Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran an excellent column by Eric Felten, “Now College Is the Break.” In it, Felten riffs on the hot new book, Academically Adrift, that has been getting so much attention. The column prompted me to send this letter to the editor:
Felten’s excellent article left an apparent paradox hanging in the air. If large numbers of college students are studying little and learning almost nothing of lasting benefit, how can it be that “the reward for the college credential has been going up”?
Many politicians and the higher-education establishment keep saying that college is a “great investment” because on average, college grads earn significantly more over their lifetimes than do workers without degrees. They attribute that to the advanced skills and knowledge that college supposedly imparts. The trouble is that large numbers of college graduates are perilously weak in basic skills. They don’t read well, write incoherently, and can’t handle simple math problems. It is hard to believe that employers are in fact paying premium salaries for workers with such limited human capital.
The explanation, I submit, is that the earnings disparity is not due to the high skills of college graduates (although some certainly do have them), but rather that over the last several decades, good opportunities for people who don’t have college degrees have been vanishing. Fifty years ago, hardly any career paths in the business world were foreclosed to people without a college degree, but today we find that few career paths remain open. That is because credential inflation has set in with a vengeance. Many firms now require that applicants have college degrees, even for work that calls for nothing more than basic trainability. Thus, those who don’t have college credentials are confined to an increasingly narrow segment of the labor force where the prospects for great advancement are bleak.