The Global Overselling of Higher Ed

Today on Minding the Campus, Prof. Jackson Toby has a stellar essay entitled “The Revenge of the Unemployed Graduates.”

He isn’t writing about the Occupy Wall Street crowd. He’s writing about Egypt and Tunisia and Mexico and other countries (including the U.S.) where officials in government and the universities lured lots of young people into college with promises that good, high-paying jobs awaited them upon graduation. That (like so many other political promises) isn’t turning out very well. Large numbers of young college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, and they have grown restless over the huge disconnect between their expectations and reality.

Toby writes:

Western welfare states promote education as an escalator into the middle class, thereby kindling hopes for well-paid careers for everyone on the escalator. These hopes are more realistic than the hopes of students in Arab universities. Western societies are better at providing jobs for university graduates, but even Western countries, including the United States, are better at providing educational opportunities — building magnificent new universities and giving grants and loans to students who enroll in them — than they are at growing their economies enough to provide jobs for graduates.

He’s right. The essence of the problem is that politicians mostly accept the notion that economic development is a result of education; the higher the level of “attainment” the higher the level of productivity. If you accept that, the way for a country to pull itself up is by “investing” in education. The trouble is that these “investments” usually don’t dovetail with the skills required for the jobs that firms and organizations need to fill. Consequently, countries end up with mobs of young people with college degrees who think they ought to be working in important positions in industry or the government, but instead are driving taxis or waiting on tables.

Central planning — of the whole economy, or of the housing market, or of education — always wreaks a great deal of damage.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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