How the American Higher Education System Became a Factory for Bullshit Jobs

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Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash

On the night of my graduation dinner from business school, I walked over to my study abroad coordinator and asked “what exactly does assistant dean of students (name omitted) do here?

She looked at me with a blank stare. I said “he doesn’t do shit does he?” She replied “no comment”

At the career center at my business school, a counselor was telling Indian students to change their names to sound more American. This was 2009 and NOBODY thought to get rid of the guy despite dozens of complaints by students. With leadership this negligent, it’s the people at the top who should have been fired.

When I grilled the dean for an hour in her town hall, another student said “you didn’t go easy on her?” I explained that she might think the president of the university is her boss. But my tuition dollars pay her salary, so I have a right to hold her accountable. In fact, it’s the responsibility of college and graduate students everywhere to hold the leaders of educational institutions accountable. They might be the leaders, but you are the ones in charge.

In one of my most opinionated moments, I suggested my business school close the career office, divide everyone’s salaries by the number of the students, and issue us a refund. Needless to say, this didn’t make me popular with the career office, and I don’t get invited back to speak to the University. My brother in law joked “and you’re probably one of their most well known alumni”

While I had the finesse of a bull in a china shop, the issues at my alma mater point to a much bigger problem.

How did higher education get so expensive?

Usually, when the price of a product goes up, it’s because an organization has made substantial improvements to that product. But that’s not the case with higher education. Most people are getting less of an ROI on the investment in their education than ever before.

The rising cost of tuition is due to the fact that American institutions of higher education have become factories for what the author David Graeber calls bullshit jobs. These bullshit jobs don’t belong to the professors, the students who bust their asses to be pay tuition by working part-time or the grad students.

They belong to the administrators.

Universities manufacture bullshit jobs like assistant dean, vice provost, and staff their offices with other unnecessary positions. Then, they pass the cost on to students, who are left with an insurmountable mountain of debt.

The administrator to student ratio is out of whack.

If you want the tuition to go down, protest every time another unnecessary person with a six-figure bullshit job is added to the university staff. Seriously.

Revolutions don’t happen by putting up with shit. They happen by taking a stand against it. If college students across America refused to go to class until tuition was reduced or made free, leadership would have to listen. If you’re a millennial reading this, why not use social media to organize college students across the country instead of taking yet another selfie.

Use your phone to start a revolution instead of writing another status update.

American higher education is not a public service. It’s a business. In any other business, this kind of product would ensure you’ll be out of business.

The Economic Impact of Student Loan Debt

Student loan debt can’t be forgiven through bankruptcy. But if you start .a for-profit college (aka a business), screw over a bunch of students, and declare bankruptcy, your debts will be forgiven. You might even get a job as the secretary of education. If that’s not a broken system that rewards bad actors, I don’t know what is.

This insurmountable debt has systemic consequences. People don’t start families buy houses, start businesses or do things that move the economy forward.

Those who are personally not affected, act out of self-interest and say “well, maybe they shouldn’t.’ But they forget it’s their economy too. It’s an interdependent system. Systemic consequences affect everyone within a system. The housing bubble affected many people who didn’t have houses or mortgages. Most of the graduating class at my business school was unemployed because of something they had nothing to do with.

It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to know that you can only keep lending money without getting it back until there are systemic consequences. You’d have to be an idiot not to see this. And we’ve seen the ripple effects of that before. But the long term impact of an education system on the brink of collapse might be far more severe than the economic crisis.

I encourage you to listen to this episode of Hidden Brain

The Mythical Narrative an elite college leads to a better life

The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid and lost with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing, but with no idea why they’re doing it. — William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep

A prevailing cultural narrative is that going to an elite school will lead to a better job, better life, etc. But look at the data and that turns out not to be true.

Chase Jarvis on The Unmistakable Creative Podcast

I come from a family of academics and people who attended elite colleges. My dad is a professor, and he even says the cost of tuition at the university where teaches is insane. Elite colleges are in many ways breeding grounds for conformity. They’re about choosing from the options in front of you and crossing off the checkboxes of society’s life plan.

One of the problems is that schools and our educational system, and even our way of raising children replaces curiosity with compliance. And once you replace the curiosity with the compliance, you get an obedient factory worker, but you no longer get a creative thinker. And you need creativity, you need the ability to feed your own brain to learn whatever you want. — Naval Ravikant

Paul Graham has said the following about the founders who come to Ycombinator, many of who have been to elite schools.

I learned from experience to keep completely open mind about which start ups in each batch would turn out to be the stars. The founders sometimes thought they knew. Some arrived feeling confident that they would ace Y Combinator just as they had aced every one of the few easy artificial tests they had faced in life so far

Scott Galloway, who is a professor at an elite school has said that top schools are no longer educational institutions. They are luxury brands.

Students have never had more power to change this. But as one of my Indian friends joked, “even if you can convince people, the Indians will still show up in class.”

Avoiding a revolution to get good grades is making a long-term sacrifice for a short term gain. But start a revolution and you might just end up making history.

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