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The College Scam


A college diploma is supposed to be the ticket to the good life. Colleges and politicians tell students, "Your life will be much better if you go to college. On average during your lifetime you will earn a million dollars more if you get a bachelor's degree." Barack Obama, stumping on the campaign trail, said, "We expect all our children not only to graduate high school, but to graduate college."

Rachele Percel heard the promises. She borrowed big to pay about $24,000 a year to attend Rivier College in New Hampshire. She got a degree in human development. "I was told just to take out the loans and get the degree because when you graduate you're going to be able to get that good job and pay them off no problem," she told me for last week's "20/20" (

But for three years she failed to find a decent job. Now she holds a low-level desk job doing work she says she could have done straight out of high school. And she's still $85,000 in debt. This month she had to move out of her apartment because she couldn't pay the rent.

The promise about college? "I definitely feel like it was a scam," says Rachele.

Her college wrote us that that many of its graduates have launched successful careers. But Rachele's problem isn't uncommon. A recent survey ( asked thousands of students: Would you go to your college again? About 40 percent said no.

"The bachelor's degree? It's America's most overrated product," says education consultant and career counselor Dr. Marty Nemko (

Nemko is one of many who are critical of that often-cited million-dollar bonus. "There could be no more misleading statistic," he says. It includes billionaire super-earners who skew the average. More importantly, the statistic misleads because many successful college kids would have been successful whether they went to college or not.

"You could take the pool of college-bound students and lock them in a closet for four years — and they're going to earn more money," Nemko says.

Those are the kids who already tend to be more intelligent, harder-working and more persistent.

But universities still throw around that million-dollar number.

Arizona State recently used it to justify a tuition hike (

Charles Murray's recent book, "Real Education" (, argues that many students just aren't able to handle college work. Graduation statistics seem to bear him out.

"If you're in the bottom 40 percent of your high school class," Nemko says, "you have a very small chance of graduating, even if you are given eight and a half years."

Colleges still actively recruit those kids, and eight years later, many of those students find themselves with no degree and lots of debt. They think of themselves as failures.

"And the immoral thing about it is that the colleges do not disclose that!"

For many kids, career counselors told us, it's often smarter to acquire specific marketable skills at a community college or technical school, or to work as an apprentice for some business. That makes you more employable.

Vocational education pays off for many. Electricians today make on average $48,000 a year. Plumbers make $47,000 ( That's more than the average American earns. But some people look down on vocational school. A degree from a four-year college is considered first class. A vocational-school degree is not.

"More people need to realize that you don't have to get a four-year degree to be successful," says Steven Eilers, who went through an automotive program and then continued his education by getting a paying job as an apprentice in a car-repair center. He's making good money, and he has zero student-loan debt.

Eilers story is no fluke. In the past year, while hundreds of thousands of white-collar jobs vanished, the auto-repair industry added jobs.

Self-serving college presidents and politicians should drop the scam. Higher enrollments and government loan programs may be good for them , but they are making lots of our kids miserable and poor. For many, the good life can be lived without college.

John Stossel is co-anchor of ABC News' "20/20" and the author of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




4 Comments | Post Comment
I know that you're making a point; to paraphrase: "Having a bachelors degree doesn't guarantee a good life". However, there are many kinds of courses of study, some of which are desirable in the personnel marketplace, and others which are not. A BS in Math, BEE, BSME, BSCE,... are desirable. A BA in Art History (Thanks, Car Guys) is less so. If someone chooses a field of study exclusively because it's easy, or interesting, without understanding whether anyone needs someone in that field, shame on them for being overly lazy or romantic.
Your article did not make the point that to achieve the good life someone or some organization needs what you learned in college. If this isn't true, then a college degree is not worth additional money.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Herman Schiller
Sat Jan 31, 2009 10:00 AM

'Have we priced ourselves off the earth?' At the time I wrote that article,
the deficit was millions!' Now it's trillions, owed to foreign countries,
and doesn't seem to bother the politicians! Anyone know what'll happen to
America when interest isn't paid?

That article and this one isn't about Democrats or Republicans it's about
government spending, cutting politician's salaries and retirements to
$12,000.00 yearly! This is only way America will survive!

Textile and furniture manufacturing companies must be brought back to America
creating jobs. No need for "infrastructures" if there's no manufacturing

Taxpayers fear the word 'Stimulus'! Will this money, that America doesn't
have, stop workers from losing jobs, "ABSOLUTELY NOT"! It's only putting
America further into debt and destroying the chances of our children
becoming productive citizens.

'Fair Tax', to include property taxes, should be top priority! This would
enable folks to put their children into good Christian Schools to stop the
moral decline! Another top priority would be eliminating social and welfare
programs, bailouts, handouts and government positions!

Taxpayers have yet to see politicians seriously think about America's
Future! What kind of people are behind these 'stimulus' packages, that's
doing more harm than good?

Taxpayers cannot save the world from the fat cats like Freddie, Fannie, AIG,
Big Three, and anyone else that's taking money they're not entitled to, but
Taxpayers, who have jobs at present, will soon have to make a decision,
themselves, whether to pay taxes or put food on their tables! What happens
to your big salaries, bonuses, freebies, and retirements then?

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know it's now obvious that America can't
survive by borrowing from Peter to pay Paul! While I'm on a roll, Liberal
means "generous, favorable to progress or reform", but not with any
politicians money! WAKE UP AMERICA!

Comment: #2
Posted by: Shirley deLong
Sun Feb 1, 2009 10:34 AM
Plain and simple, here's what you need to know. Rachele Percel is lucky to have a desk job! Unfortunately our country has required a college degree. For what reason, I don't know. I am an administrative assistant who is more than qualified for job postings...oh, except one thing. I don't have a degree and many require it to even apply. You say, "a degree from a four-year college is considered first class. A vocational-school degree is not." I don't know who you're talking to. We need people in those professions. If I don't have the skills for those professions, a four-year degree is necessary -- not first class. Give me a break Mr. Stossel!
Comment: #3
Posted by: Julie Miller
Wed Feb 4, 2009 9:22 AM
The problem with colleges and their ivory towers, is that they do not prepare you well for the real world. They exist outside of normal market places. For example, a trade school couldn't survive if its students were unable to find work after graduation. Lenders make decisions to lend money to trade school students knowing whether they will be able to pay back the loan after graduation. This is not the case for colleges.
Colleges are artificially propped up by the federal government and its loan guarantee programs. Banks can lend money to students majoring in "useless" fields (from an economic viewpoint) and know that they will be repaid - student loans survive bankruptcies. So many excess programs are preserved - even though they have dubious economic value. If bankers were allowed to make college loans solely on a student's choice of major *and* knowing there was no guarantee the loan would be repaid after bankruptcy, they'd be more careful in lending. The market would facilitate students getting more useful education, help keep college prices low because they couldn't be sure to get takers for their product, and provide more value to a society that needs better skilled workers in all fields....
Comment: #4
Posted by: bearmountaineer
Thu Jun 30, 2011 3:09 PM
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