Phi Beta Cons

WSJ Review of Jackson Toby’s Book

The Wall Street Journal ran a review of Prof. Jackson Toby’s new book The Lowering of Higher Education in its December 23 edition. The reviewer, Ben Wildavsky, unfortunately buys into the standard line that college studies are highly beneficial and the country needs to encourage more students to enroll and graduate.

Wildavsky asserts that keeping ill-prepared students out of college is “one trade-off we should not make” because “the indisputable benefits of college should be spread more widely, not less.”

Nonsense. The supposed benefits of attending and (maybe, eventually) graduating from college are highly questionable. Toby shows that many students enter college with feeble intellectual backgrounds and learning tools, then coast through without learning much of lasting benefit. (As I argued here, it’s doubtful that students have any human-capital gain from their college experience.) Moreover, there isn’t necessarily any financial benefit from going to college, even graduating. Unfortunately, Toby didn’t point to the considerable evidence that great numbers of college-educated people end up doing “high-school jobs” that don’t pay well. (I have been making that point for years, here, for example.) Perhaps Wildavsky’s belief that college confers “indisputable” benefits would have been shaken if he had mentioned the data that we have plenty of college grads working as ticket-takers, bartenders, bellhops, aerobics instructors, and so on.

But even without that, you have to wonder why anyone would say that college has indisputable benefits after reading a book on the pathetic state of what passes for “higher education.” With substantial numbers of students graduating who don’t have the academic preparation that used to be expected of eighth graders, why assume that they have done anything but waste time and money?

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

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