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Education Pays? A Debatable Claim Being Swept Under the Rug (Part 1)

Education Pays? A Debatable Claim Being Swept Under the Rug (Part 1)
Despite the widespread belief that higher education is a pathway to higher wages and better quality of life, recent evidence suggests otherwise.
With the air going out of the college bubble — evident through accelerating declines in postsecondary enrollments — the need to keep up the smiley-face front that getting a degree is “a great investment” is crucial to the higher education establishment.

The College Board’s recent report, “Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society,” is a shameless effort at making students and policymakers believe earning a college degree is the closest thing to a panacea for all personal and social problems. The authors write with an almost giddy enthusiasm: “The evidence is overwhelming that higher education improves people’s lives, makes our economy more efficient, and contributes to a more equitable society.”

Someone who just woke up from a 50-year sleep might conclude that during their slumber, America had discovered that putting kids through college was the ideal policy: they emerge much more productive and earn far higher incomes, will be much less likely to become unemployed or need public assistance, will be better parents and citizens, all while leading healthier lives. If you took this seriously, you’d think the country was committing a terrible error in not insisting that everyone who could possibly go to college do so, and graduate.

But we shouldn’t take it seriously. America has already oversold higher education.

Our colleges are already admitting large numbers of academically weak, disengaged students; further expansion could only come from scooping up lots of really sub-marginal ones. We’re about where the housing market was in 2006 with respect to people who were capable of handling a mortgage. Almost all of the people being drawn into mortgages after that point were poor credit risks, setting themselves up for dreadful losses. It’s the same today for college attendance.

The big point in the sales pitch for college is that people who have college degrees earn far more than do people who don’t. As evidence, “Education Pays” cites research contending that, “On average, the benefits of a four-year college degree are equivalent to an investment that earns 15.2 percent per year. This is more than double the average return to stock market investments since 1950. … From any investment perspective, college is a great deal.”

But pointing out that, on average, college has been “a great deal” does not mean it’s a great deal for everyone today.

If you look closely at the data in the report, you can spot the inconvenient truth: significant numbers of college graduates now earn less than the median earnings for those who only have high school diplomas. In 2011, 20 percent of male college graduates and 16 percent of female degree holders earned less than the median for those with high school educations. That’s a significant number of underemployed people, and their numbers are growing. For them, college isn’t such a “great deal.”

The report tries to sweep this under the rug, saying, “Anecdotes about individual students whose paths through postsecondary education have not worked out well do not contradict the fact that on average and for most students, college is an excellent financial investment.”

Just a few anecdotes, people — nothing to worry about.

I beg to differ. There is good reason to believe a large and increasing percentage of Americans who go to college will have spent a lot of time and money for negligible gain.

A study published in 2010 by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, “From Wall Street to Wal-Mart,” mined Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the jobs college graduates do get. They found that of the 20 million individuals who earned a degree between 1992 and 2008, 12 million (60 percent) of them were in jobs that required less-than-college education skill sets.

Just to cite one employment category, in 2008, more than 365,000 cashiers had college degrees, up from 132,000 in 1992. That is not just a few anecdotes.

Suppose the manufacturer of a weight-loss drug ignored reports that substantial numbers of consumers who took its expensive product had either no positive results or experienced bad side effects and continued advertising that, on average, those who took it experienced good results. Most of us would regard that as highly irresponsible. People for whom a drug is apt to do no good or even prove harmful ought to be warned, not breezily told about the wonderful average effects.

Not all drug consumers are the same, nor are all students. Unfortunately, the authors of the College Board report proceed as if students were fungible bits of raw material who enter a black box called college and emerge as graduates who are very likely to enjoy a large earnings boost for having gone through the process. They grudgingly admit that “different paths are appropriate for different individuals” but never acknowledge that, for many, college is apt to be an extremely costly waste of time.

Reality is much at odds with the lovely portrait the College Board has painted.

“Education Pays” also ignores the evidence that large numbers of students learn little or nothing during their college years.

The paper never mentions the disturbing results of the US federal government’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which found in its most recent analysis (2003) that only 31 percent of college graduates reached the level of proficiency in understanding prose. They aren’t very good at either quantitative or document literacy either.

Similarly, “Education Pays” ignores one of the most important books on higher education in many years, Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The authors concluded that 45 percent of students did not demonstrate any significant gains in learning after two years of college and 36 percent did not demonstrate significant improvement after four years.

How can college dramatically raise the value of workers if they graduate with barely more human capital than they had when they left high school?

This is the first of a two-part series by George Leef challenging commonly-held beliefs about the link between postsecondary credentials and career success. To be reminded when the next piece goes live, please click below:

Next installment coming soon

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