Is College a Waste of Time and Money?

Charles Sykes' Fail U offers some provocative ideas for the future of higher education.

By Alex Chediak Published on September 4, 2016

Charles Sykes is not a newcomer to the debate on the quality and cost associated with American education. His previous books Dumbing Down Our Kids and ProfScam took on the secondary and higher education establishments, respectively. His latest missive, Fail U: The False Promise of Higher Education may be an expansion of the rebuke he offered in ProfScam almost 30 years ago. (The first section of the book is appropriately titled “I Told You So”.)

Sykes’ message is that college costs too much and provides students with too little. Specifically:

  1. Colleges have lost sight of what they’re supposed to accomplish: The rigorous academic and professional training of undergraduate students. Instead, they’ve become bloated bureaucracies, spending needlessly on non-teaching administrative staff and luxurious amenities.
  2. Schools have “abdicated their responsibility to offer students a coherent curriculum,” removing material once thought essential (American history, Shakespeare) and substituting it with watered-down fluff courses like The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga and Vampires (Indiana University).
  3. The incentives are out of whack: What matters to faculty is that they receive tenure, which is based on their research (not their teaching). What matters to students is that they graduate with as high GPA as possible (not that they learn). So faculty lower academic standards, freeing up more time for research, while keeping their students happy by assigning higher grades for less (and lower quality) work.
  4. Many campuses impose ideological conformity to political correctness, suppressing free speech lest students feel “uncomfortable.” But the studious avoidance of “microaggressions” doesn’t prepare students for entering a diverse society where the norm is divergent perspectives on every topic imaginable.
  5. Since the job prospects for high school graduates are terrible, just about everyone is encouraged to pursue college. This is occurring at a time when easy access to student loans and other forms of federal subsidies make students insensitive to the price of college. As a result, college enrollments keep growing regardless of the diminishing academic value of what’s provided.

Much of what Sykes presents rings true. Many universities reward faculty based on research, not teaching. In the best case, this motivates faculty to do research which informs and bolsters their teaching. But too often it leads to faculty ignoring their teaching — putting in as little effort as they can get away with — while padding their resume with anything they can count as “scholarship.” Sykes chronicles the proliferation of specialized academic journals, some of which will publish anything, even gibberish.

Since teaching is not appreciated, Sykes writes, faculty seek to do less of it, and schools compete for faculty by offering reduced teaching loads. Who does that leave to teach the undergraduates? Adjuncts, lecturers, visiting instructors, and the like — a group of independent contractors collectively referred to as “contingent faculty.” The proportion of contingent faculty rose from 43 percent in 1975 to 70 percent of total faculty employment in 2011.

This comes at a cost saving to the university, but one that’s eclipsed by increased spending elsewhere. For example, highly paid administrators have been hired at a faster rate than faculty over the past few decades. The growing dependence on part-time labor also comes at a cost in quality. According to Adrianna Kezar, co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, “students taught primarily by part-timers — who often don’t have private offices, regular office hours or adequate time to prepare for class — have lower retention and graduation rates than those with full-time teachers.”

At times Sykes paints with a broad brush, presenting the worst data as if it were the norm. Greater nuance would provide Sykes with greater persuasiveness among those not already in his tribe. For example, Sykes writes of faculty teaching six hours per week or less and quotes a study suggesting such faculty engage in five hours per week of research. The rest of their time, we’re told, is spent on activities which advance faculty careers but are largely unrelated to undergraduate instruction. But faculty who teach that little have significant research expectations, including the mentoring of graduate students who benefit professionally from participating in this research. Now perhaps some of this research is of questionable value to society. And it’s worth discussing whether a university model which rewards research over teaching is best for undergraduate learning. But it’s unwarranted to suggest these faculty are generally lazy.

Sykes writes that “the cost of a college degree has soared by 1,125 percent since 1978 — four times the rate of inflation.” But he doesn’t acknowledge that some of this increased cost is absorbed by the schools themselves in the form of increased institutional scholarships. It’s a bit like the game some car dealerships play, bumping up the sticker price knowing that people want to feel like they received a great discount. Data from the College Board show that net tuition and fees — what students actually pay, earn via work study, or borrow after accounting for scholarships and grants — has doubled at public four-year colleges since 1990 and increased more slowly at private four-year schools.

To Sykes’ point, college is indeed expensive. And schools haven’t had enough incentive to contain costs, since quality and abundance are what seem to drive their reputation and enrollment.

The subtitle of the book, I’m afraid, is the biggest example of Sykes painting with a broad brush: The False Promise of Higher Education. Really? For those who attend college and graduate, the financial gains over time are significant (even for those who are initially underemployed). Of course, students should avoid fluff courses and useless majors. And they should consider future earnings prospects when deciding how to pay, and how much to pay, for college. Many undergraduates would do better at a university where the faculty spend 12-15 hours per week in the classroom and are rewarded for their teaching.

I wish Sykes had included a chapter on the reality of teaching-intensive colleges, and the fact that many of them are affordable and have higher graduation rates than larger universities working with similar student populations. It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some good apples out there.

In the last section of the book, Sykes offers provocative ideas for the future of higher education, such as leveraging the advances in interactive technology to lower the costs of college by establishing new ways for students to earn college credits. All in all, Sykes’ book is an engaging read which raises important issues that college administrators, educators, parents and students need to consider.


Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor at California Baptist University and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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