Phi Beta Cons

The Higher Ed = Economic Growth Myth

Today’s Wall Street Journal features a letter from Rep. John Garamendi (D., Calif.) who says that he’s siding with the protesting students because raising tuition is “bad economics.” Why is it bad to insist that heavily subsidized students bear somewhat more of the cost of their college education (or college experience, since that more accurately captures what goes on for many)? Because higher education is great for the economy!

“It is no accident that the Golden State’s golden age of economic innovation coincided with the establishment of and continued investment in the best public university system in the world,” Garamendi writes.

Actually, it mostly is an accident. There’s a correlation between higher-ed spending and economic growth, but it’s not the case that economic growth would not have happened if it hadn’t been for graduates of state universities. Few of the people responsible for the growth of industry in California in the 19th century were college-educated.

More to the point, looking at conditions today, large numbers of young Californians (and indeed people all across the United States) go to college, learn little of lasting benefit, then join the ranks of over-credentialed people doing work that almost any high-school student could learn. Garamendi points to “studies” showing that there is a huge “multiplier” on state spending on higher education, but those numbers are laughable given what we know about the very low productivity of most colleges and universities and the dismal learning of many graduates.

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

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