Stinkin’ Badges Part One
Princeton University, 1995 -Model United Nations
All board! The train is rolling through the halls of academia. I was chosen along with friend to represent our high school for a weekend among the country’s best and brightest at Princeton University. Staying on campus overnight appealed to me in the hope I might find a young female who I didn't go to school with everyday. The business at hand, international politics, was the furthest thing from our minds. While walking around I was impressed with the campus. My dorm however, like most of others there stunk of feet as no one wore socks, just loafers, or Birkenstocks. I recall asking one of the offending birken-stinkers, a friend of the student putting us up in his room, what his S.A.T. scores had been. These were the world’s smartest students, and I wondered what it might take to be on their level. I suppose in a place like this, a question like that was akin to asking someone their I.Q. I was lacking in proper etiquette and sophistication. He let me know we don’t talk about things like that here, and mentioned he was running down to “the Wah”. Wah, like grand-wah rhymes with grandpa.
I had a Wawa up the street from my home here at the Jersey Shore, but I had never heard this special abbreviation for the popular convenience store/food-market. This gentleman was from Rhode Island. I recall thinking how strange it was that this food chain located only in New Jersey or Pennsylvania at that time, had some how avoided any nicknames among the locals, but here in Princeton folks from outside the region, called it “The Wah”. I suppose they didn’t want to bother themselves with pesky extra syllables while such important things were on their minds. Things like their future, and one so bright, they had to wear shades, at night down to the Wah. They wouldn’t want to lose any opportunity to look pretentious. It was an inside thing. You had to be in the know. No one I ran into all weekend was out of the know, nor dared mention that extra extraneous Wa. Why that extra time could be used to throw on another letter after our names, solid indicators, of how accomplished we Wah. Actually, now that I think about it, one Wa had merely been replaced by the word “the”. Therefore, instead of saying “Wawa”, using “the Wa” saved them nothing. It is kind of like when we use acronyms for phrases that are shorter without them, like saying “H.O.V. lane” instead of “carpool lane”. Or a better example, abbreviating words with letters that take longer to pronounce then the word itself, as in “double you” for George W. Bush, when it is shorter to just say "Walker”. Inefficient habitual thinking. Function following form.
During the business at hand, the Model United Nations, I made the mistake of actually trying to argue a point during one of the sessions. My partner Ibrahim and I were assigned to represent China, whose policies conflicted with the passage of the bill being presented. Although it wasn’t my primary objective I thought “when in Rome”, I might try to understand the process and learn something about the political process, and I did.
A female Bengali exchange student from Cherry Hill who represented Norway sent a memo to “Ibe” (as we called him) and I, alerting us to the fact that as soon as this meaningless bill passed, we were through for the day. Then it would be time to party in this land of giants. We might not be here again. And the bill, well that was all imaginary anyway. It had no effect on our lives. Our lives await us out those doors. Let us not waste it arguing fictional positions. Just pass the bill, who cares what it says, excitement awaits us.
I found it fun arguing positions that didn’t necessarily reflect my own. It was easy to see how the logic of the situation was somewhat immaterial. Like wherein a lawyer is being asked to represent a client. There was truth of course, and then there was framing the conversation to fit our self interests. The train hasn’t yet dropped us off in Washington D.C. however, this is Ivy League. This is education. Mesonoxia has the floor for a lesson in statistics, taught at the world’s best school, the halls of Mez-un-common sense. (Originally published as “Million Dollar Myth: The Ugly Truth & Beauty of College Education by Justin Kotz G.E.D.”)
I must warn you that should you have a college degree you are likely to be offended reading this so proceed with caution. But for every time the world has conspired to have the “self-educated” people feel insecure, a pay-back is in order. Although, they’re already paying back, their student loans that is.
Ladies and gentleman, we have all heard the statistics. A person with a Bachelor's degree earns an average of one million dollars more in their lifetime than someone with a high school diploma. These numbers are usually cited from one of two sources, the Census Bureau or The College Board. What I am prepared to show you in this lecture is,
A) There are a host of variables which render the numbers woefully inaccurate.
