College education for everyone?

Wanting college for everyone (the way we do college in the U.S.A.) is somewhere between pointless and unfair. On the face of it, universal college education seems sensible and noble. It is sensible because better educated people earn more income. It is noble because it is more egalitarian. As a point of comparison in 1900 about 2% of 23-year olds received degrees; by 1990 it was above 25% (see linked PDF p. 68). College education has transformed from an élite experience to one that is, if not for the masses, for a large segment of the population. At the same time, there are problems: the income benefits are ephemeral, rising cost makes college less egalitarian, and it is unclear whether many attendees even value the college experience.

On Income: The Bachelor’s degree is not by itself a money magnet. It is simply a mechanism for differentiation. We live in a brutal economic system in which we all compete for jobs. If everyone has a Bachelor’s degree, then the wages for that degree will drop. The degree will have lost its selective ability. This may not be pretty or justifiable, but it’s reality. If we want to change the situation we need to change the fundamental economic system. More college degrees will not flatten income distribution. Only an economic system that flattens income distribution will flatten income distribution (the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club).

On Cost: College is also getting more expensive, roughly doubling in real terms between 1980 and 2010. The median cost is now about $13,600 per year for tuition room and board at a public institution. For comparison, median household income is around $51,900. This is hardly egalitarian. Attending college can be prohibitively expensive for lower-income people, especially if they get weeded out. During a terrible economy. If we really want equality, we need a K-12 system that prepares people for the rigors of further study and we need to give them a free shot at an education. You can’t open minds if people are focused on paying off significant loans after graduation. Students who need to get a job to pay off  loans have an incentive to resist any topic that does not have an immediate application in the job market.

On the value of college education: Much of the value of college is found in the idea of a liberal education. This type of education involves a broad base among multiple disciplines (including the humanities) and in-depth study in a major topic. Certainly many of us value this type of education. Indeed it’s invaluable for a society that at least some of its members be versed in a broad range of topics. It’s not as obvious that all members need to be so educated; a K-12 education should produce enough of a liberal education core for most people. An eighteen year old high school graduate has plenty of skills, ambition, and energy to put to good use. Sticking some of these people in a four-year general education will just stifle their potential contributions to society. What we need is a significant expansion of vocational skills, i.e., skills that are directly related to specific job tasks. While we may indeed need universally higher education, we don’t need universal liberal education.

On taking it too far: All this said, many of the arguments against higher education are little more than uninformed, knee-jerk, anti-intellectualism. A recent article in the New York Times (of all places) was a recent great example. The main gist of the article was that dropping out of college is a good career move (after all, it worked out for Mark Zuckerberg). In a textbook example of the survivorship bias (in which only the surviving members of a group are considered) the article fails to recognize that while the Zuckerbergs were the winners, there were even more losers among the ranks of college dropouts. Somebody had to balance out Zuckerberg. The article also gripes that college won’t make you rich. To this we can only say, “well, duh.” A person who helps you get rich is not called a teacher, but an investor, and they don’t help you out for free. People who want to get rich quick should be the first to avoid a liberal education.

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2 Responses to College education for everyone?

  1. Jelie says:

    You’ve probably seen this, but in case not:

    I think a lot of the “20 under 20” logic qualifies as what you’re calling survivorship bias and anti-intellectualism, but I am still glad to be having the conversation about the purpose and value of university.

    • I hadn’t seen this yet; thanks for sharing. It seems that a $100,000 award and dedicated mentoring can provide a very effective and high-level vocational education for being a successful entrepreneur. (If only every student could get a $100,000 scholarship and dedicated mentoring!) This approach seems appropriate for a negligible number of amazingly intelligent, ambitious people. I’d be interested in knowing the 10 year success rate for the program and what happens to the losers who burn through the $100k and have nothing to show for it but a high school diploma. I hope they take the loss with dignity and acceptance of the gamble they took.

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