Joe Dumars and the College Degree Fallacy

Mordecai BrownerAnalyst IOctober 20, 2008

Joe Dumars went back to school recently and earned his diploma from McNeese State. After years of putting off those lingering last few credits in favor of winning NBA basketball games and running the best franchise in the Eastern Conference, Dumars finally has his degree.

Upon hearing this, two quotes from culturally ubiquitous movies hit me instantly:

"You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a (expletive deleted) education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late changes at the public library." (Good Will Hunting, 1997)

"Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma." (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)

As much as our sports media likes to constantly ladle support upon those who attain their college degrees while pushing scorn (often passive) upon those who leave school early, here, between these brackets, is exactly what Joe Dumars' (or any major athlete's) degree means: {   }.

That's right, nothing. A void. A nihilistic chasm of meaninglessness.  Okay, perhaps that's a little strong, but what does Dumars gain from having a bachelor's degree?

Increased job prospects?  No.

Erudition?  Highly, highly doubtful.

Sense of personal accomplishment?  Perhaps.

But if he does it's not because earning a college degree posed any difficulty to him (finishing off a low-difficulty bachelor's doing online courses when time and money aren't issues is easier than putting 20 on the Clippers). It is, rather, because of a society's completely warped priorities and beliefs.

My issue here is not so much with Dumars wasting his time to get a worthless sheet of paper. It is more with the myth he's unintentionally perpetuating.  I don't mean to single Dumars out, he just happens to be the name du jour who upholds one of our most sacrosanct beliefs with regards to collegiate athletics.

Degree? Good.  No degree? Bad.

We hear it all the time in college sports.  "The important thing is the degree."  "Our kids graduate."  Blah blah blah.

We hear it in the worthless unfiltered statistics: College graduates make so much more than non-college graduates!

Of course, what many learn on their intellectual pathways is a reality check against these platitudes.

College athletic status often means more than having any degree, at least in the big-money programs.  Play basketball for Kentucky or football at Oklahoma, and the paychecks will write themselves.

For most major NCAA programs, not necessarily the behemoths, the last guy on the bench or a walk-on kicker has better job prospects than a music major.

That raw statistic about college graduates having significantly higher incomes?  It's weighed heavily by doctors, lawyers, accountants, and business executives—occupations most money-program athletes and recreational studies majors have completely closed to them.

It took some time, but I've finally come around to Mark Cuban's position than college athletes should be allowed to major in their sport of choice.  Future coaches could major in football or basketball and study the game, for example.

Drama schools realized long ago that there's nothing wrong with kids leaving early to be paid and that a drama degree is really only useful to future teachers.

Why do we persist in pushing this myth of athletes picking up urban studies or taking completely generic courses of study?  Why does a multimillionaire like Joe Dumars feel any kind of pressure or guilt to return and complete his arbitrary requirements for a sheet of paper?

In the last 20 years, the increase in the cost of undergraduate education has strongly outpaced the inflation rate and increases in the Consumer Price Index. 

The only thing Dumars' return to school accomplishes is that it continues to artificially inflate the value of the bachelor's degree as something it just isn't.

Let's stop the garbage and the non-stories.

If you're 18 and looking to make more money, find a good trade school.  Fixing automobiles, having basic medical knowledge, or learning how to work computers will make you more money much faster than earning an uninspiring four-year degree.

If you've already made a fortune and/or have multiple NBA championship rings and you think finishing a diploma does anything for you, seek psychiatric help immediately.

If you want to be an erudite individual and learn everything you can about the world, put away the admissions forms and start reading books.  They cost less, will probably teach you more, and don't have the condescending sneer of most PhDs.

Above all else, always remember that Abraham Lincoln was entirely self-taught.  George W. Bush graduated from Ivy League schools.

It's too bad more of our sports commentators and NCAA administrators can't see these fundamental truths and the meaningless, if not harmful, nature of famous athletes finishing their diplomas (or, for that matter,  leaving school early).  Instead, they blather on about "tremendous accomplishments" that "send the right message."

A tremendous accomplishment would be a single mother working full-time while earning her degree, not a millionaire studying at his own pace.  The right message would be what is right for the individual, and often getting a degree simply is a waste of time and resources.

I have a bachelor's degree from a school consistently rated as one of the top 20 or so in America.  If things go well, in a few short years I'll have a postgraduate degree from a solid school as well.

I would trade them both for a jump shot and enough quickness to earn a paycheck playing basketball in Europe. 

Every player who comes out and talks about how important his degree is makes me want to vomit at the bold-faced, depressing naiveté (or perhaps dishonesty) from a fresh college graduate.

Even if athletes like Dumars wanted to teach a valuable lesson to their children, wouldn't the proper lesson be that spending tens of thousands on an unneeded certificate merely for superficial reasons is an economically unwise decision?

Instead, they reinforce the myth that above all else, a college degree is the most important thing, that some stupid sheet of paper has some inscrutable meaning even when financial and intellectual success comes elsewhere.

My own education gave me a word to describe that long before I entered college: dumb.