That's the gist of this piece in yesterday's Washington Post, at any rate. The writer argues, as others have done recently, that if you're in higher education for the money, watch out. It may well cost you a pile, but if you're counting on instant remunerative employment when you graduate, no soap. Check out consumer labels carefully before you buy, he advises, or you might discover too late that you've bought a pig-in-a-poke.
Here is an informative piece on seven jobs that are expected to grow rapidly in the coming years. All "require" college credentials even though it's hard to see why a moderately intelligent high school graduate couldn't learn to do any of them. Also, they all offer low pay. I think this is strong evidence that the US has a serious case of credentialitis.
Here is an excellent piece in the Guardian by a young British woman, obviously very talented and intelligent. She is resisting pressure to go to college because she doubts that it will do her any good. She cites statistics showing that Britain also suffers from credential inflation -- "by 2017, 56% more jobs will require people to hold graduate-level qualifications." I suspect that very few of the jobs requiring such qualifications are really beyond her capabilities. I also suspect that she will find one of those niches where a degree isn't a prerequisite to trying and succeed very well.
Doug French, president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute argues that much of the apparent increase in the “need” for people with college degrees was due to the growth of employment in government since 1990 and growth in the finance industry, fueled to a large extent by federal interventions to keep interest rates artificially low. French also disputes the notion, recently pushed by David Leonhardt of the New York Times, that college is a good investment even if you wind up washing dishes because you’ll enjoy an earnings boost.
I haven’t read it yet, but Neal McCluskey finds the latest study released by Anthony Carnevale’s Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce to be valuable. Neal’s take on it is here. The reason for his praise is that the study demonstrates that college credentials aren’t necessarily like winning lottery tickets and the failure to get those credentials is not a guaranteed trip to the poorhouse. Some individuals who never went to college do very well and some individuals who went to college for a long time don’t do well at all. That makes you suspect that innate personal qualities count for more than formal education does. Nevertheless, the study concludes, “No matter how you cut it, more education pays.” That’s clearly not the case. Education (which is now largely the quest for credentials rather than learning) is a positional good. If everyone gets more of it, that won’t make every job pay more. Workers are paid on the basis of the value of their production and “more education pays” only to the extent that it raises a person’s productive capability. Sometimes college work does that, but not often.
In last week's Pope Center Clarion Call, I analyze the recent paper published by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, "The Undereducated American." It is an attempt to regain momentum for the More People Must Go To College crusade, but it fails to do that. There are more problems in the paper than I had space to address, but I'll tack on one more here. The country doesn't "produce" college graduates any more than it produces accountants or oboe players. Individual decisions are determinative here. So why is it that, despite entreaties from leaders from Obama on down, copious subsidies, and repeated admonitions to students that college will give them a big earnings premium, the college enrollment stats have been flat for some 15 years? I think it's because lots of marginal students doubt that they will benefit from college. Maybe they've heard from friends or family members that many graduates wind up with low-level jobs anyway. Even if they believe that college might eventually help them earn more than average as a cashier or dishwasher, it's not worth the time and expense.
In today’s Pope Center piece, Jenna Ashley Robinson considers that question. Years ago, most students considering grad school had clear academic interests and career goals, but today we find that quite a few go to grad school just because it prolongs the period of time in the academic cocoon and delays the onset of student loan payments. For many students, it will be a long time before the cost of the degree is recovered, even assuming that they’re able to land jobs in the field they’re studying. Since we know that many law school grads can’t find law jobs and many Ph.D.s can’t find anything other than adjunct teaching, the grad school decision is all the more problematic.
"The widespread use of high school diplomas and college degrees as employment screening devices by employers has led to a belief that increasing education will increase opportunities, and/or that the reason for escalating educational 'requirements' is a corresponding increase in the knowledge necessary to perform a given job. The well-organized education lobbies exploit these beliefs to the fullest. In fact, however, educational 'requirements' are often used by employers who are wholly unconcerned about the specific content of the education, but who regards a diploma or degree as an indication of the job applicant's willingness to persevere and his grades as a rough index of his mental capability. The educational requirements are a hurdle which eliminates enough job applicants to narrow the employer's choice down to manageable proportions. By making it possible for more young people to go over a given hurdle, society also makes it necessary for employers to raise the hurdle in order to weed out the same proportion of applicants. The result has been an upward spiral of credentials and requirements with more and more young people being forced to endure more and more years of education that they do not want in order to qualify for jobs where the education is not needed. As more and more jobs have been put beyond the reach of those without the necessary credentials, whether or not such individuals can do the work itself, those ethnic minorities who are not traditionally oriented toward formal education are particularly hard hit." Thomas Sowell, Race and Economics, 1975, pp.231-2. America's mania for educational credentials has been accelerating for quite a long time.
