Phi Beta Cons

Peter Sacks Attacks ‘Elitist’ Anti-Expansionists

In a Minding the Campus essay, Peter Sacks attacks Rich Vedder and other “anti-expansionists” like me, contending that our position is “elitist” and ignores data that purportedly prove that the nation will need lots and lots of people for jobs that “require a college degree.”

First, the snide allegation of elitism is groundless. My position (and that of Vedder and everyone else I know who has taken issue with the mania for putting Americans through college) has nothing whatsoever to do with any student’s family background. He writes that we challenge the idea that “all U.S. citizens should have a decent chance to pursue a college degree, regardless of the kind of neighborhood they grow up in, what kind of schools are available to them, or whether their parents have university degrees.”

Now I know just how Robert Bork felt.

My argument is that a large percentage of young Americans derive little or no benefit, either educationally or financially, from the “college experience.” That applies just as much to disengaged kids from well-to-do families as it does to disengaged kids from impoverished families. Conversely, there are many young Americans from poor families who nevertheless are well prepared for college and eager to do the work. They certainly belong in college. I have never written anything suggesting that college ought to be restricted to any socioeconomic group. Sacks’s insinuation of elitism is scurrilous.

The rest of his lengthy piece all hangs on one mistake. He looks at data about the probable contours of the job market in the years ahead and sees high rates of growth in jobs that “require college degrees.” The problem is that large numbers of jobs that any moderately intelligent high-school kid could do now are foreclosed to anyone who doesn’t have a degree. That isn’t because the work is too demanding for anyone who hasn’t finished college, but just because there is such a glut of college grads that employers can screen out non-degreed people without losing good prospects. If we continue to expand higher education — luring into college still more of those disengaged and ill-prepared students — we’ll make the credential-inflation disease worse.

Finally, Sacks dismisses Vedder’s recent study showing that increasingly large numbers of college grads are currently working in jobs that don’t even “require” college education in the screening sense, much less in a knowledge/skills sense. He never gets around to explaining why he thinks that evidence is irrelevant. We currently have large numbers of college grads doing jobs like taking tickets in theaters  — and it’s worth noting that this isn’t a phenomenon of the recent recession; evidence of underemployment for many college grads goes back to the Nineties. Why is Sacks certain that things will turn around in the future, with the labor market creating lots of new “good” jobs for not only those grads who are now under-employed (if in fact they are; given their skill levels, they might not be) but also for all those grads now in the pipeline?

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

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