Why go to college?

Tea Leaf Nation has a post up on a micro-trend of Chinese kids not going to college, or at least one parent not being willing to pay for it, on the grounds that “Today, even peddlers who collect garbage…make more money than many graduates.” This is also something of a trend in the U.S., where some rich people also think that college may be a waste of time.

College is of course not a universal of all human societies. Even in America lots of people have happy, productive lives without ever going there. Most of the Americans saying that you should not go to college seem to be among the 1% who are extremely wealthy, and for them there is a point in not going. Why beat your brains out getting a degree if all it gets you is a shot at a $100,000 a year job? Great, that will keep you in toilet paper, but as a child of privilege why bother?1 College used to be one of the tickets to the middle class, but as the U.S. abandons the model of the universal middle class society college attainment may shrink. A lot. If the only life choices are Wal-mart greeter vs. Wal-mart greeter with college debt, OR idle rich vs. idle rich who used to write term papers and shared a bathroom why go to college?

China is trying to create a universal middle class society 小康,2 but college there has, until recently, been something to mark out an elite, not define a middle class. As Tea Leaf Nation points out, Chinese colleges have been expanding exponentially in recent years, and there is no way that you can fully maintain standards which that much expansion. Nor does just going to college make you a member of an elite nowadays, as much as the hordes of entrance-exam takers may hope it will.

In the last years of the Qing, when Western-style education was expanding far more rapidly than you could find qualified teachers, everybody who could get it wanted a degree, since it marked you as a member of an elite, even if you had not learned much. By the 1920’s the figure of the semi-employed college grad became more common. Just having been to college no longer guaranteed a job or elite status.

I suspect China is going through a similar transition now. The Chengdu dad in the TLN story may well be right about college. If Dad has pulled in enough cash to be one of China’s new rich,and the kid did not get into Beida or Oxford, (which would give her elite status) what exactly does she need to go to college for? You can start your own business or get on the corporate ladder in China without a degree, so it is not an entry ticket for the middle class. It’s not as subsidized by the state as it used to be either. You can spend some serious money on college. If your career goal is to or schmooze your Daddy’s rich friends, China does not have a proper set of ‘playground for rich kids’ schools as of yet.

Jimmy Stewart, the famous actor, grew up in the town my college is in. He went to Princeton, which was a school for the wealthy, or like him the well-off. My school was here then, but it was called a Normal school because it was intended to educate teachers, one of the few classes of people besides rich kids who were felt to need to go to college. The vast middle range of modern American higher ed did not exist then, and I suspect the U.S. is moving back towards that model. In China the process of sorting out universities into different categories is a lot less advanced, but I suspect the trend will continue (it did in the 1930’s) They even have a bit of anti-intellectualism, Red in the Chinese case rather than Red, White and Blue, to push the trend along.


  1. Yes, beer and sex, but what else? 

  2. They apparently don’t realize that public education and free health care will lead to ..Socialism! 

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