I’ve been meaning to write a response myself, but Neal McCluskey pretty much sums up what I wanted to say:
While on average college grads make a lot more than people without a degree, there’s a lot more to the story than averages. Indeed, there are at least three major problems with making averages the basis for a universal-college offensive, problems that Andrew Gillen recently laid out in a terrific blog post. I won’t reinvent the wheel by going into them all (read Andrew’s post) but I’ll summarize them: (1) There are huge throngs of people who attempt college and never finish, a giant population ignored when you just look at completers; (2) at least part of the college wage premium is simply a function of a degree signaling something about the intelligence, work habits, etc. that graduates already possessed; and (3) there are some majors and degrees that confer no great wage premium and are in about as much demand as Betamax or gangrene.
Just a few minor additions. To put a number on non-completion, about 40 percent of kids who start college aren’t done in six years. Also, while “signaling” is part of the phenomenon, another part is simple correlation — kids who get degrees have higher abilities in certain areas, and these abilities would help them get ahead even without a degree to signal them to employers. Employers are good at figuring out on their own which employees are worth giving raises to.
Regarding the third point, one thing I’ve said before is that rather than scraping closer to the bottom of the college-eligibility barrel — when the average student has a 40 percent chance of not finishing, what chance does the marginal student have? — we should encourage kids in useless majors to switch to something employers actually value.