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, I write about the new book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by "Professor X." He's an adjunct who teaches English at two lower-tier schools and the book is highly revealing. Many of his students are barely literate and can't write coherently, but there they are in English 101, having gotten through the remedial filters. They have little interest in learning and are in college just for the credential. If we try to expand higher education the way President Obama and many in the higher education establishment want, the increase in student numbers will come almost entirely from students like these -- and even weaker ones. The author sees the parallel to the housing bubble. We already have lots of "students" who are very dubious candidates for mortgages; next we'll have to go to the college equivalent of "liar loans." College education still has a mystique for many people. Supposedly it does much to impart needed knowledge and skills. It's said to be our "best investment." Read this book and you'll find out it ain't necessarily so.
In this Atlantic column, David Indiviglio argues that the "need" for college has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He understands that for many students, the value in the degree is only positional, indicating that they're better than individuals without the credential. If we reach the point where almost everyone has a BA, then it will be necessary for those who want to set themselves apart to obtain a more advanced degree. Of course, there will be institutions eager to sell them the credentials. In his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning, Professor David Labaree nailed this point, writing, "As each level of education in turn gradually floods with a crowd of ambitious consumers, individuals have to keep seeking ever higher credentials in order to move a step ahead of the pack. In such a system, nobody wins. Consumers have to spend increasing amounts of time and money to gain additional credentials because the swelling number of credential holders keeps lowering the value of credentials at any given level....Employers keep raising the entry-level education requirements for particular jobs, but they still find that they have to provide extensive training before employees can carry out their work productively. At all levels, this is an enormously wasteful system."
In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, I take issue with the piece Kevin Carey had published in The New Republic several weeks ago.
In essence, Carey’s argument is that college will nearly always prove to be a good investment because it has in the past and because skill levels across much of the workforce are rising. I dispute the first point by noting that the phenomenon of large number of college-credentialed people having to take work in fields that call for no academic training has been with us for decades. As for the second, there is no reason to believe that whatever skill increases may be needed throughout the labor force are such that people who have not been to college are incapable for mastering them. The military is a good example. The sophistication of the equipment, weaponry and otherwise, used in the military has been steadily increasing, but it trains its personnel — very few of whom have any college coursework — so that they have the skills needed.
There are many more flaws in his article. Here’s another that really bothered me.
One of the glaring weaknesses in the “College is good for everyone!” case is the mounting evidence that many students learn little or nothing. Leonhardt tries to escape that by noting the recent conclusion by Arum and Roksa that a large percentage of college students they sampled made scant academic gains, then writing, “But the margin of error was large enough that many more may have made progress.”
Yes, but it’s equally likely that the margin of error could go the other way and that “many more” may have been wasting their time and money. Leonhardt knows what “margin of error” means, but he’s writing an advocacy piece, so he evidently feels justified in slanting the data his way.
Then he tries to blow off the entire matter by writing, “The general skills that colleges teach, like discipline and persistence, may be more important that academics anyway.” Small problem here: there is no evidence that colleges are better at teaching discipline and persistence than they are at teaching about math, history, or how to write a good paragraph. Lots of students manifest the same aversion to work, to deadlines, to personal responsibility as seniors that they had as freshmen.
So argues Professor Herbert London in this Minding the Campus essay. Starting from the earliest years, teachers (later professors) often pass along students who haven’t learned much just because it’s the easy and supposedly compassionate thing to do. Thus we wind up with kids in college who are barely literate and can’t do simple math.
Why? It’s because there is no penalty for acting that way. The money keeps flowing in and the teachers and professors keep their jobs despite the educational fraud.
