In the current Chronicle Review, Anthony Carnevale (senior fellow at the National Center for Education and the Economy), contributes an article (subscription site) by that title, taking issue with people who have argued that it’s a mistake to believe that a college degree is a good investment for just about everyone. Carnevale relies on statistical averages in an effort to carry his argument, but I think the effort fails. Of course it’s true on average that people who have college degrees (a group that includes many fabulously wealthy people in business and the professions) earn significantly more than people who ended their formal education without getting a degree (a group that includes many people who have very low skills, and sometimes low motivation as well). Average data here are meaningless because people in the two groups are not fungible.
The right way to look at this question is to focus on people at the margin — that is, individuals who could enroll in college, but don’t have particularly good academic records. Is such an individual making a bad financial mistake in not going after the college degree? I think the answer is usually in the negative. A young man, for example, who isn’t really interested in reading books, writing papers, and engaging in intellectual arguments would probably be doing himself a huge favor by learning how to fix cars or do sheetmetal work (see my post on that from yesterday) where he will learn a very useful set of skills and can start earning a substantial income right away, as opposed to going to college, piling up debts, and graduating four or five years later with a set of skills that may equip him to do work like theatre ushering or selling video games.
The fact that we now find large numbers of young people with their BA diplomas in hand taking “high school” jobs that require nothing more than simple trainability ought to cause Carnevale pause, but it seems that he is unaware of this. He also seems unaware of the serious erosion in college standards that makes it easy for academically disengaged students to get into a huge array of nonselective schools and coast through to their degrees without any detectable gain in knowledge or skill.
The main problem with Carnevale’s crowd is that they don’t believe in the invisible hand. What I mean is that they don’t trust individuals to make the optimal investments in their own human capital. They think that people need subsidies to get them into “the best” sort of education, namely that provided by colleges and universities. I believe otherwise. It is not a case of “discounting education’s value” to maintain that college coursework is not the ideal human capital investment for everyone and that we need not worry if more people start to conclude that college isn’t worth it, given their own interests and circumstances.