B) A million dollars definitely does not justify the cost of college anyway. And finally,
C) That what is being measured here is NOT the value of a college degree, but rather the
success of one group of people versus another. Harvard is pretty good at picking
winners. This doesn’t necessarily mean they create them.
This is what happens when we aren’t in the habit of examining all the composite parts of situations. We accept a lot of horseshit when we live our lives without insight. My buddy at Princeton that weekend later went on to Yale. I later went on to jail. He was black, and I was white. He had solid grades but I don't believe he graduated in the top ten of our class, wasn’t valedictorian and didn’t need to be. He just needed to beat out the other black people some would say. Grumpy people. But I’m not mad at them or him. I was probably pretty fortunate not to have been black with the drug charges I would later incur. Maybe it all comes out in the wash. I don‘t know, but today we are both doing very well. We both made 6 figures last year. He makes more I'd bet. And for him, if he got a break on the cost of college, that degree from Yale is worth big bucks. But outside of that, it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be for many if not most.
Let us start with what you most likely have already heard. A person holding a high school diploma is likely to earn 1.2 million in their lifetime. A Bachelor's degree will fetch you 2.1million. A Master's degree brings 2.5million and a Doctorate 3.4 million. These are the census figures most often quoted. The College Board informs us that a B.A. will produce 800k more than a diploma lifetime. Eight or nine hundred thousand dollars sounds like a lot of money, and I suppose it is. Over the course of a lifetime however, it really isn't very much. Not when you consider that the cost of college is being paid up front or at interest, and that your return on investment is being calculated over roughly 40 years, it hardly makes much sense at all. Let us assume you begin college at 18 or 19 and obtain your B.A. at 25. You retire at 65 meaning you have worked for 40 years. Let's also assume you didn't pay interest on any loans, (WAH?!) but that your tuition was paid before you began your work life. I understand this is not generally the way it works but I just want to dramatize the point. The average cost of college tuition varies widely. It can cost anywhere between a few thousand up to and around 36k dollars a year. The College Board states the average cost of a four year degree from a public school will run you about twenty thousand dollars, 50k with room and board. The average private school is about 80-120k.
Factoring that 20% will spend over 30k a year, 20%will spend less than 6k a year, the median cost hovers somewhere around 12-16thousand without room and board. Not all will pay room and board but the majority will. These numbers do not take into account that had you not been in school, you would have most likely been earning money for four years, which even at minimum wage would wildly change the dynamic as well. If I take a realistic average four year cost without subtracting what you could earn working forty hours a week for four years and say 75k dollars, this would be quite fair. 75K dollars placed in an IRA which earns a modest 7% compound interest over forty years, without adding a nickel to the principal each year would equal 1,123,084.34. I understand 7% is considered a fantastic return right now amidst our recession but historically and while they were first generating this million dollar statistic it would have been no big deal, even while including the Great Depression. This total is a hefty amount more than the eight or nine hundred thousand, or even a million. Obviously, a Master's degree doesn't even come close. A Doctorate does much better than the Masters, but only marginally better than your B.A. Keep in mind, when we calculate what people earn in their lifetime we are also calculating their investments which show up as part of their lifetime earnings. We might be better suited teaching high-schoolers the value of a mutual fund rather than trigonometry, but we're just warming up.
The numbers cited are very favorable to our institutions of higher learning. Other estimates given by .gov websites site college tuition without room and board as averaging $24,143.00 private and $6,585 public. $100K at 7% is 1.49 million. 5% =700k. If the percentage goes up, the total earnings are naturally much higher. Say 200K for your Doctorate at9% over 36 years is 4.45 million. We can play with the numbers any which way we like, but you get the idea. We haven't yet computed or even mentioned how many people begin, but do not finish college. This would also dramatically affect the risk versus reward ratio of laying out those initial several thousand dollars, which is ultimately what the statistic is supposed to help us determine. All of this is actually quite irrelevant in the first place however, as the numbers are based on people and not pieces of paper, as you will soon see.
By now you may be thinking that I am missing the point. You derive little satisfaction from the idea that your little Billy can earn the same amount as a garbage man with a mutual fund as he can as with his MBA. You want for him all the self-esteem that accompanies a great job and a college degree is the only way of obtaining that, right?
