Phi Beta Cons

Spellings’s Speech

Just four paragraphs into her speech on higher ed, Secretary Spellings fell for the hoax.
She said, “But at a time when 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs will require postsecondary education, we cannot lapse into a dangerous complacency.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics data do indicate that most of “the fastest growing jobs” are ones that “require” postsecondary education, but it does not follow that the nation needs any expansion of the percentage of young people who enroll in college.  Those “fastest growing” jobs are not the same as the jobs that will have the largest growth numerically.  New job specialties that start from a small base naturally will have a high rate of growth.  That does not mean that the anticipated growth can’t be filled from the large numbers of Americans who now enroll in postsecondary education.
Nor does it mean that there is a general trend in the labor force that requires more seat time in classrooms if people are going to be able to learn to perform jobs.
The BLS data that are more pertinent are the job categories that are expected to show the great numerical increases.  Most of those jobs are not ones that call for advanced education — jobs like food service workers, cashiers, truck drivers and health care aides. I have yet to see anyone make a serious case that the US labor market is changing in a way that we just won’t be able to find people to fill jobs because so much of the work will be beyond the ability of non-collegians.
Moreover, what does it mean to say that these jobs “require” postsecondary education?  Many jobs now are open only to applicants with a BA degree, but that isn’t because the work is so mentally demanding that smart high school graduates couldn’t possibly learn it.  The college degree “requirement” is mainly a screening device that employers use to legally discriminate against people with lower formal education credentials because they’re presumably somewhat less motivated and trainable.  To quote from Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money by James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield (University of Virginia Press, 2005), “the United States has become the most rigidly credentialized society in the world.  A B.A. is required for jobs that by no stretch of imagination need two years of full-time training, let along four.”
I cover those points in more detail in my recent paper “The Overselling of Higher Education.”
Now, I completely agree with Secretary Spellings that we should strive to make higher education more affordable. That should be done by reducing needless costs, not by further subsidizing it. And the reason to do so is not so we can bring yet more students into college. Many of the students we currently lure into college graduate with little educational benefit and end up doing “high school jobs.”  The reason to make college more affordable is simply to stop squandering resources in a field with very low productivity.

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


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