Is College Education a Scam? 

The topic of the following conversationally styled debate is over whether college education is a scam. The two debaters are James Mollenkamp and Ruthmarie Garcia Hicks. They provided some brief background information to introduce themselves, which I am providing below. 

James, who argued that college is a scam, is a professional magician and has avoided college with everything in him. He has done a wide range of jobs in food service, hospitality, and sales. He recently left real estate to become a magician. He has been to classes at colleges all around including Stanford and anywhere he could sneak in without enrolling. He very much believes the only education is self education and college over sells and under delivers. 

Ruthmarie, who argued that college education is not a scam in its entirety, was an academic for about 18 years. She worked at Presbyterian Hospital as the manger of an immunology lab. She got her first M.S. at Hunter College doing neurology research and her second en route MS at Albert Einstein when she finished her doctorate doing Lupus research. She taught as an adjunct for several years at Pace and Purchase College.

The debate that takes below is a nuanced discussion of the problems with the current higher education system. Not only did the debaters willingly participate in such an enlightened discussion over a series of days, they did so during the chaotic holiday season! I only interjected with some questions to help guide the conversation. Please read for a highly informative conversation from two well-thought out perspectives. Feel free to add any questions or comments at the bottom to add your own lens. 




James: College education is a scam.  My major claims are that it hails a degree as equating to an education, which it is far from. Students are taught things that are of no value to them, especially in the modern workplace.  College does not equate to an education because they do not retain the knowledge very well at all (engineers, doctors, and lawyers being exceptions only because they are using the math and such in their jobs and is why they had to go). Many say college teaches students how to think in the real life; however, this has been disproved by multiple studies.

The only reason college could ever be claimed as not a scam is if you have to go for your profession such as doctor, nursing, lawyer.

Ruthmarie: The fundamental problem with that argument is that college was never meant to be career training program. Until neoliberalism reduced everything to a specific dollar value,  college was all about a rounded education that produces young adults that have the ability to think critically, write, and converse on a broad range of subjects.


It was meant to be a course of study  where you learned literature, history, science, math...all the basic disciplines. Because that knowledge base helps you in life in ways you can’t imagine. 


Neoliberal economic policy has transformed higher education to specific career tracks. Why? Because the biggest anathema to a two tiered society where the 1% run roughshod over the masses is to have an educated population with a deep knowledge of history, literature, math, science etc.


When I teach a class whether it is for biology majors, pre-med students, or for business students fulfilling a simple graduation requirement, I have a certain set of goals. 


These days we see the living, breathing example of the impact of an under-educated population. They are running around wearing MAGA hats having been suckered into the notion that our con-artist POTUS actually cares about them. This is in spite of overwhelming evidence Tom the contrary. In areas of basic science, there are people screaming about vaccines causing autism in the middle of the biggest measles outbreak in 25 years. There people denying climate change, once again in spite  of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Heck, there are actually people running around saying that the earth is flat. 


The powers that be right now don’t want an educated population. They want a compliant, easily suckered population that will believe anything they are told and will do as they are told. They want job prep for all and education for the few. Limiting education limits people’s and makes for compliant and effective cogs for the wheels they want to spin. But a population educated in things like history and philosophy are far harder to fool and people who control.


Having said all of that. There is a scam element in higher education today. But that has to do with the COST.

Students today are not getting the value that those of us who were unschool in the 80s or 90s had. Tuition is too high, and undergrads are being taught by adjuncts and not full-time faculty earning decent salaries with a commitment to the institution. Schools have become top-heavy with administration that is eating the institutions alive without contributing to the education process. That’s the scam.

James: There's one thing we agree on. That is that the price school charges now is certainly too much to be justified.  However when you claim that college was never meant to be career training, you are talking specifically about a liberal arts education.  Which was just supposed to make one better at talking essentially. The problem is you say that learning the basic disciplines help you in life, the problem is they don't learn them.  The 2003 US Department of Education Assessment of Literacy showed that less than one third of college grads were even proficient. College students are not remembering the information, they are cramming for a final and then they are on their way.

I also agree that we have an under-educated population.  I don't quite know why you brought up the president, fans of the president, or flat-earthers, but I can say again that I agree and that the population is under-educated.  Being that 69% almost 70% of the population goes to college, then it stands to reason that college is a scam because, according even to yourself in that case. You said yourself that college wasn't meant to be job prep, but then later you agree that it has become job prep, you further state that all they want is cogs for the wheel to spin.  If that is all they want and college is producing it, why then go to college? Is college not then a scam? I'll skip over the fact that you're a teacher but you used the wrong there.

