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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

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.

We showed that the “earnings premium” argument is fallacious because the higher average earnings of people who have earned college degrees in the past is no guarantee that anyone who now earns a degree will have the same results. In fact, it’s clear that many graduates are not enjoying that earnings premium. They aren’t paid any more for working as, for example, a theater usher just because they have a college diploma hanging on the wall.

We showed that the reason why many jobs now “require” a college degree is that employers use educational credentials as a screening device. Often, they make possession of a BA mandatory for applicants, no matter what the person studied and no matter how simple the intellectual demands of the work. Furthermore, if we push increasing numbers of people through college, that will ratchet up the credential inflation, thus blocking off people who don’t have degrees from more jobs they could easily do.

Finally, we showed that it’s erroneous to equate years of formal education and degrees earned with being “better educated.” Much of what people learn in life is not learned in a classroom setting.

The affirmative side’s comeback to our arguments? Nothing. Both debaters ignored them and, unfortunately, the moderator didn’t ask them to respond.

In my opinion, it’s plain as day that even if we managed to increase the number of students we persuade to enroll in college— which won’t be easy precisely because many who now don’t probably understand that the costs are high and the benefits low — the nation’s economy won’t be improved. Reaching the president’s goal of having the higher percentage of college graduates won’t make the American workforce “the best.” It will only mean that some more of our workers will have spent a lot of time and money to obtain the college credential before starting work in a job they could have done anyway.

One area of agreement eventually emerged: our K-12 system is largely dysfunctional for poorer and minority children. Professor Vedder and I maintained that unless and until kids graduate from high school with at least decent basic skills and motivation, it’s folly to think about putting them into college. The affirmative side evidently disagreed, but I don’t understand why. If poorly prepared kids are apt to flounder in college and wind up doing low-skill jobs even if they graduate, what have they gained?

I wish I’d had time during the debate to point out that there are many policy changes we could do that would be economically beneficial and particularly helpful to poorer people. Instead of promoting nearly worthless college studies, why not, for example, repeal occupational licensing laws that keep many out of careers? Why not repeal the onerous permitting requirements that prevent people from starting small businesses?

The answer to those questions is easy. College students are far more useful to the American left than are gainfully employed people and certainly business owners. The former are caught in a sauna of leftist clichés about “social justice,” diversity, the environment, institutionalized racism, the evils of capitalism, and so forth. College students generally become more inclined toward leftist notions while in college; almost never do they become more skeptical about government power and its incursions against liberty and property.

Workers and business owners, in contrast, are not in that sauna, but rather are struggling to deal with reality. Quite a few of them figure out that their struggle is much harder because of the mess that leftism has made of our country.

Do we need more students in college? Clearly, no. Do we want more students in college? Just as clearly, no.

George Leef, a writer in Raleigh, N.C., is the author of Free Choice for Workers: A History of the Right to Work Movement.
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