Strong Evidence That We’ve Been Overselling Higher Ed

Writing at the Chronicle’s Innovations blog, Rich Vedder reports on some new evidence that strongly corroborates the argument he (and I) have been making for a long time, namely that many of the people who earn college degrees end up doing jobs that do not call for any advanced academic study. He bases his conclusion on Bureau of Labor Statistics data going back to 1992. Some 60 percent of those earning college degrees appear to be working in jobs that people without college degrees can perform.

The assumption made by the “let’s increase our college-graduation rate” crowd is that the economy will get a productivity boost because college graduates supposedly have more human capital than those who don’t have degrees — that more educational “attainment” will pull the economy up by its bootstraps. This is more evidence against the validity of that assumption. There is no necessary connection between time spent in formal education (which is a weak proxy for actual learning) and economic progress. If anything, progress is slowed when government policy interferes with the free market’s coordination of plans and resources through the price system. It is just as bad for government officials to say, “let’s produce more college graduates for the good of the economy” as it is for them to say, “let’s produce more steel.”

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

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