A dangerous idea has been gaining momentum within education-reform circles: Too many young people are going to college. Since Charles Murray took up this line in a series of Wall Street Journal op-eds and then in last year’s book Real Education, the idea has neared the mainstream. Though only directly addressed in a few words, this idea haunts nearly every page of Matthew B. Crawford’s otherwise excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft, which made it up to number 17 and was listed as an editors’ choice on the New York Times Bestseller List. An article in National Review’s recent special issue on higher education argued that fewer students should go to college, and another argued that students who do go should spend less time there. I have repeatedly heard it ventured over the last year in conferences and in gatherings of policy wonks.
But while the idea that college should be only for the demonstrably qualified may look convincing at first glance, it turns out that the United States suffers from the opposite problem — too few college-educated workers to meet the challenges of our increasingly complicated society. The case that too many students are going to college comes through two arguments: that we have reached the zenith of our ability to produce students with the skills necessary to succeed in college, and that for marginal students, the economic returns from college are not as good as advertised. Neither of these critiques stand up to scrutiny.
The critique of a policy of higher education for almost everybody rests on the conviction that perhaps a majority of young people inherently lack the cognitive ability to master genuinely college-level material, and that therefore even the best school systems can’t ready them for postsecondary education.
To prove this point, Murray reprints in Real Education some questions missed by eighth-grade students who took a standardized test often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. Their failure to answer such simple questions accurately is astounding. For example, 32 percent of students chose the wrong answer to this question (meaning that if you count the students who guessed right by chance, about 40 percent didn’t know the answer):
What is 4 hundredths written in decimal notation?
(A) 0.0004 (B) 0.04 (C) 0.400 (D) 4.00 (E) 400.0
When a child reaches the eighth grade and does not know how to interpret decimals or the verbal instructions accompanying them, it’s tempting to think that he lacks the cognitive ability to do so, and thus to master the material necessary to succeed in college. But when such a high proportion of American eighth-graders lack these skills, and a disproportionate number of them are concentrated in inner-city schools, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that a crucial part of the problem is the schools themselves, not genes or living conditions.
One piece of evidence is the success of schools like the Carl Icahn Charter School, which serves a population made up almost entirely of low-income minority students from its South Bronx neighborhood. To anyone walking around the school it is clear that these otherwise disadvantaged kids are thriving. On my visit there I witnessed fully engaged students who look you in the eye with rare confidence. Their writing samples tacked to the classroom walls suggest they are mastering the ability to think critically and convey their thoughts convincingly. The apparent excellence of this school was confirmed when the results of New York’s state assessments were released: 94 percent scored above the proficient level in English, and 99 percent of them met or exceeded this level in math. In contrast, about half of the students in the surrounding public school district, which most of these students would have attended had they not gained enrollment in this charter school, scored below the proficiency mark.
Even allowing for the fact that the poor families these kids come from are sufficiently motivated and informed to apply for admission, the evidence indicates that the key variable separating them from their public-school counterparts is the quality of schooling they receive: A recent of charter schools in New York City (by a team led by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby) found that kids who applied to charter schools and were admitted by lottery substantially outperformed those students who applied and were randomly denied seats. Putting their results in context, the researchers found that the average proficiency gains made by a student who attended a New York City charter school from kindergarten through the eighth grade are enough to close the gap between the average student in inner-city Harlem and the average student in Scarsdale (a wealthy New York suburb famous for the quality of its public schools) by about 86 percent in math and 66 percent in English. That is, when they attend high-quality schools, students who stand little chance of acquiring the proficiency necessary to attend college under the current system don’t look so different from upper-class suburban students for whom college attendance is a given.
The idea that the public school system’s ability to increase academic achievement has hit its peak is also inconsistent with other modern research, which has found that the particular teacher to whom a student is assigned can mean a difference of as much as a grade level’s worth of additional academic progress in a single year. This work implies that if we could improve the quality of our ineffective teachers or replace them with effective ones, we would dramatically improve educational outcomes. There is plenty of room for schools to get better, particularly those where low achievement is the norm.
The second form of attack on college enrollment focuses on a large class of students who may have the academic ability to go on to college but who supposedly should avoid it anyway, due to the slow debasement of the bachelor’s degree. Once strong proof of broad learning, it has become, in the eyes of these critics, a bogus credential reflecting collapsed academic standards and the curricular inroads of pseudo-disciplines. The democratization of higher education has produced not only vastly larger enrollments but, inevitably, unprecedented numbers of mediocre students. In addition, a higher proportion of higher education today is devoted to coursework in thrown-together fields — such as queer studies, ethnic studies, and peace studies — that are not exactly famous for being stringent, except in the ideological sense. And the fidelity of depictions of campus life such as Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons makes it difficult to believe that study occupies the center of students’ lives.