I suspect that there will be quite a few posts regarding David Leonhardt’s NYT hit piece on those of us who argue that we have oversold college and ought to stop promoting the notion that it’s a good "investment" for almost everyone. Bryan Caplan takes issue here with Leonhardt’s closing line about the supposed evils of “elitism.”
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.
I posted this as a comment on Richard Kahlenberg's Innovations blog post, "The College-for-All Debate"
Peter Wood and I debated Education Sector's Kevin Carey last week in a four-day online debate through Minnesota Public Radio. The assertion was: The drive to increase college enrollment threatens to lower academic standards.
In today's Pope Center piece, Jenna Ashley Robinson continues examining the case that higher education is a bubble that may burst or at least deflate. Among other evidence she presents, long-term average earnings for individuals with BA degrees have not risen much and the the last few years have dipped.
So argues William Cohan in this NYT Opinionator blog post. He focuses on a number of highly successful people who made it without college credentials. This is the point of Peter Thiel's entrepreneurial grants -- young people who have intelligence, ideas, and ambition ought to be able to get started right away rather than taking a long college detour.
Today both Peter Wood and Jason Fertig observed that Paul Krugman, whom Peter calls one of the "stalwarts of the left," has gone on record to doubt the value of the college degree as the best path to prosperity for the majority of Americans. Krugman began his recent op-ed:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that education is the key to economic success. Everyone knows that the jobs of the future will require ever higher levels of skill. That’s why, in an appearance Friday with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, President Obama declared that “If we want more good news on the jobs front then we’ve got to make more investments in education.”But what everyone knows is wrong.
Krugman goes on to argue that more education does not necessarily lead to a stronger national economy, an argument that NAS and our friends at the Pope Center and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity have been making for some time. Peter and Jason note that when someone as prominently on the left as Krugman acknowledges that the value of the college degree is weaker than it's cracked up to be, we must be nearing some broader consensus about higher education's worth.
Peter Wood has an interesting couple of articles on the Chronicle's Innovations blog this week. He compares Lily Bart, a fictional character in the 1905 novel The House of Mirth with Lady Gaga and talks about how higher education is responsible for giving "trash culture a veneer of respectability" and how it "encourages students to open themselves to many of their worst impulses" (Lily Bart vs. Lady Gaga).
Inside Higher Ed ran a story on an AEI conference where the subject was the “completion agenda.” That is, do we really need to get lots more young people into and through college as Obama says we should? After the presentation of a paper by Arthur Hauptman that was skeptical, Lumina Foundation’s Dewayne Matthews commented that “there’s no real debate here that more people need college degrees.” Sorry, but there IS a great debate over that.
Today's Wall Street Journal published George Leef's letter:
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Doing Time, With a Degree to Show for It," discusses the value of higher education for prison inmates. The author is a distinguished fellow at the Bard Prison Initiative. I was especially arrested by this excerpt from the author's conversation with a former inmate:
As I pressed him to explain, he talked of growing up in Harlem, where his friends in the street always wanted to know "who was putting us down." Bard taught him, he said, to think critically about statements like that. His classes in history and anthropology had enabled him to understand his situation in a social context. "Now," he said, smiling, "I know life is more than 'us versus them.'"
Life is more than 'us versus them.' I'm glad that history and anthropology classes are teaching this to the incarcerated. But for most students, liberal arts classes teach just the opposite - that history is the history of identity-group-based oppression. Just look at Howard Zinn's textbooks. It sounds as if colleges and universities have something to learn from programs such as the Bard Prison Initiative. To read further on prison education, check out this article from the NAS:
Inmates in liberal arts programs frequently invoke the language of inner freedom to describe their experience. The irony, of course, is that so many students who are on the outside attending elite four-year colleges and universities adopt the pretence that their freedom is phony and that they are victims of an oppressive society.
