Too Many College Students? Yes, Unfortunately

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on August 1, 2012, in response to an essay by Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College.

I appreciate President Rosenberg’s praise of my skill as a writer and return the compliment. I also share his hope that my predictions about the financial mess that lies ahead for American higher education prove mistaken. I don’t welcome “collapse,” though I do think it is a distinct possibility.

Dr. Rosenberg takes strongest exception to my statement that too many students are going to college. His exception, however, is grounded on a quiet emendation of what I said, and several of the comment leavers have noticed this.  Education, in my view, is among the highest of human goods and I would not want to deprive anyone of the opportunity to pursue it.  But education and enrollment in over-priced college-degree programs are not one and the same thing.

Most readers here have no doubt run across President Garfield’s quip in his 1871 address to the alumni of Williams College: “Give me a log cabin in the center of the state of Ohio, with one room in it and a bench with Mark Hopkins on one end of it and me on the other, and that would be a college good enough for me.” (Hopkins, a legendary teacher, was the president of Williams, 1836-1872.)

We pursue education in many ways: by reading, conversing, solving problems, arguing out propositions, researching, writing essays, and—sometimes—having the opportunity for disciplined study in a community of scholars. But the last is neither necessary nor sufficient. And it is an opportunity that is plainly of little value to the third or so of college students who graduate (according to Arum and Roksa’s study based on the Collegiate Learning Assessment) with the same level of intellectual skill they had as entering freshmen.

Dr. Rosenberg offers me a cornucopia of errors to correct, but I’ll pick just two more grapes from the feast.

He refers to the statistics that the U.S. falls behind other countries in the percent of the population that holds associate’s degrees or higher, and suggests that this poses a danger to the nation’s prosperity. As I have pointed out several times in my Chronicle postings (see, for example, “Supersizing,” February 15, 2012), there is a very poor correlation between the percent of college-degree attainment in a nation and the nation’s overall prosperity.  Russia leads the world in college-degree attainment among 25- to 64-year-olds and among 25- to 34-year-olds, both at 54 percent. No one thinks Russia has the world’s leading economy.  Switzerland (34 percent) and Germany (25 percent) have robust economies but smaller percentages of degree holders than the U.S. (We have 41 percent among 25- to 64-year-olds, according to a 2010 OECD; 38 percent according to the older OECD study Dr. Rosenberg apparently replied on.)

Dr. Rosenberg also offers the testimony of fellow task-force members in Minnesota and the employers they have conferred with, all of whom agree that higher education “is central to supplying the skilled talent” that business needs to thrive in the North Star state. I don’t doubt that business needs skilled labor, and that higher education is a gatekeeper, after a fashion. (It is, among other things, a legal gatekeeper, since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in 1971 in Griggs v Duke Power,  effectively banning the use of general-intelligence tests for sorting out potential employees. Griggs appears to have boosted college enrollments.) But it may be worth pointing out that business has no built-in reason to care what happens to students who, despite not having the talent or the self-discipline, enroll in college and then drop out; or, lacking real interest in what college has to offer, stick around to pick up their degrees but acquire little in the way of knowledge or skill along the way.

Business perhaps ought to be a little more concerned about the graduates of elite colleges who have acquired little but hostility for free enterprise and American institutions of self-government, and see themselves instead as enlightened “citizens of the world.” But that’s another story.

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