Do We Need to Put More People Through College?

George Leef

Last Thursday, NRO published an article that took me aback, "Send More Students to College" by Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute. I have been arguing for years that we have oversold higher education and was surprised to see the title. Had I overlooked something important demonstrating that, to the contrary, we haven't done enough to promote it? Without having read it, I posted a brief skeptical rejoinder and after having read it, this lengthier counterattack. If you don't want to take the time for the posts, here's my key argument, as I wrote at the John Locke Foundation's blog: The central difficulty in the Winters article (and many others like it) is the assumption that because, on average, college educated people earn more than those who don't have degrees, college is responsible for adding the "human capital" that makes them more productive. Although it's true that on average the college educated earn more, that is in large measure due to the fact that over the last few decades, opportunities for people who ended formal education with high school to get into entry-level jobs that lead to high-paying positions have been steadily decreasing. That's because of credentialitis: employers screen out the presumably less reliable and trainable people who don't have degrees. Some young Americans go through college, learning a great deal, and augmenting their knowledge and skills considerably, but we also know that many others just loaf through college, taking easy courses that require little intellectual exertion and graduate with very weak skills in reading, writing, and math. If they get jobs that pay above average, is it due to the "human capital" they gained in college, which is awfully hard to discern, or is it due to the fact that they have benefited from the way employers use credentials as a raw screening mechanism? I think my argument better accounts for the facts.

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