By Richard Vedder
As I wrote here last week, newly compiled data shows that a great many college graduates have been settling into jobs that do not require higher education. The data, prepared and released by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), show that a majority of the increased number of college grads since 1992---some 60 percent-- are "underemployed" or "overqualified" for the jobs they hold. Thus we have one-third of a million waiters and waitresses with college degrees. Some 17 percent of the nation's bellhops and porters are college graduates. A new CCAP study From Wall Street to Wal-Mart: Why College Graduates Are Not Getting Good Jobs, released today along with this essay, carries even worse news: the proportion of college-educated Americans in lower-skilled jobs has more than tripled since the 1960s, going from 11 percent in 1967 to 34 percent today.
Why are more and more college graduates not entering the class of professional, technical and managerial workers that has been considered the main avenue of employment? Anyone who has read Charles Murray's great book Real Education (New York: Crown Forum, 2008) has good insights into why this problem has arisen. Truly, Murray argues, only a modest proportion of the population has the cognitive skills (not to mention work discipline, drive, maturity, integrity, etc.) to master truly higher education, an education that goes well beyond the secondary schooling experience in terms of rigor of presentation. Reading and comprehending 200- to 400-year-old literature is useful for advanced leadership -but difficult. Educated persons should read and understand Locke's "On Human Understanding" or Shakespeare's King Lear -they are insightful in many ways, but the typical person of average intelligence typically lacks both the motivation and ability to do so. Mastering complex forms of mathematics is hard -but necessary to function in some areas of science and engineering.
Following up on Murray, the move to get more college degrees creates a huge problem. The number going to college exceeds the number capable of mastering higher levels of intellectual inquiry. This leads colleges to alter their mission, watering down the intellectual content of what they do. Rather than studying advanced mathematics, physics or --as I did-- 18th century French literature in the native language, more students are studying business administration, communication skills, and doing vocational-school type work on the intricacies of health care provision or administration. Instead of five or 10 percent of students getting "A" grades, we give 40 percent or more. We have created a Potemkin Village -a few truly good universities that come close to meeting the former academic standards, but a vaster melange of institutions that are often neither "higher" nor even "education" in the classical sense, particularly since the typical student spends less than 30 hours a week on academics. Bottom line: too many people go to college.
That brings me to Jackson Toby's The Lowering of Higher Education in America: Why Financial Aid Should Be Based on Student Performance (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010) which augments Murray's insights in two important ways. First, the federal financial aid system deserves much of the blame for the current disconnect between labor market realities and the supply of new college graduates. The fact that a Pell Grant recipient with a 2.1 grade point average studying physical education for five years gets the same aid and sometimes more as a 3.9 point GPA physics, engineering or economics student who finishes in four years has caused a disaster, augmenting such modern problems as grade inflation. Second, Toby points out that declining college admissions standards have contributed to the deterioration of the academic quality of our secondary schools, which do not have to teach much to get kids ready for universities.
Lastly, I include my own Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2004). I observed that increases in state government spending for higher education is associated with lower -not higher---rates of economic growth. The new CCAP study is consistent with this. We send kids to school for 17-18 years to prepare for a job, say restaurant manager, that a generation ago would have involved 12-13 years of schooling. We are doing less with more. Putting resources into higher education crowds out spending on worthwhile things, like new machinery for businesses or even folks buying new electronic gadgets.
Read From Wall Street to Wal-Mart: Why College Graduates Are Not Getting Good Jobs and you will understand a little better what Charles Murray, Jackson Toby and I, plus several others have been saying for years: we have oversold college in America.
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University and an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.