Phi Beta Cons

Cheerleading for the College Agenda

David Leonhardt of the New York Times doesn't get our arguments

The critique that skeptics of the ongoing governmental project of getting as many young people as possible into subsidized college educations has filtered into quite a few publications – but not the New York Times. In particular, economics and higher education writer David Leonhardt keeps pounding the drums for the college completion agenda and his April 24 column “College for the Masses” is the same old stuff.

What is really bothersome is that Leonhardt never makes any effort at understanding why we critics reject the claim that higher education is a great national “investment” that benefits nearly everyone who earns a degree. He concedes that some experts on the left and the right “have taken to arguing that higher education is overrated.” As for the liberals, he says that they’re “worried that focusing on education distracts from other important economic issues, like Wall Street, the top 1 percent, and the weakness of labor unions.”

True enough. Quite a few on the egalitarian left want to “fix” America with soak-the-rich taxes and laws to “empower” unions; pushing for more college isn’t a high priority with them.

But you might think Leonhardt would at least say something about the other side. He doesn’t, and I think that’s because he doesn’t grasp our argument.

In his piece, he makes a big deal about one individual, Carlos Escanilla, who wasn’t ready for college, but later enrolled, found that he liked learning and is now quite successful. Of course there are such stories, but it does not follow from them that the government’s college for everyone policy is sound.

For years, I’ve been pointing out that on the whole, our policy has given us a huge glut of people with college credentials but who can at best find work that the typical high school student could do – if it weren’t for the credentialitis that now blocks off many entry-level jobs to them.

Leonhardt is enthused about research showing that students who just beat the cut-off level for an SAT score that allows them into a four-year college fare quite a bit better in the labor market than do students who just missed (840 versus 830). He attributes that benefit to college learning and thinks that if only we could get more of those marginal students enrolled and through to their degrees, they (and the country) would be better off.

The problem is that many students, and especially those with weak academic backgrounds, don’t really learn much in all the courses they have to take to get their degrees. (A large number of professors have observed that, and in Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa demonstrated how feeble the learning benefits are for a high percentage of students.) The reason why those 840 SAT grads do comparatively better in the labor market probably has much more to do with the fact that those 830 people without degrees can’t get past the degree screening that’s now so widespread and are stuck with low-paying jobs without a career path.

Oh, but just getting through college has its own benefit, Leonhardt maintains. “Learning to navigate college fosters a quality that social scientists have taken to calling grit,” he writes.

Seriously? Getting through college takes less and less effort with each passing year. Whatever “grit” might be developed in making it through college, you need to compare that gain with the benefits young people would obtain in direct training programs. Those benefits would usually be far higher, and the costs much lower. And yet Leonhardt cold-shoulders vocational training in favor of four-year college.

Lots of employers now complain that they have a hard time finding the competent workers they need, but we never heard that back before the government started pushing college as the preferred form of postsecondary education. Also, we never used to hear about college graduates who drive taxis or serve coffee. The two things are linked: federal subsidies for college have simultaneously lowered educational quality and increased the number of Americans who have college credentials but little useful knowledge or skill.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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