Also you do not need college to teach you math, history, science, and what you called the basic disciplines, especially now.  Last time I checked Einstein, Feynman, Darwin, Franklin, Plato, etc, all have books at the local library and if you're looking for anything out of copyright you can find online for free now.  To go to college is to waste four years of your life, spend far more money than is necessary to educate yourself, and for most it means to begin your adult life in debt. A very poor move to begin with.

Ruthmarie:  One of the reasons I’m for Sanders or Warren in this election cycle is that they would take the cost of a public college education OFF people’s shoulders. This would solve part of the problem.

The lack of learning is another matter. In higher education we have all the best and all the worst our educational system has to offer.

When I was in college you had professors teaching. Now it’s teaching assistants - many of whom barely speak English - and adjuncts.

This change was under way in the 90s. I was a teaching assistant with 4 recitation groups in an enormous class for general biology. By the 3rd week, my classrooms were standing room only. Since I was as green as they came it couldn’t have been my lecturing ability! Nope. It was because they could understand me. There were only 2 instructors for whom English was their first language. The students couldn’t understand their instructors and word got out where and when the teachers without heavy accents were teaching! I had to admire their determination to get into a class where they could understand the instructor. But this sort of thing shouldn’t happen.

This is where things get “scammy”. It was starting back then. When I taught after my doctorate I was paid $2500 for an entire semester of lectures or labs. 3 hours of lecture w power point a week - all of which had to be prepared. Office hours. Exams, correcting papers - all of that for $2500 gross. At first I hoped this would lead to something permanent. I learned pretty quickly it would not. Once the big recession hit, they weren’t giving positions beyond gigs to anyone.

When you do this, you eventually run into trouble with the quality of the teaching. There are good adjuncts and bad ones. There are crazy people who don’t get the difference between an non-major survey course and a graduate level class on physical biochemistry. Then their are people who couldn’t tell the difference between a mammalian colon and a potted plant.

This wasn’t  the case in the late 80s. It was starting then. But it hadn’t taken root. Taken to an extreme, and that’s where we are in many institutions, it’s amazing anyone learns much of anything.

Self learning however, has its pitfalls. There is a saying a lot of scientists have. “You don’t know what you don’t know”. 


For example, I can multiple experiments on a signaling pathway and THINK I have things readily mapped out in cell lines. I put that knowledge to work in an animal - and get the exact OPPOSITE of what I expect. There were other facts and factors I didn’t know about. The end product was a paradoxical result.

In learning, the same thing can happen if you try to go the totally self-taught route. Your own personal  bias can lead you down a slippery slope where you are learning selectively and ignoring massive amounts of information you don’t “like”. 


Everyone had their biases - even instructors. But a formal education generally throws all of these biases in your face and forces you to deal with them.

In my general field, climate change would be a major example. I was watching a video on YouTube where a fairly well renowned “think tank” was putting up ridiculously biased information on climate change. A self-taught student could easily wander into this and come to the conclusion that climate change is a hoax. They could walk away not knowing  that a massive body of information was kept out of the conversation. They wouldn’t know that 97% of biologists, atmospheric scientists, geologists in related fields strongly disagree and think we are in a planetary emergency.

James: At many turns you seem to be agreeing that college is a scam.  The reduction of cost is a step in the right direction, yes. But it alone would not make college worth a damn.  And I agree the sort of thing that shouldn't happen is students paying good money to listen to people who they don't even understand. This is a classic example of college pulling the old bait and switch, maybe it was educational, but just in a different language.  Please excuse the joke there, I couldn't help myself. You then explain that the real scam is teachers pay. You finish that section by claiming that in the 80s college wasn't a scam, but implying that it is now. You even pose the question "it's amazing anyone learns much of anything?" Guess what they're not.  Also I'd like to note, I'm proud that as a professor you're able to speak English, but you have once again used the wrong form of their. Perhaps you should leave the written form to those of us who have self-educated.

