Writing at Forbes.com, Joni E. Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, gives readers the old party line.
We are told, naturally, that the nation’s prosperity depends on educating “many more of its people to higher levels than ever before.” Moreover, just having earned a high-school diploma “no longer guarantees anything close to a living wage.” And in case you aren’t already scared, “Other nations are rapidly expanding their higher education systems, chipping away at our comparative advantage in the global economy.”
No, our prosperity does not depend on pushing more and more students through more and more courses. There is not much direct connection between individual productivity and formal education once you get past basic math and language skills. There are people with Ph.Ds who hardly earn more than a “living wage” and there are people who dropped out of high school and nevertheless find very profitable work. Occasionally people might underinvest in useful knowledge and training, but for the most part they get it about right. A high-school grad who makes a very modest living as an aerobics instructor might be able to move up to a significantly better job with additional education, but since there are many college-degreed people working as aerobics instructors, there is strong reason to doubt it.
As for the alleged threat posed by other nations expanding their higher-ed systems, what nonsense. Our comparative advantage in production and innovation is not in having dipped deep into the pool of possible college students earlier than other nations. Our comparative advantage lies in the fact that the United States has heretofore been the least controlled, regulated, and taxed of all the major nations. It’s no more important for us to be the “leader” in producing college degrees than it is to be the leader in producing steel, growing alfalfa, or making wine. I have often criticized this sort of childish, nationalistic thinking, for instance here.
The folks at the National Center want us to think that the U.S. is so prosperous because we have such a great “investment” in higher ed — and had better keep raising it. The truth is closer to the reverse of that. Only a very affluent country could afford to have a higher-education system that costs so much and produces so little.