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Do We Need — or Want — More Students in College?

Does the "Paper Chase" pay off, rewarding most college students with a large lifetime earnings premium?

by
George Leef

Bio

March 16, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Americans have been so busy fighting against President Obama’s great, Red Army-type offensives on health care “reform,” the federalization of big chunks of the economy, and spending that will bury us under an avalanche of debt that his educational plans have drawn relatively little attention. Since higher education is my main policy domain, I have been watching that front.

In February of last year, Obama announced that the nation was not doing well enough in getting young people into and through college. He told Americans that they’d be letting the country down if they stopped their education after high school and announced a national goal of having the highest percentage of college-educated workers in the world by 2020.

That sounds good. Having the best-educated workforce will certainly help to keep our economy strong in the face of international competition, won’t it?

Most people would probably nod in approval, but I see Obama’s higher education initiative as an economically harmful Trojan Horse meant to accomplish his real objectives: assisting one of his most loyal support groups, and luring more young Americans into the overwhelmingly leftist, collectivistic college environment, which tends to draw impressionable people towards the left end of the political spectrum.

What about the notion that the nation’s economy needs more college graduates? Those who want to justify an expansion of our higher education system (that is, subsidizing some students who wouldn’t otherwise have gone to college so that they will) often say that we’re falling behind other nations in our “educational attainment.” They say that unless we get more young Americans through college, for the first time we’ll have a generation that is “less well educated” than the previous generation. They say that college graduates enjoy a large lifetime earnings premium. And they say that nearly all good jobs now require a college degree.

All those arguments are either false or irrelevant.

I was recently in a debate at the National Press Club on the subject of the economics of expanding higher education. Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder and I argued against the idea that American economic strength will wane unless we manage to get more young people through college. You can watch the debate here. In total, it’s about an hour and a half, but I’ll summarize our demolition of the affirmative case for those of you who don’t have time for the whole thing.

First, we showed that the U.S. already has a large surplus of college graduates, many of them employed in jobs that don’t call for any academic training whatsoever. (I have little use for most federal statistics, but here the data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is very enlightening.)

We showed that for most people, there is very little connection between college coursework and the knowledge and skills needed for their jobs.

We showed that because we have so over-expanded higher education over the years, we have driven academic standards down to the point where many students enter college with weak skills and often graduate with no improvement in them.

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