The Corner

Education

Margaret Spellings’s Faulty Perception about Higher Education

President George W. Bush laughs with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in Washington, D.C., April 30, 2008. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)

Outgoing University of North Carolina system president Margaret Spellings recently pointed to some polling data as proof that her efforts at expanding UNC were a success. Because a majority of people polled still give the conventional response that a college degree is a financial benefit, Spellings claims that we must keep working toward a “college-going culture.”

Is Spellings unaware that many economists who have studied the impact of higher education disagree with the conventional wisdom? Whether she is or not, as long as a majority of people respond to opinion polls along the “college is a great investment” lines, apparently that’s good enough to keep up the College-for-Everyone agenda.

In today’s Martin Center article, Shannon Watkins takes a critical look at Spellings’s rosy view.

Her main argument is that Spellings overlooks the fact that for many students, college doesn’t improve their human capital, but instead just signals their employability. Professor Bryan Caplan advanced that idea in his recent book The Case Against Education. Watkins quotes him:

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. . . . Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory.

The cost of going to college merely to signal your ability to do mundane jobs that only call for basic trainability is gigantic and often saddles mediocre-to-weak students with large debts.

Watkins is right in stating:

In the end, policymakers must face the reality of credential inflation and look long and hard at how their current efforts to create a “college-going culture” may feed into that problem. It is not enough to rely on glowing public opinion data to justify the aggressive expansion of higher education—especially when it might end up hurting the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

I’m not optimistic, but perhaps the next UNC president will look at higher education more deeply than poll numbers.

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

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