Anyway, some of the best jobs don’t require a degree. Instead of going on to college, compiling a mediocre record there, then taking an office job, a high-school graduate with good manual or practical skills could receive vocational training and become, say, an electrician, who in a few years could be earning more than a mediocre “knowledge worker,” as Shop Class as Soulcraft contends.
But if the foregoing makes sense, it should also be the case that the economic advantage that college graduates have traditionally possessed is eroding. Yet the wage premium a year of college coursework yields has been increasing at a rapid clip since about 1979. And the premium is responsible not only for wage differences between vocations in which college degrees are the norm and those in which they are not. The education wage premium also appears when economists control for the worker’s industry — that is, the wage premium is found both across and within professions.
This return in wages on a year of college was quite high in 1915, dropped dramatically in the middle part of the 20th century, turned upward in 1979, and is now back at its 1915 level. Employers not only still value the general knowledge and work ethic that their workers acquire in a college classroom, they value them more every day.
What then explains the recent rise in the college wage premium?
Some commentators have challenged the estimates directly. A popular contention is that the wage premium is largely explained by the fact that more-able people are more likely to go to college in the first place. Though statistical estimates are always imperfect, the research on the educational wage premium has made considerable efforts to control for differences between those who attend college and those who do not. In their recent review of this research, economists Donald Deere and Jelena Vesovic describe the model underlying the relationship between schooling and wages as “one of the most successful, and almost certainly the most estimated, relationships in economics.”
Given that the education wage premium exists, it is tempting to look outside of the education system to explain it. One explanation might be that the increase in the return on education has been caused by improvements in technology — computers, etc. — which increased the demand for a more able workforce. But technological improvements are nothing new. The mid-20th century brought dramatic improvements in technology, and yet the wage premium paid for each year of additional schooling declined rapidly in that period.
In last year’s book The Race Between Education and Technology, Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz show convincingly that the difference today is that while technological improvements have continuously increased the demand for highly skilled workers, we have not similarly increased the supply of educated graduates. That is, the income disparity between those who have attended college and those who have not has been widening precisely because not enough students are going to college.
In the past, technological growth was matched by an even more impressive increase in educational attainment, as Americans, in the republic’s earliest days, pushed children into elementary school, and then high school, and more recently college. In the mid-20th century, educational improvements raced ahead of technological improvements, producing an influx of highly skilled workers who competed with each other for jobs, keeping wages down. The wage gap consistently decreased.
However, in the middle-to-late 1970s, educational attainment stalled, though technology continued progressing. Since 1977, high-school-graduation rates, college-attendance rates, and standardized-test scores have all plateaued. Now too few educated workers chase after a growing number of skilled jobs, allowing them to command ever-higher wage premiums. In their empirical work, Goldin and Katz show that changes in the supply of college-educated workers nearly entirely explains the peaks and valleys of the education wage premium in the 20th century.
The size of the wage premium and its degree of variation strongly suggest that it reflects real differences in worker productivity. Though sensitive to the supply of educated workers, the wage premium is always substantial — at its lowest point, in 1979, the wage premium for a year of college was still about 8.4 percent of an individual’s weekly wage. Employers wouldn’t continue to pay this premium, and they certainly wouldn’t rapidly increase it, if they failed to observe that more-educated workers were also more productive. Though today’s colleges can be made better than they are, undergraduates are nonetheless acquiring knowledge and skills that employers prize. Colleges also impart social and other non-academic skills that can benefit both white- and blue-collar workers, who often must interact with customers and clients who are themselves college-educated.
Reducing income inequality, then, means preparing and sending more students to college, not fewer. Enticing able students away from college, as some would have us do, would only increase the premium firms would have to pay for the dwindling supply of young people committed to higher education.
College may not be right or obtainable for every individual. However, it is clear that American schools’ ability to teach and American students’ ability to learn have not reached their limit, and that those pursuing just about any vocation still benefit from a college education. Pushing schools to prepare more students for college is not only good for them and the students they teach, it is vital for our economy as well. The alternative is an America of fewer haves and many more have-nots.
– Marcus A. Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.