Do we finally have a national higher education agenda in the U.S.? Inside Higher Ed suggests we're close. The "now widely held view that the country must in the next 10-15 years significantly increase the number of Americans with a quality postsecondary credential," advocated by President Obama and numerous large foundations has its critics, IHE says. But "few strongly dispute the basic premise that more higher education for more people will be good for the country, its economy and its citizens." This is one of those times where NAS belongs to the "few." We vigorously dispute the premise that assumes that expanding enrollments will expand national prosperity. The fallacy behind this idea is mistaking most-educated for best-educated. Those terms don't mean the same thing. By 2020, or 2025, or whenever we finally reach the big goals set by President Obama, the Lumina Foundation, and others, we may have the highest percentage of college-educated people, but will we be the world's best-educated? A commenter on the IHE article, Burke Smith, articulates skepticism along these lines:
For instance, without objective standards of educational quality (which higher education does not currently have), incentives for degree completion could very easily lead to a cheapening of the degree. The nationwide growth of grade inflation and corresponding reduction in the amount of time spent studying is one example of such a possibility.
Smith is the CEO of StraighterLine, a company that helps students transfer college credit. We at NAS agree with Smith that incentives for degree completion could very easily lead to a cheapening of the degree. A lot of people with mediocre education won't aid our country in innovation and international competition. And as George pointed out today, more college degrees do not equal economic growth. Check out the full list of NAS articles on higher ed expansion here.
In this LA Times op-ed, economics professor Shirley Svorny (Cal State Northridge) argues against the idea that if a state puts more kids through college, that will provide it with an economic boost. While the bigwigs in California's higher ed system want people to believe that, she says that "the state's prosperity rests on public policies that encourage economic activity, not on heavy subsidies to higher education." But won't the added knowledge from college make workers more productive? Svorny rebuts that notion, observing that "artificially low fees attract some students who simply aren't suited to the academic rigors of a university. Ultimately, the presence of these lower-achieving students hurts those who are more academically inclined, as they end up in watered-down courses in which professors have to focus on bringing the low achievers along." I would add that even for students who do study diligently, getting a college degree may be of little economic value. There is no automatic link between the number of sharp and highly educated people in a state and the creation of high-skill jobs.
I recently discovered MyFuture.com, a website for high school students to help them decide what to do as they begin adulthood. It has three branches: career, college, and military, and it has clear information and step-by-step guides for each. I appreciate its inclusion of military and career as viable options next to college - which makes sense given that MyFuture.com was developed by the Department of Defense. Most of the time, the only option recommended to high school students is college. The easy-to-use website is something I'd recommend to all my high school friends and their parents. I'm glad to know about this good resource.
Writing at the CCAP blog, Christopher Matgouranis shows how badly the U.S. has oversold college. He gives some Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the prevalence of college degrees among those working in occupations that most high school students could easily learn. It's worth mentioning that this is not a recent phenomenon either. College grads have been spilling over into "high school jobs" for many years. See, e.g., Pryor and Schaffer's 1999 book Who's Not Working and Why. Obama wants to substantially increase the number of Americans who get college degrees, but what does he think they'll be doing?
I just read an article in the University Daily Kansan linked in Glenn's Collegiate Press Roundup this week. The article, "Women, Take Back Halloween" is written by a male student whose characterization of slutty Halloween costumes on campus echoes that of Nathan Harden in Proud to Be Right. He urges women at U Kansas to cover up this Halloween and dare to dress goofy instead of sexy. I'm heartened to hear this plea, especially from a male student, for sexual dignity, but what most caught my eye was his reason for entering a costume store: research for his class, "What Fictional Characters Wore: Jesus to Jacob from Twilight." First of all, why is Jesus being called a "fictional character"? Second, why is this a college course? The author is a in the film and media studies and journalism programs. His mention of the course is the only place it exists on the internet, and it's not included in the film and media studies course list. But if this really is a course at the U of Kansas, how is it justified as advancing higher learning? Is this what college level academic work has come to?
David Warren writes for The Ottawa Citizen and has a firm grasp on the reality of higher education. Consider this column published Oct. 12. Is higher education a great, crucial investment in human capital? Here's what he says:
The great majority of the universities -- founded since the Second World War to bureaucratically process and credentialize a large part of the general population, as a matter of 'right' and regardless of their intellectual capacities -- are in effect 'community colleges' or trade schools. Many of the trades being taught are perverse and wouldn't exist without further government subsidy ("women's studies" for instance, to produce professional feminist agitators). But most are the commonplace trades, and the colleges only provide incredibly inefficient and ineffective ways to replace the older apprenticeship arrangements, while cosseting the young from demands of the job market until they are thoroughly spoiled.
