College Pays Off, But It Is Inefficient

David Leonhart writes in the New York Times that the argument that college is a bad investment for many people, especially blue-collar workers, is misguided:

The evidence is overwhelming that college is a better investment for most graduates than in the past. A new study even shows that a bachelor’s degree pays off for jobs that don’t require one: secretaries, plumbers and cashiers. And, beyond money, education seems to make people happier and healthier.

“Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea,” says David Autor, an M.I.T. economist who studies the labor market. “Not sending them to college would be a disaster.”

The most unfortunate part of the case against college is that it encourages children, parents and schools to aim low. For those families on the fence — often deciding whether a student will be the first to attend — the skepticism becomes one more reason to stop at high school. Only about 33 percent of young adults get a four-year degree today, while another 10 percent receive a two-year degree.

The problem here is that those who debate the college-bubble issue often argue past one another. As my colleague Matt Shaffer put it so well a few weeks ago, the argument against universal college education isn’t (or shouldn’t be) premised on a denial that people with college degrees actually earn more. Clearly, they do, on average. The argument is better premised on how things ought to be, not how they are.

For example, it isn’t clear if going to college is actually makes a plumber earn more money, or if, on the other hand, the kind of plumbers with the ambition and intelligence and motivation to complete college simply use those same character qualities to become more successful in their jobs and businesses. I wonder, are plumbers with college degrees more ambitious, and therefore more likely to start their own businesses, rather than to work for someone else? Leonhart’s graphs don’t parse those kind of details. Like so many questions of public policy, the debate here centers not on the statistics themselves, but on the interpretation of the statistics — whether the relationship between income and education is causal, or merely correlative.

The question, in my mind, is not whether college is a good financial bet for most individuals. (I think it is.) The question is whether — on a societal level — our current college system is really an efficient use of time and money. Studies show that students are learning less than ever in college, and at far greater expense. The system is wasteful and inefficient, and long overdue for reform. Craig Brandon makes one of the best arguments in favor of this view in his book, The Five Year Party.

For those who view the BA as nothing more than a basic ticket to employability, the four-year degree may make sense on a personal level. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t, as a society, be trying to think of more efficient ways to educate and prove basic employability — ways that don’t require four or five years and tens of thousands of dollars in federally subsidized loans just to get a job as a secretary.

At times, I think the argument against college is oversold on this blog. We need to be balanced in our criticism. After all, all of us who write here went to college, and, I think, have sent or plan to send our children. But critics, like Leonhart, miss the point when they simply quote salary statistics. The question is not whether college graduates earn more on average. The question is whether those people really needed a college degree to begin with. The question is whether the college experience actually helps most people to do their jobs better, or whether it has enriched their lives in some other significant way. If the answer to these two questions is “no” — and I think for a large percentage of students it is — then the system needs reform.

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