These are the opening statements of a luncheon debate co-sponsored by the Manhattan Institute's Center for the American University and the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. The debate, held January 11 in New York City, pitted George Leef, research director of the Pope Center, against Peter Sacks, economist and author of Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education. The moderator was Howard Husock, Manhattan Institute's vice president for policy research.
In my time this afternoon, I hope to persuade you that the United States has greatly oversold higher education.
We have done that through heavy government subsidies and
extravagant rhetoric from both politicians and higher education leaders that
created the impression that high-paying jobs were waiting for anyone who
completed a college degree.
Just as we caused a destructive, resource-wasting housing bubble by pushing the idea that home ownership was good for almost everyone, so have we caused a resource-wasting higher education bubble. Large numbers of people have gone to college and obtained degrees costing a great deal of money and time, only to find that there aren't nearly enough of those good jobs to go around.
The analogy to the housing bubble isn't perfect, however. At least the houses that were built were generally of good construction.
In our higher education bubble, many of the educations purchased by students are the equivalent of houses without roofs. Many Americans today graduate with a college education in name only, having gained little or nothing in useful skills and knowledge.
It's common in public policy issues for the enthusiasts for some idea to exaggerate the benefits that will supposedly come from their favored policy while underestimating if not entirely overlooking the costs and new problems it will cause. That was the case with the housing bubble and it's equally so with our great leap forward to get more and more people through college.
The first benefit of going to college is that it supposedly leads to higher lifetime earnings, since on average, those who have college degrees earn significantly more than do people who don't.
It is a mistake to assume that just because, on average, people who obtained college degrees in the past have enjoyed higher earnings, individuals who will get college degrees in the future will also enjoy the same "earnings premium."
We know that many college graduates have to accept jobs that don't call for any academic preparation whatsoever, and don't pay more just because the worker happens to have a degree.
Last year, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity released a paper documenting the large percentages of people who have bachelors degrees (or higher) working in jobs that most high schoolers could easily do: customer service reps, cashiers, taxi drivers, and so on.
Quoting from that report. "More than one third of current working graduates are in jobs that do not require a degree and the proportion appears to be rising rapidly....60 percent of the increased college graduate population between 1992 and 2008 ended up in these lower skill jobs."
The labor market is glutted with people holding college credentials. Just because a country "produces" a lot of college grads does not mean there will be commensurate jobs for them.
A second common belief is that it's advantageous for a country to have a high rate of college completion because it improves economic competitiveness. Conversely, a country that falls behind in this regard faces a dim economic future.
In an address to Congress in 2009, President Obama latched onto that idea, calling for a national goal of being first in the world in terms of college graduates by 2025.
The trouble with that notion is that there is no necessary connection between a nation's "educational attainment" level and the vitality of its economy.
In her book Does Education Matter?--Myths about education and economic growth, University of London professor Alison Wolf examined the supposed connection between education and economic growth. She wrote, "Two naive beliefs have a distorting influence (on public policy) - the belief in a simple, direct relationship between the amount of education in a society and its future growth rate, and the belief that governments can fine-tune education expenditures to maximize that rate of growth. Neither is correct."
Wolf provided examples of nations that have "invested" heavily in higher education yet have listless economies (such as Egypt) and others that do little to promote higher education yet enjoy very productive and growing economies (such as Switzerland).
Conclusion: putting lots of people through college is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for rapid economic growth.
Now I'll mention two costs.
One cost of the expansion of college has been a corresponding decline in academic standards.
As college enrollments rose in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, K-12 standards were falling, with the result that an ever-increasing proportion of college students entered with weak academic skills and often an attitude that was indifferent toward learning.
In a 1997 article, Montana State English professor Paul Trout called them "disengaged" students and explained how they put downward pressure on academic rigor and upward pressure on grades - to keep them content and enrolled.
The National Assessment of Adult Literacy provides evidence of falling college standards. In the 1992 study, only 40 percent of college graduates were assessed as "proficient" in prose literacy; by the 2003 study, that figure had fallen to just 31 percent.
And putting a quantitative peak on the mountain of anecdotal evidence that many students just coast along to their degrees, last year's book Academically Adrift showed that a large percentage of college students learn essentially nothing.
A second cost is credential inflation. The more college grads in the labor force, the more employers require job applicants to have college credentials, even for jobs that call for no academic preparation.
James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield wrote in their book Saving Higher Education in the Era of Money, "The United States has become the most rigidly credentialized society in the world. A BA is required for jobs that by no stretch of imagination require two years of full-time training, let alone four."
Credential inflation is hard on poor people who are prevented from competing for jobs they could do and hardest of all on poor people who spend money they need for other things on college credentials, only to wind up in low-pay jobs anyway.
I hope you'll now agree that we've oversold college.
No, the real argument here is whether we are over-investing in higher education leading to bachelor's degrees, and if so, how do we legitimately ration higher education opportunity. How do we decide who "legitimately" deserves this privilege?
To ask whether too many people are going to college begs another question: If too many people are going to college, then who are these people? How should we as a society ration a more restricted level of educational opportunity? If we actually did decide as a nation that too many people are going to college, then how should we fix this problem, and what are the far-reaching implications of this fix? Are too many kids from wealthy families going to college? Are there too many college-goers enrolled in social work? Are too many lower middle class kids seeking higher education? Whom exactly are we encouraging when they should not be encouraged?
As the chosen ones, however, students from families who have the ability to pay for admissions slots at universities -- which, by the way, would dramatically shrink because of dwindling subsidies -- well these chosen few would become our new, self-perpetuating aristocracy.
At the dinner table, equal opportunity means that parents want their children to have opportunities they never had themselves. After a few generations of striving, grandparents who had attained no more than a high school diploma now have grandchildren who are doctors, professors, and engineers. Who in this room doesn't have stories like that in their families?