You don't know what you don't know is always a true statement. It has nothing to do with self-learning.  We are in an age of information. Confirmation-bias happens to everyone, that is the nature of confirmation bias. The goal is to be as objective as possible. Instructors have confirmation bias as you stated yourself. But you make the false claim that college forces you to deal with them.  In many instances it does the opposite. Sweeping the colleges of the nation from VCU to Stanford University "safety-zones" are popping up on campuses. Areas in which you're not allowed to offend one another. College is not only denying the rights of students from them, they're charging the students a premium to do so.It is disgraceful, disgusting, and fascistic. College is not preparing people for the world, it is doing quite the opposite. It is teaching our nation how to not debate, how to not grow, how to not talk to one another. In this way it is encouraging anxiety and poor speaking skills.  Also self-education does not mean watching a Youtube video and taking it at face value. It means being a skeptic in most cases and taking nothing at face value without further research or evidence, another skill college neglects.


Ruthmarie: First of all, what I’m seeing from all this “self learning” is a huge problem of bias. You have home schooling that’s teaching kids Biblical creation stories as “fact”. They then either self learn in such a way that reenforces non-fact. Or they wind up in Oral Roberts University with nothing but massive bias all around them.

We also have a news media that delivers opinion as fact and is in many cases fact-free. And I don’t just limit this to Fox. It’s everywhere.

We made a ton of social and scientific advances with free or low cost education during the post war years. We are throwing all that down the toilet in the name of self-education which can( in many but not all cases) be an excuse for willful ignorance.

Right now, we are living in a fact-free dystopia. Although our higher learning systems are under stress, they are the one thing that can help society parse the misinformation storm.

Moderator: For today I’d like to start with the question: if you could wave a magic wand, what would a “perfect” college/college education be? What would you leave in place from the existing system? What would you take away? This entirely theoretical, realism aside. We can get to practicality later. I just want to nail down what you feel is idyllic.

James: There is a few major problems with college that I would fix in an ideal world.  The first is one which both me and Ruth agree on and that is cost. The cost of college is too high to justify.  Another thing I would fix is the core classes. I would add finance and taxes to that. As well as a class to the effect of Duties of a Citizen in Modern America, Debate would also be added as a core class, as well as how to deal with disagreement and adversity.  This is vital in a society such as America's where we pride ourselves on self-expression and the right to opinion.

Ruthmarie: So, in this case, I am going under the assumption. That we are dealing with a 4-year school with perhaps an Associates degree enroute.

Although all colleges and universities have mandates beyond teaching, it is tie to put instruction and mentoring of students back in the front burner.

What I mean by that is that we make the school student -centric. Too often ( and this s particularly true if the Ivy League) the focus is in athletics, performing arts, faculty research, and post-grad programs. These cost a ton of money and drain resources that should be dedicated to education. The  bloat in these areas as well as administration is fueling tuition costs. I’m not saying these other things should be eliminated, in fact they can be valuable to undergraduates as well as institutional reputation. In my field, they can provide valuable hands-on experience in research. But...investigators with labs have to be willing to take in theses students. More often than not, they aren’t.

Ideally, and this is something that  isn’t done, teaching faculty should have some pedagogy behind them. That includes teaching assistants. Just because you know a subject doesn’t mean you can teach it well. I was just handed a text book and outline and told to go teach - which is pretty much the norm.

Requirements for majors need to be more flexible. There are some things that really need to be done in sequence, but there should also be more electives. We need to require enough for students to have a comprehensive exposure of everything while not engaging in overkill.

I do believe that there should be some required courses outside the major that contribute to a decent education. Some history, some literature. Writing is essential and seems to be overlooked  in K-12. 

Although a college education is not specifically career-linked, institutions need to have career coinciding as a high priority. One of the biggest issues is commoditization of lucrative fields. Colleges should help students by adding courses that will help them acquire skills that will serve them well when(not if) they have to change careers. One of the biggest benefits of the liberal arts is that a lot of what is learned can be useful in a variety of career settings  even though they are not career oriented. Being able to write decently or being fluent in two or more languages are prime examples. This is particularly true for STEM students whose fields of work shift rapidly, become outdated or obsolete quickly and don’t translate well to other fields requiring softer skills.

Thanks James for adding taxes and debate. I was also thinking of suggesting that there be a specific cohort of courses on business models including not-for-profits and for people infields like mine, getting funding for grants. This would allow those who found specific fields outsourced, a way into the business end of their fields. I was kind of afraid that was overkill - but a good idea.