Read the whole, wonderfully iconoclastic thing. If you can stomach pure bile, read the comments too. I'll be on the lookout for more of Warren's columns. Hat tip: Geoff Hawkins.
Michael Mandel notes in this post that among recent college grads who have employment, the greatest number have government jobs. They probably produce little or no value; what they do may in fact impede the creation of value by others -- but they have what they probably consider "good" jobs. Another large category is the hospitality industry. Some 33,000 more grads are working in restaurants and hotels. Their jobs probably don't pay very well and could be done by most high school grads, but they ARE producing value.
Another report out this week is the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation's 116-page account of how far the U.S. must go to meet the Foundation's goal of "increasing the proportion of American adults with a college degree to 60 percent by 2025." There's been a lot of goal-setting of this kind lately. President Obama, the Carnegie Corporation, and the College Board have all set their own goals for higher education attainment in the next decade or so. The rationale is that we want America to be the most-educated nation in the world (right now we're eleventh or twelfth). But being the most-educated nation isn't likely to make us the best-educated nation. Here's why. (See especially "American Character, the Remix: How College is Shaping Us Now")
This week the Chronicle of Higher Education reports a new study by the College Board that offers evidence that the more educated you are, the more money you're likely to earn over a lifetime. Quoted in the article are Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and Charles Miller, former chairman of the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education, who both raise some tough questions about the report's findings. Peter Wood also answered the hypothesis that a college degree is still the best investment in his recent article "The Bubble: Higher Education's Precarious Hold on Consumer Confidence."
Your op-ed relating to credential inflation is on point. Beyond college credential inflation there is another "credential" inflation virus that has infected the US. It is the license or certification credential. No longer are 10 to 20 years in a field enough for an individual's worth or contribution. Individuals are now required to be certified or have credentials. Certifications that go beyond passing the bar, CPA, MD etc. Certifications such as black belt 6 sigma, AIPCS, PPM, CFA, CIA, CMA, etc..... Credentials that mean nothing more than the holder of the credential passed an exam. Again business assigning magic powers to an individual with credentials versus real world experience. It has created an entire industry on certification test prep, test taking etc.... while contributing nothing to the work environment. Even worse, relating to credential inflation, I have seen job ads, especially government job ad, that require a certain amount of real world experience, yet they also require college transcripts/grades regardless of whether the individual has been out of college for a period that makes transcripts/grades irrelevant. P.S. My background is 15+ years in finance, operations and project management, in manufacturing, hi-tech, telecom and cpg industries, complimented by an MBA/JD.
Writing for Huffington Post, Anya Kamenetz compares the huge level of student loan debt to the housing bubble. I'm glad to see understanding that we have oversold college spreading, but Kamenetz misses the role of the government in the college bubble, just as leftist writers turned a blind eye to the role of the government in the housing bubble. There would have been no housing bubble if it hadn't been for federal policy pushing home-ownership as if it were a good investment for everyone and making unrealistically cheap loans available. Similarly, government officials, starting with Barack Obama, keep telling young Americans that they need to go to college (otherwise, they're letting not just themselves but the nation down, says BHO) and enabling even the most academically weak, disengaged students to get into college with financial assistance from Uncle Sam. Kamenetz makes it sound as though the bad actors are all in the for-profit sector: "Someone with experience in the for-profit college marketing business told me that the same online sales geniuses who used to work for mortgage brokers are now employed by for-profit colleges. Their business is the same: fill out the forms, get the money, consequences be damned. Will we stop them this time?" Ah, but you'll find lots of kids drowning in their student loan debts who went to public colleges and universities as well. Those schools are just as eager to lure in warm bodies to fill the dorms and school coffers, just as eager to keep them enrolled even if they are learning little, and just as eager to slap educational credentials on them and send them into a job world that many will find as hospitable as Antarctica. The trouble is not the profit motive; non-profit institutions are no less hungry for revenue than proprietary ones. The trouble is that government policy makes it easy for people to misjudge the ratio between costs and benefits, leading to a profusion of decisions that borrowers later regret. Letting students escape from their debts in bankruptcy, which Kamenetz favors, only deals with the symptoms. I say we should attack the underlying pathology.
