In one of his New York Times columns earlier this year, David Brooks lamented that “Despite all the incentives, 30 percent of kids drop out of high school and the college graduation rate has been flat for a generation.” Brooks, like many spokesmen for the higher-education establishment, worries that the United States is falling behind in the international race for brainpower.
That is why we keep hearing politicians talk about the need to stimulate a higher rate of college attendance and completion. We’re in a global “knowledge economy,” and whereas America used to be tops in the percentage of workers with college degrees, we have now fallen behind a number of other nations. At a big education conference I attended back in February, former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt called this situation “scary.”
Sorry, scaremongers, but there is nothing to worry about. If anything, America now puts too many students into college, and we certainly don’t need any new subsidies to get more there.
Here are my reasons for holding that contrarian view.
First, it isn’t true that the economy is undergoing some dramatic shift to “knowledge work” that can only be performed by people who have college educations. When we hear that more and more jobs “require” a college degree, that isn’t because most of them are so technically demanding that an intelligent high school graduate couldn’t learn to do the work. Rather, what it means is that more employers are using educational credentials as a screening mechanism. As James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield write in their book Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, “the United States has become the most rigidly credentialized society in the world. A B.A. is required for jobs that by no stretch of imagination need two years of full-time training, let alone four.”
Second, the needless pressure to get educational credentials draws a large number of academically weak and intellectually disengaged students into college. All they want is the piece of paper that gets them past the screening. Most schools have quietly lowered their academic standards so that such students will stay happy and remain enrolled. Consequently, they seldom learn much — many employers complain that college graduates they hire can’t even write a coherent sentence — but most eventually get their degrees.
Third, due to the overselling of higher education, we find substantial numbers of college graduates taking “high school” jobs like retail sales. It’s not that there is anything wrong with well-educated clerks or truck drivers, but to a great extent college is no longer about providing a solid, rounded education. The courses that once were the pillars of the curriculum, such as history, literature, philosophy, and fine arts, have been watered down and are usually optional. Sadly, college education is now generally sold as a stepping stone to good employment rather than as an intellectually broadening experience. Sometimes it manages to do both, but often it does neither.
Fourth, it’s a mistake to assume that the traditional college setting is the best or only way for people to learn the things they need to know in order to become successful workers. On-the-job training, self-directed studies, and courses taken with a particular end in mind (such as those offered in fields like accounting or finance at proprietary schools) usually lead to much more educational gain than do courses taken just because they fill degree requirements.
“But wait,” I hear readers saying, “isn’t it true that people with college degrees earn far more than people with only high-school diplomas?”
That is true on average — an average composed to a large degree of very bright and ambitious people who would be successful with or without a college degree, and also of people who earned their degrees decades ago when the curriculum and academic standards were more rigorous. It simply doesn’t follow that every person we might lure into college today is going to enjoy a great boost in lifetime earnings just because he manages to stick it out through enough courses to graduate. The sad reality is that we now find many young people who have spent years in college and have piled up sizeable debts serving up Starbucks coffee or delivering pizza for Papa John’s.
A perennial trope among politicians is that more education will make everyone better off. Having a more efficient educational system — one that taught the three Rs well in eight years rather than poorly in 16 — would indeed be a benefit. Simply putting a higher percentage of our young people into college, however, makes just as much sense as spreading more fertilizer on a field that’s already been over-fertilized.