Is College A Scam?

The woman sitting behind me on the train kept saying into her phone, “he was obsessed with talking about my vagina. Is that weird?”

I was trying to listen to her conversation. But now her voice was lower. “Should I feel guilty about what I did?” she was saying. I really wanted to know what she did.


At that moment, I was going into the city to give a talk about college education to an audience of about 150 education experts.

I’m an expert because I wrote a book.

The speakers were me, some professor, some head of tuitions at some shit school (i.e. the one I graduated from), the NYC Chancellor of something (I got there late and everyone just kept referring to him as “The Chancellor” so I’m not sure what he was Emperor of or whatever).

My topic: why they had all wasted their time, money, and lives on going to college.

I told a lot of jokes during my talk.

I have an excellent preparation technique: While other people were giving their talks I had been downstairs watching “Louis CK” on my phone. I like to prepare for a talk by laughing.

Then it was my turn to speak upstairs. I got everybody to laugh quite a bit.

But the bottom line is: the system is broken, the middle class is disappearing, being carved through the middle by a trillion dollars in student loan debt, and everyone is still raising tuition faster than inflation. And 50% of kids with college degrees now are underemployed.

And that one statistic that “if you go to college you make a million dollars more” is totally flawed and I explained why using basic Statistics 101 knowledge (explained in detail in this post).

I also talked about the people I met when I wandered around NYU interviewing students about how they were going to handle their student loan debt.

I talked about the girl who was practically naked while hula hooping so she could make debt payments from a tip jar. I spoke about the two kids who got degrees but were now clerks in an eyeglass store getting paid by the hour, and they felt they were “lucky” because most of their other friends did not have jobs.

And I told my story of how I spent 3 years studying computers then 2 years in grad school for computers then had to take remedial computer classes once I got a job.

The woman who spoke immediately after me, a computer professor from the shit school I graduated from, said, “well James went to our college and was successful so it couldn’t be all that bad.”

And everyone laughed and clapped.

The rest of her talk was about some bullshit called MOOCs. A way for people to pay colleges lots of money while not paying attention to anything.

The Chancellor of Whatever spoke at one point and said I was “idiotic”.

The woman after that was in charge of tuitions at same college. She said “Tutions will always go up faster than inflation.” She said, “We have to be able to hire competitive researchers”.

I leaned over to Claudia while continuing my game of backgammon on my phone and said, “she forgot to say the word ‘educators’ “.

Later, during the Q&A, one woman asked: “I need to get a masters in education to teach but it costs the same as an MBA. That doesn’t seem fair. What should I do?”

Nobody had an answer for her. I had an answer but felt shy about saying it. My answer was: “You have to quit your job as a teacher.” That’s the only way to let them know this is a problem. Reduce supply. Your value goes up. Then you can dictate the rules of the universe.

Another question. This one for me. “What about that statistic that says you make a million dollars more if you go to college.” I said, “Please refer to the talk I just gave.” He had a follow up, “So are you saying the system is broken?”

(yes, the system is broken)

(yes, the system is broken)

That’s a good question. Yes, it’s broken. But the beauty of everything is all life is broken and waiting for us to tinker with it and fix it. I love that everything is broken.

What will the world look like once everything is “fixed”?

“I don’t know,” I said.

Another woman said, “My kids are in the same ‘zone’ as kids in the projects…so obviously it’s not an option for my kids to be schooled with those kids. What should I do?”

Her husband was a professor at Columbia. “Me and my husband” met at “an ivy league institution”. Nobody had an answer for her.

I had an answer for her. But I didn’t say it.

After the talk people would sort of bump into me and whisper, “I agree with everything you said,” but then disappear before I could turn and say thank you.

Claudia said, “Let’s go.” But I was feeling hesitant. I wanted people to tell me how funny my jokes were.

Claudia said, “NOW!”

We left. In the cab Claudia said, “Now WHAT was THAT all about? Her kids had to go to school with kids in the projects?”

But here I am a few days later and I’m still thinking about the professor who made the joke, “Well James was successful so clearly college benefited him.”

Why did she need to get people to laugh at me?

The button holding my last pair of pants together just fell off. The threads frayed away. The button fell to the ground. The bottoms of my pants are all chewed up.

I’ve successfully run out of all of my pants.

When they write the history of the universe this will be an important moment.

[See also my post, “Living Life is Better Than Dying in College”]

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  • DelmarJackson

    Louis C.K. sucks. So does the inability to declare student debt in bankruptcy which is enslaving many who can’t find jobs or pay off their debt or get good jobs because now their credit is ruined and employers have started using credit ratings in hiring decisions.
    Plus, most of what colleges are charging a fortune for can be learned online for free. The internet is eventually going to gut the medical and education occupations the way offshoring and massive immigration has gutted the jobs of the great unwashed.

