- - Wednesday, October 15, 2014


There is an old adage that asserts “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” meaning that personal connections can often be more important than one’s actual skills and abilities. It’s a cynical maxim, albeit one with some truth to it. In today’s labor market, however, having the right skill set is more important than ever for anyone who wants to succeed.

We are constantly reminded of the importance of education, and of college degrees in particular, for young people. President Obama, earlier this year, came right out and said that “college has never been more important.” What students are not told, though, is that not all college degrees are created equal, and not all educations guarantee equality of opportunity upon entering the real world of work.

In many areas of the country, employers are confronting an increasingly severe skills gap. In my hometown of Cleveland, there were more than 3,000 job openings for engineers posted last year, but in 2013, fewer than 1,300 students there received engineering degrees. Students are not being told that basic training as a welder or a machinist increases their value to employers far more than a master’s degree in theater or cinema studies. As the proud owner of three master’s degrees, two of which have been completely useless in my career, this is a lesson I wish someone had taught me when I was younger. My own $70,000 of student debt reminds me every day that this is a problem that affects all of us.

Today’s millennials are being duped and exploited, not only by the propaganda praising liberal arts degrees as indispensable, but by the promise of easy credit from government-backed student loans. The amount of student debt in the United States is now more than $1 trillion, an economic burden that threatens an entire generation. Rather than address this problem, Congress is pushing for still lower interest rates, encouraging still more debt. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s student-loan refinancing bill is a perfect example of politicians cynically preying on the hopes and dreams of average students.

The reason, they argue, is that college costs are too high for students to afford without help. Has anyone bothered to ask why costs are so high to begin with? Prices rise when too many dollars are chasing too few goods. Offering easy credit to students for college doesn’t solve the problem of high prices; it creates it.

If there is any doubt about this, stop by your local university and observe the lavish temples to knowledge that these dollars have built. Students are funding luxury Taj Mahals only to find that they still can’t get a job when they graduate. Universities are not charging so much because they need to, but because they know they can get away with it.

We too often forget that college is a business like any other, and its primary goal is to make money. Students don’t see the full cost of their education when they first apply, and are then kept on the hook as long as possible with the temptations of secondary majors, minors, advanced degrees, and anything else that can prolong their stay and run up their tab. With unlimited low-interest loans from the government, the incentives to spend responsibly just aren’t there for kids who don’t know better.

Part of the problem is that college is a terrible place to find yourself. When I did my study-abroad program in Oxford, it was common for British students to take a year off before attending a university to experience the real world and figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. This meant that they were better prepared to focus on a productive and goal-driven education that would serve them well in later life. Using a college campus as a playground for self-discovery is the most expensive indulgence most of us will ever purchase.

A quality education remains an important component of success, but in today’s information age, there are more ways to achieve it than ever before. Trade and vocational schools, technical institutes and online classes — for which there should be a bigger discount than there currently is — are all viable alternatives to traditional brick-and-mortar liberal arts schools. Rather than turning our noses up at educational options outside the Ivy League, we should embrace them and recognize their importance.

It’s time to stop lying to students by promising them a free ride on the back of government credit. Instead, we should encourage them to invest responsibly in an education that will actually offer positive returns. After all, it’s not who they know anymore. It’s what we know.

Adam Brandon is the executive vice president of FreedomWorks.

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