College Degrees Aren't Umbrellas

George Leef

  • Article
  • August 22, 2012

That’s the title of my essay today on Minding the Campus. It is a reaction to the latest study published by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, which continues that groups cheerleading for getting more people through college by arguing that it’s an advantage to have a college degree because when a recession hits, people who have degrees are less likely to lose their jobs than are those who don’t have them.

There is much to criticize in that study and I focus mainly on the perennial problem of assuming that because some good result is statistically correlated with college degrees, that means that the degree is the cause, thus leading to the conclusion that the more people who get college degrees, the better. I also offer a challenge to the Georgetown people: instead of just asserting that more jobs require college education, how about proving that a large percentage of jobs available to young people now demand such levels of skill and knowledge that your typical high school graduate simply could not learn to do the work. There have always been some jobs that really demand education that even the sharpest high school grads don’t have and will only get in college, but I am skeptical that the number of such jobs has increased so much that we face an economic imperative to get more people through college.

And a closing point I didn’t get into: if having a college degree gives you “an advantage” in the labor market, what happens to that advantage if more and more people get a degree? Can everyone have “an advantage?” Obviously not. Isn’t the quest for college credentials like the quest among colleges themselves to become more prestigious — a costly zero-sum game?

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