On Cashiers and College Degrees

Jason Fertig

I read David Leonhardt’s NY Times article, “Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off” hoping to find a new argument that defends college-for-all, but instead I found a collage of “same-ol same-ol,” non sequiturs, and cheap shots on the critics of sending more students to college.

In his article, Mr. Leonhardt quotes the latest statistics on the return on investment for college degrees:

The Hamilton Project, a research group in Washington, has just finished a comparison of college with other investments. It found that college tuition in recent decades has delivered an inflation-adjusted annual return of more than 15 percent. For stocks, the historical return is 7 percent. For real estate, it’s less than 1 percent.  Another study being released this weekend — by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose of Georgetown — breaks down the college premium by occupations and shows that college has big benefits even in many fields where a degree is not crucial.

I cannot argue straight facts. Researchers can produce study after study that shows a positive relationship between years of education and income. But correlation does not equal causation. As any Statistics 101 student (hopefully) learns, the numbers only tell part of the tale – the real story is in the explanation. For Mr. Leonhardt, his explanations earn a “high risk revise and resubmit” from this academic. Here are some points that need work:

The argument [against college-for-all] has the lure of counterintuition and does have grains of truth. Too many teenagers aren’t ready to do college-level work. Ultimately, though, the case against mass education is no better than it was a century ago. The evidence is overwhelming that college is a better investment for most graduates than in the past. A new study even shows that a bachelor’s degree pays off for jobs that don’t require one: secretaries, plumbers and cashiers. And, beyond money, education seems to make people happier and healthier.  

Mr. Leonhardt, be very careful with the written word. These statements may receive head nodding at a cocktail party; but when read, the flaws are apparent.

If too many teenagers aren’t ready to do college-level work, why should they go to college? Perhaps they should receive a proper remedial education to get them up to speed and then attend college because there are supposed benefits that they can gain. But that point is not found anywhere in the NY Times article.

Furthermore, there is a sleight of hand here; whether it is intentional I cannot tell. Mr. Leonhardt writes “the case against mass education” and “education seems to make people happier and healthier.” But, very few people who suggest forgoing college are anti-education. Even outspoken college critics like Charles Murray are in favor of some form of post-high school education. It would take quite a nasty individual to suggest that we return civilization to the 1800s, where illiterate factory workers struggled to perform their work properly.

I do agree that education makes people happier. My wife and I recently learned the ins and outs of home building – something that we have been discussing for a while. But, Mr. Leonhardt’s article is about college education, which I’d disagree makes people happier overall. I don’t see much happiness in the couple from CNBC’s “Price of Admission: America’s College Debt Crisis” documentary who are struggling underneath $250,000 of student loan debt. I can even quote a study that reports how students’ favorability with college loans decreases as they get older and further away from that college experience.

Next, Mr. Leonhardt states:

So it’s important to dissect the anti-college argument, piece by piece. It obviously starts with money. Tuition numbers can be eye-popping, and student debt has increased significantly. But there are two main reasons college costs aren’t usually a problem for those who graduate. First, many colleges are not very expensive, once financial aid is taken into account. Average net tuition and fees at public four-year colleges this past year were only about $2,000 (though Congress may soon cut federal financial aid).

College tuition might not be that expensive – after accounting for all the aid, which includes the mountain of student loan debt that now exceeds the total credit card debt in the United States. Blindly pushing young people towards expensive degrees of questionable worth sounds eerily similar to “You need very little down to buy this house. Don’t worry; home prices always go up!”

Speaking of analogies:

Skeptics like to point out that the income gap isn’t rising as fast as it once was, especially for college graduates who don’t get an advanced degree. But the gap remains enormous — and bigger than ever. Skipping college because the pace of gains has slowed is akin to skipping your heart medications because the pace of medical improvement isn’t what it used to be.    

I like analogies, but this one is flawed. Saying college is like heart medication implies that college is necessary to have the best possible quality of life. Mr. Leonhardt even wrote that some students are not ready for college and he acknowledges the “abysmal graduation rates” at some schools. Spending four-plus years at a place unsuited for one’s ability and motivation and incurring unmanageable debt on top of that does not sound like recipe for enhancing quality of life. 

I suggest changing the analogy from heart medications to vitamins. For many students, going to college is akin to spending a lot of money on vitamins. Doing so may enhance one’s quality of life, especially if that person has a vitamin deficiency. But then again, perhaps a few cheaper glasses of orange juice and a lifestyle change can do the same or even better.

Mr. Leonhardt also takes aim at the findings of Academically Adrift:

Even a much-quoted recent study casting doubt on college education, by an N.Y.U. sociologist and two other researchers, was not so simple. It found that only 55 percent of freshmen and sophomores made statistically significant progress on an academic test. But the margin of error was large enough that many more may have made progress. Either way, the general skills that colleges teach, like discipline and persistence, may be more important than academics anyway.

That last sentence should offend any teacher who takes his subject seriously. I will not pass a student who shows up to class and tries hard, but still learns nothing. Basketball coaches will not start a player who cannot dribble the ball, regardless of discipline and persistence. Ideally, the best classes require discipline and persistence to perform well, but those qualities are subordinate to actually learning and applying content. If the academics in a certain course are of questionable educational value, then perhaps that course should be removed. 

There are cheaper ways to demonstrate discipline and persistence. I’ve collected the quarters for all 50 U.S. states just through my daily monetary transactions. That took just as long as it took to finish my bachelors degree, and it only cost $12.50. Besides, a consistent work history shows a greater work ethic than anything conveyed by an undergraduate GPA.

Finally, one major sign of a poor argument is an attack on opponents instead of opponents’ positions:

I don’t doubt that the skeptics are well meaning. But, in the end, their case against college is an elitist one — for me and not for thee. And that’s rarely good advice.

This is how Mr. Leonhardt ends his article. Without this statement, his article supplies refutable interpretations of statistical studies. These sentences turn his piece into personal attacks. I’d love to see some elitist quotes to back up this assertion, but I certainly won’t waste my time waiting. 

Evenwithout the elitist comment, Mr. Leonhardt says that “for me and not for thee” is rarely good advice. Really? One of the best pieces of wisdom people can give is to show their mistakes to others and encourage them not to do the same. Someone who drives a BMW but tells others that the expensive car is not worth the money is not an elitist. Neither is a person who buys a large house, but tells others that a more modest home will allow for more discretionary income.

College is the proper post-secondary education for some. For others, that place is a trade school. Many plumbers without college degrees will earn higher incomes than dishwashers with degrees. Just because something is true on average (e.g. the wage premium for college degrees) does not mean that it is true at the margin. I’ve never seen a proponent of college-for-all address that argument. They just trot out the same statistics over and over; but as more critiques of college are published, more people are learning that the emperor of college-for-all is not wearing clothes. 

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