It’s a Trap!

When I was 22 I applied to the MFA programs in creative writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop and Columbia. They summarily rejected me with a minimum of fuss. They were right to do so, but it is also without question one of the greatest pieces of good fortune to ever befall me.

Let’s talk about “trap” degrees – expensive, often multi-year endeavors that rarely lead to salaries commensurate with the investment and arguably carry negative signal value in the labor market. We could all dunk on the aspiring filmmakers and puppeteers who look as though they were sent from central casting to play exactly the sort of dude who forks over >$100K for the shortest path to becoming the next Spielberg without doing all the messy fundraising, friend-haranguing, lighting improvising, actor recruiting, writing, and film festival peddling that looks an awful lot like high-risk hard work. We could dunk on them, but…but I can’t think of a way to finish that sentence that isn’t arrogant and condescending.

Anyway, we really should put aside the “they did this to themselves” schadenfreude, at least for a second, because regardless of blame, a lot of high opportunity cost human life years are being scammed with the siren song of “look at this great investment in yourself that will feel just like consumption while you are doing it!” There’s nothing new here, mind you. “Eat yourself thin” diets cycle through the zeitgeist with regularity, conveniently next to the book/video/3-week courses that will help you get rich in real estate with no money down. But we should be concerned when an entire sub-industry appears to be selling a human capital investment with negative real value. They may not be the modal or flagship product of higher education, but neither was the Pinto.

There’s similarly no shortage of people eager to point out that a lot of undergraduate education looks like a 4 year cruise, a pretirement if you’ll excuse a shameless attempt at coining unnecessarily cute terminology. We shouldn’t be shocked that purveyors are bundling consumption within an investment where, by design, the check-writers face high monitoring costs — part of the point of college is leaving the nest, right? Think about it from the other side of the equation– higher education is a scammer’s dream. The money folks are out of sight and desperately credulous to believe their child is on the path to status and financial independence. The customer is naïve and unworldly, eager to follow any external entity (other than their parents) that will do their decision-making for them. But the best part is the con’s mark won’t know for sure they’ve been scammed until well after the check is cleared (but not before they’ll receive their first solicitation for alumni donations).

But, you might be saying, graduate and professional schools are meant to be different. This is focused preparation for a narrow field of endeavor. These programs are decidedly not pretirement cruises. This is training. Why would anyone pay for training in something that has no payoff? I’ll offer a couple possibilities:

  1. This isn’t training, it’s consumption, and the buyers are fully aware of it.

I’m sure this accounts for a fair amount of fine arts training, particularly for retirees and hobbyists attending local community colleges, as well on the children of wealthy parents who have no intention of ever pursuing a vocation. More on them in a second.

2. This is training for aspiring men and women of leisure.

Remember gentlemen and ladies of leisure? They used to have their own Census occupation code! This might seem redundant with the previous point, but if your intention is to hob-nob with the rich and more-rich, there is something very much to be said for being able to discuss certain artistic fields at more esoteric levels. There’s also a modern middle-class version of this as well, what in an earlier, more coldly misogynistic, male-dominated time would have been referred to as an “MRS” degree. I imagine there are plenty of men and women who view school as a way of biding their time until a partner emerges who will be the primary earner. Match.com profiles and fix-ups are likely to be more economically fruitful for students mid-pursuit of a graduate degree than those working unimpressive jobs.

We also shouldn’t dismiss those opting for a graceful slide down the economic ladder. Generous families, perhaps a universal basic income, a rich artistic education, and comfortably living in a bohemian southern university town are for many the formula for a quiet, comfortable life unencumbered by the toils of a career. I’ve always enjoyed the company of such folks, at least until they try to tell me how the economy really works. Never follow these people to a second location.

3. This is a scam, and one with potentially far reaching costs.

Like so many scams, you could write a pithy story about well-dressed con-artists who open a “college” in an abandoned strip mall, throw on a coat of paint, and scam the spoiled children of upper-middle class social climbers by offering fake degrees that promise a shortcut to white collar riches and bohemian prestige. It’d be a two-act romp followed by a third where everyone ends up ok and kids learn the value of hard work.

In reality, though, no small number of the victims will be kids from higher education information deserts, who emerge from their undergraduate years with a relatively weak career they were guided towards after they struggled their first semester. Facing grim job prospects, they’re hoping two more years will thin the competition in the rarefied air of the applicants with “graduate education”. It is for these students that I fear the most.

It gives me pause when I see overly narrow masters’ programs that target a specific job rather than training in a set of tools. In service to my own cowardice, I won’t name specific programs, but suggest caution when considering a degree where the only job you’ll be qualified for is in the name of the degree.

I similarly worry about third- and fourth-tier MBA programs (especially if your employer isn’t paying for it). So much of the value of an MBA is the social network it will wire you into. If your parents haven’t heard of the school, it’s probably not much of a network.

Aspiring masters degree students, my advice is this: look up the individual courses you’ll be taking and then explain to the mirror what you’ll learn in each one and the market in which those skills are in demand. If you can’t do that, I advise reconsideration.


That’s all great, but what should we do?

I have no policy solutions, but I do have a piece of pedagogical advice. We need to update the standard operating procedure of guidance counselors in schools everywhere. We’ve been working so hard to convince kids they should go to college, we forgot to teach them how to be discerning customers of higher education. I’m all about caveat emptor as life advice, but if we want to hit people with it as an ex post I-told-you-so, we have to teach it to them ex ante, especially when we’re talking about 17-year-old and (ahem, perhaps mildly infantilized) 21-year-old kids. Just because you’ll walk away with a degree doesn’t mean that degree will be worth the time and tuition.

My guess is that we should up the status of community college, technical certificates, and not going to college at all. At the same time, we should probably lower the status of arts degrees for for artistic fields that are better suited to learning by doing and autodidacts.

Or maybe we just need guidance counselors to bring college seniors on field trips to carnivals across the country. Nothing will teach you the cold truth of scams faster than losing your last 20 bucks pursuing a fluffy bit of googly-eyed asbestos shooting on a bent basketball hoop in front of someone you planned on asking to prom but could never see value in you again after missing 10 shots in a row.

Trust me, that’ll stick with them.

2 thoughts on “It’s a Trap!

  1. Scott Buchanan July 13, 2021 / 10:07 am

    Great job pointing out the problem in its various aspects. Agreed, high school guidance counselors are real point people for this.

    I know a guy a bit young than me who was certainly bright enough to succeed at college, but his father persuaded him to take a machining apprenticeship, arguing that if he got a lucrative skill he could always take college courses later part time but not have to do into debt. The guy’s guidance counselor was horrified, but he ended up becoming a master machinist and opening his own high-end shop. One thing he found is that because anyone with a brain was herded into college tracks, he did not face severe competition on the path to success as a machinist…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Josh Knox July 13, 2021 / 12:55 pm

    Pre-tirement is brilliant! Columbia and Iowa Writers’ Workshop missed out.

    Liked by 1 person

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