Phi Beta Cons

Richard Kahlenberg Keeps Trying

In his latest Chronicle blog post, Richard Kahlenberg tries once again to puff up the case for expanding college enrollments. He says that “college for all” is a better rallying cry for the nation than “college for some.” What he can’t see is that a governmental policy of “something for all” is certain to be wasteful compared with the laissez-faire policy of letting each individual decide whether the benefits of doing something — college, health-club membership, home ownership, going vegan, etc. — are worth the costs.

He makes four arguments. First, that job growth is expected to be faster in jobs requiring college degrees than in jobs that don’t. He relies on data showing expected percentage increases in various fields, neglecting to note that many of those fields are small in absolute numbers, while the growth expected in many occupations where little or no preparation beyond basic trainability (such as health aides) is much greater in number of jobs. Furthermore, he takes the “college-degree requirement” too seriously. We know that employers often say that they will only consider college graduates not because the work is too demanding for anyone who has not completed a college degree, but just because it’s an easy screening mechanism.

Second, he says that because organized labor is declining, and supposedly used to ensure that there would be pretty good jobs for people who hadn’t gone to college, we need a new means of getting people into the middle class — college credentials. This is utterly mistaken. Much as the union advocates want people to believe that unions “created the middle class,” they were neither necessary nor sufficient. There were always many non-union businesses that paid workers the same as unionized ones and in those rare instances (such as the auto industry) where compensation was significantly above that for workers of comparable skill elsewhere, those gains came at the expense of efficiency, compelling consumers to pay more for the product sold in an oligopolistic market. Due to competition, there are no more oligopolistic markets for Big Labor to exploit. And, more to the point, it’s clear that simply processing a person through college does not necessarily give him any gain in skills that will turn into higher earnings. Hasn’t Kahlenberg read anything about the huge numbers of college grads who are employed (if at all) in low-pay jobs?

Third, he argues that dropping the idea that everyone should be groomed for college and encouraged to go will lead to educational “stratification.” That is, some students who don’t seem to have much aptitude for academic work will be tracked into vocational studies. Well, if the vocational studies were in fact good, why would this “stratification” be a bad thing? Furthermore, if someone who is mistakenly encouraged to go vocational rather than college, he or she can change course later. Finally, if high schools did a decent job of teaching fundamentals, this “tracking” dispute would become irrelevant. Why not focus on that instead?

Fourth, Kahlenberg says that college isn’t just about preparing people for the labor force, but is also “about preparing students to be intelligent and well-informed individuals who can make important decisions . . . in a democracy.” But again, college is neither necessary nor sufficient for that. Lots of young Americans have those attributes when they’ve graduated from high school; many others never have them even though they’ve gone through college. Just once I would like to see the Kahlenberg bunch explain why they think that a high-school grad who works as an electrician is a less valuable citizen in a democracy than a college grad who works as a theater usher.

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

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