While president of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson asked a group of alumni a provocative question: Would Abraham Lincoln have been a better president if he had been college-educated?
Wilson answered his own question with a resounding “no.”
Since Wilson's time, a college education has become a minimum requirement for many jobs, even if the skills required by those jobs have nothing to do with a person's coursework.
Last week, I talked to a parent who is forking out $40,000 per year for her child's education.
Many middle-class families rely on student loans, which come easily. The lenders have no problem allowing young borrowers to run up debt of excess of $100,000 without regard for how the resulting diploma in Film Studies will help the graduate pay the money back.
Because lenders have numerous guarantees that they won't lose their money, they hand out student loans like candy.
But the assumption that college is worth sinking deep into debt is outdated and naive.
For every student who enters college with a defined purpose and a sense of pride in learning, there are four, maybe more, who are there to discover themselves and have fun.
When I went to college, I was there to discover myself and have fun. Killjoys who asked me what I was going to do with my degree, when I finally finished it, struck me as boring snots.
Tuition was so cheap at the time that I could putter around without running up a big tab!
In reality, puttering around wasn't that fun. I would have been better off postponing college until I knew what wanted out of it.
Today, I wonder how much more I would have gotten from the college experience if I had entered when I was ready, worked at it, read the texts on time, attended the classes even if attendance wasn't required, taken an active interest in the topics and put the professors to the test.
I would have become one of those despised “older than average” students whose diligence so annoys traditional undergraduates.
Today, the obscene cost of tuition and textbooks makes college a luxury which the lazy, unfocused or immature student cannot afford.
Higher education is big business. The students are the consumer. If they can be conned into putting down top dollar for the privilege of sleeping until noon and missing three classes per day, so be it.
Yes, students are put on probation and warned and sometimes kicked out for bad grades. But boy, you have to really screw up to get to that point.
Professors with high standards face pressure from above to fill the seats in their classrooms. Believe me, most students don't gravitate towards a challenge.
To keep the money flowing, many general education requirements, classes meant to broaden a student's perspective, have degenerated into rote-memorization multiple-choice farces.
Most significant of all, there is often little connection between the degrees granted and an actual job.
Many people think demanding a connection between education and a future vocation is a crime against learning for the sake of learning.
But in this day and age, getting one's money’s worth out of an education as vital to one's future financial health as discipline with a credit card.
Buyer beware: the powers that be will let you destroy your financial future if you let them! The higher education waters swarm with sharks.
So, what can be done?
Nobody has asked me, but if I were giving out education loans, I would require a written statement of educational purpose and a detailed plan of action from each student. And it better be good.
Second, vocational schools which teach trades like truck driving, nursing, carpentry, dental hygiene, legal clerking, should not be separated from four-year colleges and universities.
It should be possible to get a truck driving certificate at the same time you are studying English literature. You've got to make a living somehow.
At the same time, required humanities classes should be challenging. A good grade in sociology should be more than evidence that you have a pulse.
Abe Lincoln didn't go to college. But he perfected the then-important craft of hewing logs as a youth, studied the profession of law as a way to make a living, and broadened his mind all the while by reading more than most professors.
Lincoln's education was a balance of street smarts, professional ambition and intellectual curiosity.
And it worked.