Moderator: Todays guiding questions are as follows: Do you believe the goal, if reforms were enacted such as the ones you both mentioned yesterday, for every student to go to college? If not, who should or should not go? What steps, if any, should be further taken to support those who don’t go? Should there be an active way to counsel students not to go?


James: In short no, even if a perfect college were created that wouldn't mean that everybody should go.  All it would mean is that it would no longer be a scam and your time and money would be more well spent.  I do agree that there should be counsel for students not to go to college. Right now high school tends to be oriented towards getting students to college.  This is wrong. It ought to be preparing students for the world, rather or not they are going to college or going to the workforce. There should be programs for students who aren't planning on going to college that help them to understand industry, and how to do what it is they want to do.

Ruthmarie: I think that those who want to go should have the opportunity to go. But that does not mean that everyone should go to college. Vocational school is a better fit for some. There are no absolutes. The suggestions that I was making were partly geared to make chances of success greater for those who do choose to attend.


Moderator: Can you both be more specific? Should it be entirely be based on student choice? What career choices should be pushed to go? Should we be leaving these decisions to 18 year olds (and below)? What I am trying to get at is what is the purpose of college....if it’s not for career training, then why not every student? If it is, then which careers?

Ruthmarie: The problem with this question is that the answers are as diverse as each individual student. 

I’ll give a case in point: I nearly failed my first year. It turned out that I had an undiagnosed LD that had not been detected when I was in public school. The increased volume of reading tipped the balance. I was pretty much straight honors in HS. But I hit a tipping point in college.  This triggered the testing that diagnosed the issue.

So what to do? I had been an overachiever in HS, but struggled a great deal in my first year of college.

Should I have been automatically shunted to vocational school? Once again,that depends entirely on the individual.

For some people, vocational training would make good sense. For others, not so much. One thing I feel should be avoided at all costs is using standardized tests to create an arbitrary cut-off.

Moderator: For the final question of the debate, I want you to address what, if any, plans you think should be enacted to make college more affordable for students, so it is less of a scam. What should be done at the federal and/or state level? Who has a policy proposal you support and why? This article might be relevant to your arguments:

Ruthmarie: Thank you for the article. There are two things that are clear...the first is that if you attempt to interfere too much in state systems, you could throw out the baby with the bath water.  The second is that if you give states the right to do whatever they want, the red states might do to free or low-cost college the same thing they did to Americans expansion under the ACA and refuse to participate. 

One way to go about this is to do something along the lines of what we have for Pell grants. Individuals apply for them through the Federal Government. In this manner - all students going to state schools would apply. The overhead per student would be less because they aren’t means-testing, but the volume would increase significantly.

That’s the best I could think of off the top of my head.

Some of the rest of this has to come from institutions themselves. 

When I was in college, departments rotates chairmanships and faculty shared administrative duties. This was true in several institutions that I know of.

At the time, many schools were in financial straits. The response was to hire professional administrators that were better at the bottom-line issues like fundraising. This made sense at the time because faculty time was getting too stretched.  They were wearing too many hats and this was causing problems on both the academic and administrative side of things.


However, over time, this became a monster. The professional administrators took over. They raised money all right, but also started demanding CEO-like pay and the need for more, more, MORE in the way of administrative overhead started to marginalize the students AND the faculty.

Administrators making huge sums were getting much of their largesse by cutting faculty and raising tuition. Regular tenure track positions dried up and now about 75% of faculty are off tenure track. Median pay in 2010 for an adjunct to teach a class was $2700 for the entire semester.

This has all too predictable impacts on the quality of education. Adjuncts are scrambling to get rent money and spreading themselves too thin. The selection process, given what I have witnessed, can be very inconsistent. Meanwhile, students are paying $30-60k a year in private colleges for this!

Meanwhile administrators, sports programs and sometimes research are the main priorities and are gobbling up huge sums of money.

Change needs to come from the institutions and from students demanding better.  Adjunct faculty are finally fighting back as well. They are trying to unionize but meeting huge resistance and some lose their positions as a result.

Faculty/student cooperation may help as well. We are seeing students walking out of classes to support adjuncts in some cases.

It helps to know how the money distribution and priorities have changed. So that’s why I include this in the final installment.