Today's Pope Center piece is the second part of my critique of the recent paper from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce. It focuses on the prevalent notion that much of the labor force in the future will demand workers with "higher skills" and that going to college is the only way for someone to acquire such skills. It's almost amazing that the authors of the paper never pause to consider the impact of credential inflation when they write about the increasing numbers of jobs that "require" a college education. Nor do they ever tell us exactly what knowledge an intelligent high school graduate is lacking that would make it impossible for him to learn and perform most of the jobs that are available.
The paper in question is the latest from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce and the case, naturally, is that America needs to get lots more people through college or else the economy will suffer from a shortage of skilled workers. In today's Clarion Call, I take a look at one of its major arguments -- that college is "worth it" because of the alleged "wage premium" that those with college education enjoy. The trouble is that those average earnings statistics tell us nothing about individuals at the margin. There are lots of college grads these days who work at pretty mundane, low-pay jobs, and the evidence in the paper even shows that considerable number of people in the lowest two earnings quintiles have college degrees. Alas, the authors entirely overlook the significance of those data. That's why I entitled my piece "This Paper Refutes Itself."
Blogging at Harvard Business Review, Michael Schrage makes a strong case that higher education has been oversold. What people need to succeed are skills and college is neither necessary nor sufficient for that. He calls higher education "a misleading-to-malignant proxy for economic productivity or performance." Very well put.
The careful image campaign that the higher ed establishment has conducted for decades seems to be wearing off, if this Washington Examiner piece is any indication. The writer observes that lots of American students now get their high-cost college degrees, but can't even do basic math. Many of them can (and will!) hector you about "sustainability," their concerns about social justice, institutional racism and so on -- but they can't work out the simplest of numerical problems. A large number of jobs now "require" college degrees, but that requirement rarely has anything to do with actual knowledge. It's a screening device to keep out supposedly less prepared and trainable high school graduates, but it's becoming clear that many college graduates are no better.
That's what most people say, but the truth of the matter is that quite a few highly successful individuals never earned college degrees. Some of them have created great companies that ironically demand college degrees for jobs far less demanding than that of their non-college CEOs. In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, Jenna Ashley Robinson writes about people who are very successful but who don't have any college credentials. Maybe a future piece should be about people who have college degrees but can hardly even keep a low-skill job.
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, Jay Schalin takes a look at the conventional wisdom that a sure-fire way for states or countries to boost their economies is by putting more resources into higher education. He concludes that the conventional wisdom is mostly wrong. Education, like everything else, is subject to diminishing returns and we're probably well past the point where additional benefits are less than additional costs.
This piece in The Chronicle reveals what many higher ed critics of known for years -- getting a college degree is no guarantee of prosperity. In fact, many Americans with degrees live in poverty. Those who keep saying that the nation will get a huge productivity boost by putting more people through college ought to consider the possibility that we've already oversold higher ed. The glut of people with degrees who can't find jobs that pay even moderately well is good evidence that we have. Conversely, I wish I didn't have to wait days to get someone to work on my malfunctioning air conditioning here in hot and humid North Carolina.
