My friend Arnold Kling takes issue with several points in Leonhardt’s piece, especially his supposition that when people with college degrees who do work that doesn’t call for academic training earn more than people in the same field who don’t, it’s because going to college gave them more skills. Kling argues that it’s mistaken to assume causality. He suggests that if we could randomly put individuals who have college capabilities and those who don’t into various jobs, we would find that college coursework matters little.
Leonhardt’s headline was that college “pays off” even for cashiers. (The very fact that there are enough cashiers with college degrees to gather data on ought to cause people to wonder if we haven’t oversold college.) I’ll assume the statistics on that (derived from the new Carnevale study) are accurate. Why would it be that, on average, cashiers with college degrees earn more than cashiers without them? Obviously not because college courses improved their ability to do that work. Vocational courses haven’t yet descended to Cashier Studies 101. And I’m quite certain that employers don’t have dual pay scales for new cashiers, with college-credentialed ones getting more than the non-credentialed. So how do we account for the average differential?
I submit that it’s because some people are more reliable than others. Reliable workers (cashiers, dishwashers, opinion writers — anything) are more apt to stay on the job and earn raises, and people who have the capability of doing college work are more likely to be reliable than are people who don’t have that capability. It isn’t that college automatically makes someone a better worker, but that people who have a stronger work ethic, which correlates with college attendance, are more likely to stick around to earn raises. Workers who don’t have the discipline that it takes to get through even feeble college courses are the ones most likely to quit or get fired.
In short, what Leonhardt (and Carnevale) assume is a return to the “investment" in college is really a return to having basic skills and attitudes toward working.