Wrong. Let's look at two groups of people. I will make sweeping generalizations about each group, but as a group the generalizations will hold pretty true. Group A, for argument’s sake is full of bright high school students, with affluent parents, good work ethics, good study habits, stable home lives, et cetera. Group A students, as a group will go on to earn a college degree. Group B however, will be quite the opposite. Group B is not very disciplined, has lower income parents, bad grades, wrong crowd. Whatever the myriad reasons that exist in your own mind as to why a student will not go on to college, I’d like you right now to develop an avatar, a mental composite and throw all of that into Group B. Let us also now pretend that we strip the college degree away from the students in Group A.
Would the population of group A minus their degree, automatically earn the exact same amount of money over the course of forty years as the population in Group B,
if with education after high school being equal?
Does group A have a million dollars less for coffee at the Wah? Of course they don't. If we use statistics from groups to give us indications of what it will mean to us as individuals, we ought to really look at it.
Let us now pretend that we magically give the college degree and the experience to Group B. Somehow they get it together and earn a B.A. at a public or private school. Does Group B now earn the exact same income as all the well raised, good habit, good family, well-to-do population in Group A? As a group? No difference? If you can tell me they do, your college degree is worth a million bucks. If you can take the degree of Group A, remove it, give it to Group B, and Group B now earns a million dollars more than Group A, you absolutely have a magic million dollar piece of paper, a million dollar education. You would now unequivocally have a four year million dollar transfer of competence, discipline and skill. But will that happen? A million dollar switch, averaged over the group?
Not in a million years.
Our million dollar calculation doesn't compute apples to apples. It doesn't, and can't measure what one group is likely to do with or without the degree, which would give us an accurate measure of the worth of college.
It simply measures winners vs. losers,
of which a college degree is often one of the characteristics.
There are other factors as well. Income comes from a multitude of sources, such as investments. As an example, let's say Group A's parents give them money for a down payment on a home. So now they have more money to later invest somewhere else, which shows up on the stats as "earned income". It had nothing to do with their degree, but it changes the statistics. The point is, these things are correlated but do not have a cause/effect relationship. I learned all about it on PBS one day when I skipped class.
Still not convinced? Still want to go to college? Consider the real numbers. The U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling set up the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Charles Miller headed up the program and in April 2008 accused College Board President Gaston Caperton of misleading the public on the value of higher education in a public letter. In the letter, using just some of the criteria I have argued for here (such as including those who took six years to finish versus four for example) Miller concluded that the true differential between a high school diploma and Bachelor’s degree was only $279,893.
My point was that even if we allow the million dollar statistic, it still hardly makes much financial sense. We have all heard other statistics which dramatically change this equation as well, such as“1out of every 20 black men will be murdered before he turns 20”. That is a horrible statistic but let me ask you, how much do you think a dead 19 year old earns in a lifetime? For that matter, black or white, how many heroin addicts have high school diplomas? I’d venture probably quite a few. How about people in prison, high school diplomas? Tons. They earn about nine cents a day and all contribute to the numbers even though they have zero relevance to the average high school graduate looking at that million dollar statistic while deciding whether to take out a student loan or get a job. He probably isn't going to be dead, on heroin, or in prison, but those people are included in the stats he is looking at to determine how much more he can expect to earn by setting himself back by significantly more than a million dollars. When you read between the lines, a college degree looks more and more like a handicap.
Maybe you say, “Okay Justin, but I still think college is important. Great research is done at our universities and the college experience helps shape our country into an informed electorate.” This may be true but from my personal experience, having gone to college but not graduating and through sitting in on classes at Rutgers, Princeton, and Stockton Universities in New Jersey, as well as having exhausted much of The Learning Catalog courses from prestigious universities, I would pay anything to see this study done:
We take one student and put him through four years of school, and another we have sit and watch PBS on Saturday morning from 6 a.m. to 12 noon and "60 minutes" Sunday night. We have him go to the library and read one book of choice between Monday and the following Saturday morning of who and whatever he sees featured in the shows. At the end of four years we give them both a test and see who is left more competent and armed with the most pertinent and useful information on things relevant to success, general happiness and well being in this world. I'd bet a year's salary 10 to 1 it's PBS and I'd win. And I do, every day.