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, I comment on the recent AEI paper by Professor John Thelin, in which he shows that there was no "golden age" of higher ed in America when most students who enrolled completed their studies and received their degrees. Even elite schools had fairly high dropout rates a century ago and hardly anyone thought that college dropout rates mattered -- except insofar as they hurt school finances. Thelin accepts the standard view that today's high dropout rate is "troubling" but doesn't make a case. Many of those who drop out are students who won't benefit much from college coursework. They're cutting short their losses on an "investment" that probably won't pay off.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting opinion piece by Seth Godin called "The Coming Meltdown in Higher Education (as Seen by a Marketer)" [subscription required]. Godin suggests alternatives to the four-year college, such as "gap years, research internships, and entrepreneurial or social ventures after high school," and believes that "There are tons of ways to get a cheap liberal education, one that exposes you to the world, permits you to have significant interactions with people who matter, and teaches you to make a difference (see DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, by Anya Kamenetz)" without going to a mainstream college. Godin argues that from a marketer's point of view, the typical American college is headed for obscurity for these reasons:
The Wall Street Journal ran a review of Professor Jackson Toby's book The Lowering of Higher Education in its December 23 edition. The reviewer, Ben Wildavsky, unfortunately buys into the standard line that college studies are highly beneficial and the country needs to encourage more students to enroll and graduate. Wildavsky asserts that keeping ill-prepared students out of college is "one trade-off we should not make" because "the indisputable benefits of college should be spread more widely, not less." Nonsense. The supposed benefits of attending and (maybe, eventually) graduating from college are highly questionable. Toby shows that many students enter college with feeble intellectual background and learning tools, then coast through without learning much of lasting benefit. (As I argued here, it's doubtful that students have any human capital gain from their college experience.) Moreover, there isn't necessarily any financial benefit from going to college, even graduating. Unfortunately, Toby didn't mention the mountain of evidence that college graduates often end up working in "high school jobs" that don't pay very well no matter what your educational credentials. (That's a point I have been making for years, for example, here.) Perhaps if he had, Wildavsky's belief that going to college confers indisputable benefits would have been shaken. In any case, it's hard to see how you could read Toby's book, which makes a strong case that many students graduate from college with an education in name only, and yet maintain that it's so beneficial that we must not cut back.
In today's Wall Street Journal, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan contributes a piece entitled "Banks Don't Belong in the Student Loan Business." What he opposes is federally subsidized bank loans and I'm with him on that. Subsidizing student loans is no better policy than subsidizing home loans. Where we part company is in his approval of direct government loans, which he wants to increase so that more students can "realize the dream of getting a college education." As I have frequently pointed out, a college degree is what many students want. Relatively few dream of education. Low-cost loans entice large numbers of young people who gain little if anything in the way of lasting knowledge and skills into college, where they pile of debts they'll have a hard time repaying once they get into the labor force and get a job that most high school kids could do. Besides that, nothing in the Constitution authorizes the federal government to lend money for this or any other purpose.
Given the problems facing higher education today, this speech on the purpose of college delivered by Justice Wendell Phillips Stafford at the Sesqui-Centennial of Dartmouth College in 1919 seems as timely as ever. Here is an excerpt:
(The spirit of college) has shown itself in men who never knew how the inside of a college looked. When Lincoln jotted down the main facts of his life for the Congressional Directory, he wrote: "Education defective." And yet, tried by the test we are applying now, he was college-bred. The question is not, whether you studied Euclid in a classroom or stretched out on the counter of a country store. The question is, whether you mastered it. Lincoln did. And the thews and sinews of his mind, which he developed so, stood by him in the day when he threw Douglas down. John Keats was as innocent of the Greek language as the new curriculum assumes all men should be; yet out of some stray book on mythology the " miserable apprentice to an apothecary " contrived to draw into his soul the very spirit of Hellenic art, until he left us poems which Hellenists declare to be more Grecian than the Greek. He, too, was college-bred, as we now mean it, for he was impelled by that determination to subdue and fructify his powers, with the aid of all the past has left us, until they yielded something glorious and undying for his fellow men. His spirit was not the spirit of the dove, but of the eagle: "My spirit is too weak! Mortality Weighs heavily on me, like unwilling sleep; And each imagined pinnacle and steep Of godlike hardship tells me I must die, Like a sick eagle looking at the sky." If I am right, there lie wrapt up in this determination those three aims: (1) to discipline one's powers and make them fruitful; (2) in order to accomplish this, to make use of all that men have gained before us; and (3) to devote these powers and acquisitions to the common weal. The advantage the college has is this: that here the determined spirit finds the tool-shop and the arsenal. That spirit itself the college can foster and encourage but cannot create. It can and does lay open to its use the weapons and the tools. It can and does teach, in a fair, general way, what men thus far have done. It leads the newcomer to the point where they left off, and says: "Begin here, if you would not waste your time. This territory has been conquered. Go forth from this frontier." It also shows the worker of the present day what other men are doing. It brings him into touch with them, that he may put his effort forth where it will tell the most."
Stafford's entire text can be found here.