James: Well there is a lot to agree with there Ruth.  Very well put. The last few paragraphs particularly.  Change needs to come from the students and institutions.  Particularly the students like Mario Savio said at UC Berkeley during the free-speech movement "there comes a time when you must put your bodies upon the gears."  In this case it is time to say no.  It is time to find your own path and earn your own education.  There isn't need for a college and by reminding college of this, by more and more people not going, more and more people finding their own footing in experience rather than class-time.  Creating their own job rather than go into debt with hopes of getting one. That will be the time when college prices will drop. They will drop out of necessity. Education within institutions will get better out of necessity.  That will be the only way, I can think of, that college would become not a scam. From realizing its own uselessness and fixing its problems in an attempt to stay survive.

Ruthmarie: Well said James. Although I think we need to be very, very careful about suggesting self-learning as a viable alternative. From my observations having taught in more than one institution, precious few people have the capacity to be self-taught. Most couldn’t educate themselves out of a paper bag. That may sound harsh, but it is largely true. The person who can truly do that successfully bid an outlier. Look at what “home-schooling” and some If the charter schools have brought us. The result of all of this was that at the college level, I couldn’t take it for granted that the students understood that creationism was a theory based o religion, not science. I also couldn’t assume my students understood that the earth revolved around the sun. Standardized education created a population of people who could parse fact from fantasy. That’s the world I grew up in. Even the most under-privileged youngsters from my time didn’t have a tough time with things like the earth being round. Evolution was something you learned in science class. Creation stories were based on “belief” and religious convictions. People could walk and chew gum on this issue with relative ease back in the late 70s/early 80s. Not so much now. We are well past that now and I have a deep concern as to where this is taking us.

James; I disagree that I should have to be careful about it. That is after all essentially the reason for the debate and one of my opening remarks. College is a scam and self education is the only education. Neither homeschooling nor public charter schooling is self-educating. In both cases there are teachers, it is the parents or in the case of public charter actual paid teachers.

Ruthmarie: That’s ok to disagree. Don’t forget, I’m in my fifties. I have a means of comparison. The ability to sort fact from fiction has gone way, way, way down. If we can’t agree on things like gravity exists and the earth is not flat, we have a serious problem that could tear our entire society down quite quickly. That’s where we are. The decline in public education and formal education in general is a big part of this problem. There are other factors within the mass media that also contribute. For example, news and editorials were strictly separated. News didn’t have a right or left slant. It was boring but informative and wasn’t presented in a way to insight anger. There were other rules like “the fairness doctrine” and “equal time rule” that prevented the bias you see in FOX or MSNBC or even CNN. But having an educational structure like the public college system was one of the things that kept Americans literate as to fact vs fiction and a true sense of reality. It was also affordable back then. I was able to bankroll most if my undergraduate education on a job that was sometimes full-time, sometimes part-time. I had to work classes around the work, but was able to come out debt-free. College and other post-secondary forms of education were affordable. It was a good deal. But it also kept our citizens informed. We don’t have that now and that is dangerous.


James: I do think that we mostly agree. I do agree that college has certainly declined over the years. And from the way you described your situation in college sounds very much like a win for you and sounds like it worked out well. I also agree that it is a dangerous system now. One that is not worth it and is therefore a scam. It is a shame to see something of true potential in such shambles. A scornful and disgusting state. But nothing will change without the students either standing up or walking out, which I believe we also both agree on (let me know if I'm wrong). As a concluding statement I think I see where you're coming from and would offer the following as a sort of revision "college is a scam in its current state." And would need much revision to be reborn as a phoenix from the ashes and flames of the burning non-education that it currently offers its students as well as the debt that they incur for the next-to-nothing they're currently getting.

Ruthmarie:  We both agree on the most fundamental aspects. There are many things academia has gotten right. But academia is no longer in charge. That’s how we got here. The trouble has been the overlay of turning higher education into a money machine with ancillary programs and massive administrative bloat. An analogy might be the system of massive medical consolidation and huge institutions like Presbyterian and Montefiore. These too are bloated entities that have become insanely costly. They exist for themselves more than for their patients. But the doctors, nurses and other caregivers are not the problem. It’s all the overlays that are the issue. Don’t get me wrong, academics have their issues as well. Plenty of them, particularly at the upper levels. But those are more manageable if the rest is sorted out. Taking down the whole thing and burning it to the ground might work - or might make things worse! Yes, it is possible. Look at Iraq and Afghanistan. Taking out the Taliban and Saddam Hussein was not a bad call. But it made things worse. The one thing about Revolutions is that you better have something to replace it with ready to roll out or you could have a total fiasco. That’s my only caveat to what you are saying.

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