  • Qdogg69

    Of course the people from the University are going to call you names and insult you. They are there to spread propaganda. They have to keep those niave kids coming through their doors to keep lining their pockets. And the lady who said her kid “James’ was successful gave no proof of what her kid does for a living or what kind of nepotism he possibly recieved upon graduation. And of course 1 kid out of thousands and thousands that attend college is going to be successful. The sad reality is that the successful people who went to college and achieved a degree would of been successful even if they never attended college because all employers really care about is hard working people, disciplined people who can get along with co workers. That will get you farther at a job than any degree will. And I got news for this lady. KIDS LIE about their success to their parents so she has no credibilty. at all. ANd for those that that do think college is the answer the scary thing is the goverment lets all kinds of lower end people go to college for free or very discounted rates and they stick the cost on the back of you. Im talking about kids who come from poor families (because of course we must reward people who have parents who have contributed nothing to society) and single moms (because of course we have to reward people for bad life decisions)

  • nathan Graybill

    awesome post. Spot on. The system is broken. The good news is, when there is a lack in the system it opens up the possibilty for entrepreneurs to solve that problem at a profit.

  • Pieter Prinsloo

    This is gold, “I’m an expert because I wrote a book.” I don’t know if you meant it to be funny but it made me lol. I know you are an expert and I agree with everything you say but I imagined you saying that sarcastically in my head. Made me rethink everything about so-called experts wanting to tell us how to run our lives. You James are an inspiration to me and when I’m rich I am going to fly to the US and buy you a beer.

  • RP11

    Just read this review of Prof. William Deresiewicz’s new book, “Excellent Sheep” and thought back to your insight…

  • bobjohnson12

    this will give a great arsenal against college arguments.

  • Efraim Kristal

    James, I just tonight (Friday 17 April 2015) read your article for the first time. God, I wish I’d known you before I went to college. Regardless, you’ve just become one of my heroes. I’ve sent this link to your article to all my friends. I’ve noticed, shocked (though I shouldn’t be), that the “experts” keep publishing articles about how college is worth it, and how a degree is more valuable than ever. And I keep wondering why the rest of us keep racking up more and more debt for degrees we KNOW aren’t going to land us jobs. I have not one but three STEM degrees. Let’s just say I never even consider retirement… It’s not as if the divide weren’t obvious–the so-called-experts and college representatives advocating for college, versus those of us with degrees who’re noticing we’re lucky JUST to get a low-wage job, forget about something in our field. And more and more of us can’t find work at all.

    Sorry for the long comment. Your article made me laugh, cheer (your points), yell (what the heck DID she mean about “those kids”?), and sigh (the college folks just won’t get it–nor will those who own companies and are always looking for cheaper labor; nor those who went to school in the 80’s, 70’s or earlier, for whom a college degree, a rarity, might have meant a ticket to well-compensated, secure employment; nor, sadly, many parents who, understandably, want the best for their kids, but misapprehend the dynamics of college and employment and debt today).

    Oh, I also just ordered your book on Amazon. I’ll be getting multiple copies for friends. Thanks for the timely, vital article!

  • Efraim Kristal

    “…Now I’m 54 and just recently realized that the people that care about my lack of college degree can go fuck themselves ’cause I don’t like that attitude anyway!” Amen, Melissa.

  • Antara Man

    The comemnt of the professor is what the average person would think about James – can’t help but I thought in the beginning so too.

  • LonestarDucati

    It takes wisdom to learn how to use the higher education system to your advantage. And when to know to leave it alone. I am going back in years after my BS (!) degree that nobody has ever looked at until I applied for grad school 22 years later. After careful review, I am hopeful that this program offers the opportunity for learning that I am looking for otherwise I wouldn’t bother wasting my limited time or money. It is a very affordable program for what I believe I can get out of it but I will get up and walk out on it a few courses into it if I see some of the BS like unavailable professors doling out unearned “A’s” to entitled students that I’ve been reading and hearing about. That is neither education nor is it learning, That’s openly selling degrees that, in turn, artificially depresses the value of the other learned student. I’ll take the credential but I just want to learn something new and interesting and chose my local university, of many possible, routes to acquiring this knowledge and skill.

    I hope and believe that there is something still to be had for learning in educational institutions, but don’t buy in to the notion that it is either necessary or the only way to having a successful career.

  • Oddity

    We can hope so.

  • Oddity

    What kind of start-up?

    I am also more of a “jack of all trades, master of many” type and considering going to school… not sure if I’ll be able to handle all that crap again though.

  • Oddity

    Hey, your life is like mine, except I haven’t actually gone to college/univeristy yet (if I ever will)

    I hear working abroad is a good idea, but I haven’t done that either.

  • Mike Green

    you should have also said that the goal of all corporations is to fire all their american labor — which they are very successful at

  • JC

    I feel the same way but I don’t know where to start if I leave college. Parents will fucking rage at me if I quit, but I can’t support myself without income :

  • JC

    I agree that students should be given more space. I remember teachers constantly criticizing me and getting mad at me every day because I didn’t do homework. I had no reason to, no motivation. It didn’t benefit me. And their attitudes made me want to do homework for them even less. Why should I do homework so my teacher is slightly less of a bitch?