A couple of weeks ago, I started reading the new book Crossing the Finish Line, which purports to make the case for getting a lot more young Americans not only into, but through college. Almost immediately, I got stuck on the authors' assumption that college does much to increase the human capital of students. That assumption is crucial to their case, but I think it's highly questionable. Many colleges and universities are chiefly interested in processing through as many bodies as possible and have therefore watered down their standards to the point where students can pass courses with only the mental toolkit they had in high school. In athletics, the saying is "No pain, no gain." To keep weak and indifferent students happy, a lot of schools make it possible to get through college without any pain. Whether college adds to human capital or is just a costly period of marching in place is the subject of my Pope Center Clarion Call piece today.
Maurice O'Sullivan has an excellent article in the latest issue of Change magazine, (subscription required), on the shortfalls of the current liberal education movement. He argues that the liberal-education movement rests upon several myths, such as a spurious belief that a narrow focus on processes such as "critical thinking" can somehow take the place of the rich content found in the traditional liberal-arts curriculum. Sullivan writes:
For those of us who believe that success in business and the professions will come relatively easily to students who have been well prepared to engage in all the dialogues of life--an engagement that requires a broad range of historical and contemporary knowledge; the ability to reflect deeply on that knowledge and to evaluate it critically; and the ability to present informed opinions orally and in writing in a clear, powerful, and sophisticated way--the relentless movement toward narrower and narrower career education is disconcerting. And claiming that the smattering of knowledge provided by a liberal education component offers an adequate balance to narrow majors seems both disingenuous and dangerous.
Readers unfamiliar with the current state of the liberal-education movement might also want to browse through this issue of the Association of American Colleges and Universities' publication Peer Review which, we are told, "illustrates the potential for public health education as a vehicle for liberal learning".
Cross-posted from NAS.org, "An Unsuccessful Education Can Ruin You": The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article, "Course Reminds Budding Ph.D.'s of the Damage They Can Do," about a seminar taught at the CUNY Graduate Center on the ethics of teaching. Steven M. Cahn teaches the class, and he seeks to dispel the notion that all education is innocuous:
"People often think that education works either to improve you or to leave you as you were," Mr. Cahn says. "But that's not right. An unsuccessful education can ruin you. It can kill your interest in a topic. It can make you a less-good thinker. It can leave you less open to rational argument. So we do good and bad as teachers—it's not just good or nothing."
Cahn discusses with his small class the meaning of academic freedom ("How free should instructors be to proclaim their beliefs in the classroom? And how sensitive should they be to their students' personal commitments?") and the question of university neutrality ("Do colleges have an institutional duty to stay out of certain public debates? Or is that kind of neutrality actually undesirable or impossible?"). His students enjoy tackling these issues; as future professors, the subjects they consider in Cahn's seminar will soon become very real for them. This course covers the very same fundamental higher education debates in which the National Association of Scholars has found a voice for the last twenty-two years. These are conversations well worth having - they ponder "What does it mean to be a university of integrity?" The existence of the CUNY seminar is encouraging. Now if only all faculty members and administrators took this course, perhaps we'd have a better foundation for teaching the next generation.
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.
The remarks below were sent in from Dr. Jeremiah Reedy, who serves on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Scholars and was the founding president of the Minnesota Association of Scholars. Dr. Reedy taught Classics at Macalester College from 1968 to 2004.
The daughter of a friend from South Africa just earned an M.D. degree from a medical school in England. It only took her five years---that is five years after graduating from high school. Last summer a former student who lives in Cyprus introduced me to her brother who had just finished law school in Athens. It took him four years, and again it was four years after graduating from high school. I know that medical and law faculties in the U.S. want students who are broadly educated and have read widely. Given the fact, however, that many students today are not getting what has traditionally been known as a liberal arts education but are instead being indoctrinated with radical politics, wouldn’t it be a good idea for U.S medical and law schools to accept students immediately after completion of high school? This would be an especially good idea in medicine since, if Congress passes a bill that provides universal health care, there is going to be an acute shortage of physicians. Not only will there be a huge increase in the number of people who want to see doctors, but many physicians have said they may retire early if we have government health care. A possible by-product of what I am proposing could be that students and teachers would begin taking high school more seriously. Any reactions?