In my life I have seen this experiment play out for real. Despite the fact that I did attend some junior college, the last diploma that was handed to me on a stage was in 8th grade. I have, through luck, ingenuity, hard-work, and a bit of talent been able to hold positions which ordinarily require Bachelor's or Master's degrees. I am basically a group A soul without the benefit of a degree. You can tack on a few extra set-backs in my life such as felony convictions and bad habits ordinarily associated with group B. I’m and eclectic concoction. In some of my supervisory roles, I have had people working underneath me who possessed college degrees. I am thinking now of one not so particularly bright or motivated gentleman who “hunted and pecked” with two fingers when he typed. Through some not so uncommon occurrence in the American educational system this fellow managed to obtain a Bachelor's degree. You might say he was a group B'er who traded groups with me. If you have ever held a management position, you have undoubtedly encountered someone just like him, and perhaps another like me. We are both exceptions to the rule, but illustrate my point.
This guy, we will call him “Tom” earned 13 bucks an hour working for me prior to the recession, when salaries were decent I suppose. Should I remove his degree, would he now make $7 and hour? No. Tom is qualified on paper to make more than he does, but he has been placed through free market economics at about the level of competence where he belongs. The same has happened to me. If I have over-achieved with my G.E.D. and earned at least a B.A. level job here, and M.A. level money there, does that mean that if I had a B.A. I would have over-achieved to the same degree? Would I, with a Bachelor's degree suddenly be a Doctor? Of course not. On that level, I would run into the same legal restrictions I do now. The fact is, I have been placed explicitly and precisely where I belong, as did Tom, degree or no degree, Group A or Group B. His degree has tangibly provided him with nothing more than a financial burden. The absence of mine has placed very little restrictions on what I have been able to accomplish. As modest as my accomplishments may be in the grand scheme of things, they aren’t too bad for a two time felon with a G.E.D. You may be able to “get over” temporarily or be held down periodically, but you are undeniably who you are. If I read more, think more, prepare more, have better work ethic, am smarter, more diligent, have greater foresight, am more creative, speak better, and do a thousand other things better than Tom; then if you hope to turn little Billy into someone like me (removing the setbacks of course, which were actually acquired in part trying to pay for college) through a four year education, it's not going to happen. If you want to prevent him from becoming Tom, you need start a whole lot sooner than college, or continue after.
My buddy Ibrahim’s parents started early and often, with discipline, and made successes of their children. But if I took the degree away from any one of them tomorrow, they would still make eight times more than Tom did last year, every year.
Group A is Group A. Group B is Group B. Group A happens to possess more college degrees, but as Tom and I show, the degree has little bearing on which group you belong to. It gives a good clue. It is undoubtedly a solid indicator. When critically analyzed however, it is very difficult to find any reason to assign a cause/effect relationship to it. Employers will use it as a guide, but you can't hide long if you are Tom, and you won't be held back long if you are like me.
My advice is to have a plan and have it worked out. If you seek to become a doctor, lawyer, or a professional in which a degree is mandatory, of course you need to attend college. And I’m not mad at you either. If you think however, that you can simply go to school for four years and receive any random degree, and that it is going to impress anyone, or magically ensure you an extra cool mill. - those days are not only over, they never were.
Likewise, to the employer: if you want your organization to be furnished with the most competent, skilled, and hard-working employees, using a blanket discrimination against those who have in this age of diverse and widely available information and experience, chosen (wisely) to circumvent the lofty price-tag of the certifier conspiracy and obtain their skills and education in smarter, more efficient, hands on ways, will guarantee you are leaving money on the table. I promise you you’re eliminating many who would produce the best results. Pre-requisites are most certainly ensuring that half of the best candidates need not apply. So look at the resumes, take the time to interview people who may have actually accomplished something, albeit not academically - and watch your turnover rate, employee morale, cost of acquisition, and payroll cost, all dramatically improve. If there is any reason at all that graduates make more money than others, it is most likely given to the fact that employers with degrees discriminate against folks without them, and not because they know them to be less competent but because many of them need to justify to themselves why they wasted their own time and money attending college. They need to believe in their own superiority, which is not a fact.
