they are hugely in debt, feeling they've largely wasted some of the most productive years of their lives.

Colleges get away providing a low-quality education because students blame themselves for not being smart or hard-working enough to learn the massive amount of unnecessarily difficult, boring, often irrelevant material required. It's no coincidence that many successful people had the clearheadedness to drop out of college: 7 US Presidents from Washington to Truman, Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Maya Angelou, Walter Cronkite, Robert Redford, and Eleanor Roosevelt, to name just a few. (ABC-TV's Peter Jennings dropped out of high school!)

More important, colleges get away with providing a low-quality education by trumpeting that degree holders earn more. That is true, but that doesn't mean colleges educate students well. Degree holders earn more because they're brighter and more motivated. You could lock them in a closet for four years and they'll earn more. Degree holders also earn more because employers screen out degree-less applicants. I've found though, that job seekers can often compensate by adding just one paragraph to their application letters, for example:

I believe I'm worth a look because I don't have an M.B.A. Having heard that most people use little of what they learned in graduate school, I decided to go outside the box and craft a more useful education. (He inserted what he did to acquire relevant expertise: mentorships, workshops, reading, etc.) But now comes the moment of truth. I believe I prioritized substance over form, but will you interview (or promote) me?"

Mightn't you consider that job applicant?


Before going back to school, think of whether you might not be better off at what I call You U, in which you find a mentor to help you craft a learning plan consisting of articles, book chapters, in-person or online extension courses, workshops offered by your professional association, and on-the-job training.

Higher education must change greatly if it is to continue to avoid the media's scrutiny, and certainly if it wants to rise from being one of America's most overrated products to the invaluable one it markets itself as.

JWR contributor Dr. Marty Nemko is a career and education counselor in Oakland, California and hosts "Work With Marty Nemko," Sundays 11 to noon on KALW, 91.7FM. He is co-author of Cool Careers for Dummies. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Dr. Marty Nemko