I do believe in a society full of educated, articulate people. One should not read this and conclude the point here is not to attend college. The point, is that a certificate is a lousy substitute for knowledge and ability. A secondary, deeper point made throughout this book if you really pay attention, is that I can tell you twenty true statements in a row, but if arranged in a certain way, and missing critical context, they can add up and lead you to dramatically inaccurate conclusions. Some people definitely should skip college. But the point is more to attend with focus. That doesn’t mean simply to pay attention. You can pay attention, but with out the tools spelled out to you in Mesonoxia, meaning without operating from infinite divisibility with the right context, you miss the point.
We never know what one class, or one anything for that matter, might just change our lives. My public speaking class was taken to fill some credits, what you might call an elective. My working as a professional speaker, and a platform salesman later, was in no small part, resultant of this class. It was at least a second domino in a chain that lead to some measure of prosperity. An earlier domino was theatre or drama and improvisation classes in high school. I didn’t think at the time it was very important, just a fun class and a means to an end. I do believe college can be, could be, should be and in many instances is a great thing and worth the money. I love to learn and know that what is wrong with the world is that people aren't eclectic enough, but narrow minded, intellectually lazy, and look for simplistic explanations. I have not seen however, that college in this age of information overload is any longer a very relevant determinant in deciding who is A or B. What I do see, is complete, and I mean COMPLETE fuckin’ idiots graduating every day. They’ve brought ME their resumes and ask ME (Mr.G.E.D.) to hire them. College is not the great equalizer most think it is, in regards to earnings, but also regarding intellect, ability, compassion, or diversity. This is true especially because it is wasted mostly on young, immature, undeveloped minds of those particularly interested in it solely for the purpose of getting a better job and making more money. There are better means of gauging a person's ability, competence, and character. While most idiots don't have a college degree, any idiot can have one, and many of the best and brightest do not.
The sad truth is many employers want to employ idiots trained in a specialized knowledge. A moron proficient in one task, that doesn’t question the larger dynamics is easily manipulated and exploited. Our institutions aren’t solely to blame, but are one factor in a factory like society that churns out an assembly line populous of specialized knowledge, and some very “special” needs.
The last time I examined the Forbes top 400 billionaires; having a college degree was a 2.1 billion dollar handicap. I suppose this is because when one does not have a degree, they are more likely to continue in their passions and creative pursuits. They are more likely to become entrepreneurs when things are bleak. They are more likely to have a renegade,rebellious spirit. When you have earned a degree, you may simply take one of the first jobs you are offered for 75k and often lose the ambition, time, drive and spirit required to stay in it for the big win. You are now at work, for someone else - so you aren't inventing the next big breakthrough, and when you do, you invent it for someone else, and make them a billionaire who pays you75k. There is a secret handshake, a wink and a nod, for the alumni of the world's best university, where the real job creators, innovators, & billionaires all come from. They have a chip on their shoulder and a plaque on the wall of their mind from the mighty halls of ScrewU.
When the certifiers try to hold you down, show them and remember, you have your Doctorate in Mesonoxian uncommon sense. You’ve examined the composite parts of the issue and measured the precise degree of their impact on the whole. You are learning to split test every variable. You are aware, that a recipe for sponge cake may have nine of the ten ingredients correct, but it wouldn’t taste 90% good if we replaced sugar with garlic salt, or cinnamon with chili powder. You are becoming an existential carpenter, and choreographer. It is midnight and there is nothing in front of your eyes shading your view. You are able to assemble reality and disassemble ridiculous arguments and statistics. You are aware that I can tell you a big fat lie with a long list of true statements. You don’t need no Birken-Stinkin’ badges. You are getting mez-un certified, investing in quality tools, obtaining your undergraduate in meson-chemistry and you will soon be alumni where they think in degrees rather than adding them to end of their name. With this you are about to jump into the workforce. You understand that it’s fine to hit the books, as long as you’ve first cooked the mez to burn off or wash out all the impurities. Having put it all together you know…
Whether hitting or cooking
The mez or the books
Accepted views can be “shady” when you take no 2nd looks.
Be not afraid to trade stats but
When you tally your total
You'll find the truth is