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The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone
from Atlantic Magazine.

Quote:Students don't seem to be getting much out of higher education.

How... can anyone call higher education wasteful in an age when its financial payoff is greater than ever? The earnings premium for college graduates has rocketed to 73 percent—that is, those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 73 percent more than those who have only a high-school diploma, up from about 50 percent in the late 1970s. The key issue, however, isn’t whether college pays, but why. The simple, popular answer is that schools teach students useful job skills. But this dodges puzzling questions.

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

The disconnect between college curricula and the job market has a banal explanation: Educators teach what they know—and most have as little firsthand knowledge of the modern workplace as I do. Yet this merely complicates the puzzle. If schools aim to boost students’ future income by teaching job skills, why do they entrust students’ education to people so detached from the real world? Because, despite the chasm between what students learn and what workers do, academic success is a strong signal of worker productivity.

Suppose your law firm wants a summer associate. A law student with a doctorate in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom. If you’re looking for that kind of worker—and what employer isn’t?—you’ll make an offer, knowing full well that nothing the philosopher learned at Stanford will be relevant to this job.

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. This is not a fringe idea. Michael Spence, Kenneth Arrow, and Joseph Stiglitz—all Nobel laureates in economics—made seminal contributions to the theory of educational signaling. Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory. But signaling plays almost no role in public discourse or policy making. As a society, we continue to push ever larger numbers of students into ever higher levels of education. The main effect is not better jobs or greater skill levels, but a credentialist arms race.

Lest I be misinterpreted, I emphatically affirm that education confers some marketable skills, namely literacy and numeracy. Nonetheless, I believe that signaling accounts for at least half of college’s financial reward, and probably more. Most of the salary payoff for college comes from crossing the graduation finish line. Suppose you drop out after a year. You’ll receive a salary bump compared with someone who’s attended no college, but it won’t be anywhere near 25 percent of the salary premium you’d get for a four-year degree. Similarly, the premium for sophomore year is nowhere near 50 percent of the return on a bachelor’s degree, and the premium for junior year is nowhere near 75 percent of that return. Indeed, in the average study, senior year of college brings more than twice the pay increase of freshman, sophomore, and junior years combined. Unless colleges delay job training until the very end, signaling is practically the only explanation. This in turn implies a mountain of wasted resources—time and money that would be better spent preparing students for the jobs they’re likely to do.


Arum and Roksa cite a study finding that students at one typical college spent 13 hours a week studying, 12 hours “socializing with friends,” 11 hours “using computers for fun,” eight hours working for pay, six hours watching TV, six hours exercising, five hours on “hobbies,” and three hours on “other forms of entertainment.” Grade inflation completes the idyllic package by shielding students from negative feedback. The average GPA is now 3.2.

What does this mean for the individual student? Would I advise an academically well-prepared 18-year-old to skip college because she won’t learn much of value? Absolutely not. Studying irrelevancies for the next four years will impress future employers and raise her income potential. If she tried to leap straight into her first white-collar job, insisting, “I have the right stuff to graduate, I just choose not to,” employers wouldn’t believe her. To unilaterally curtail your education is to relegate yourself to a lower-quality pool of workers. For the individual, college pays.

This does not mean, however, that higher education paves the way to general prosperity or social justice. When we look at countries around the world, a year of education appears to raise an individual’s income by 8 to 11 percent. By contrast, increasing education across a country’s population by an average of one year per person raises the national income by only 1 to 3 percent. In other words, education enriches individuals much more than it enriches nations.

How is this possible? Credential inflation: As the average level of education rises, you need more education to convince employers you’re worthy of any specific job. One research team found that from the early 1970s through the mid‑1990s, the average education level within 500 occupational categories rose by 1.2 years. But most of the jobs didn’t change much over that span—there’s no reason, except credential inflation, why people should have needed more education to do them in 1995 than in 1975. What’s more, all American workers’ education rose by 1.5 years in that same span—which is to say that a great majority of the extra education workers received was deployed not to get better jobs, but to get jobs that had recently been held by people with less education.

As credentials proliferate, so do failed efforts to acquire them. Students can and do pay tuition, kill a year, and flunk their finals. Any respectable verdict on the value of education must account for these academic bankruptcies. Failure rates are high, particularly for students with low high-school grades and test scores; all told, about 60 percent of full-time college students fail to finish in four years. Simply put, the push for broader college education has steered too many students who aren’t cut out for academic success onto the college track.

The college-for-all mentality has fostered neglect of a realistic substitute: vocational education. It takes many guises—classroom training, apprenticeships and other types of on-the-job training, and straight-up work experience—but they have much in common. All vocational education teaches specific job skills, and all vocational education revolves around learning by doing, not learning by listening. Research, though a bit sparse, suggests that vocational education raises pay, reduces unemployment, and increases the rate of high-school completion.

For purposes of discussion. I consider Atlantic Magazine an excellent supplement to your life if you do not already get it.
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist  but instead the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists -- Hannah Arendt.

Personal comments:

1. For someone doing an entry-level job with little experience, someone with a four-year college degree is almost certainly more desirable than an eighteen-year-old with nothing more than a high-school diploma but no vocational specialization. One can assume that the college grad is more mature. College grads may be more cautious, and more likely to believe in their potential for failure. They are likely less willing to believe that they can get away with something questionable, like cutting out of work early or filching cash from a till.

If I were hiring someone to run a cash register I would prefer to hire someone with four years doing the job to someone with no such experience but a college degree, both aged 22. But a college-degreed applicant or someone fresh out of high school? The 18-year-old kid might be paying more attention to dates on Friday night than to the company's need for clerks to work one of the busiest nights of the week. The college grad may think the work far below his talents, but at least he knows that he needs to make some sacrifices if he is to get another job elsewhere.

2. Literature and the arts allow someone even with a job that he utterly hates to have a focus off the job. To be sure, the same can be said of the youth who took shop classes and has a hobby with carpentry that he can do when not doing some job that he hates. Few people must work 70-hour workweeks anymore, and due to technological advances, fewer people will have the opportunity to do 40 hours or more of paid toil. Leisure will be increasingly important as personal identity for anyone who does not have an intellectually-demanding profession or work at some craft for pay.

The idea that college can make a refined adult out of a callow youth is not reliable -- but where else can one learn the fine art of using leisure to enrich personal life? Leisure of course has its o0wn market, and it is much of the consumption that we now enjoy. As barest necessities become relatively less costly, leisure spending could be the difference between a boom and a bust.

3. Brilliance, persistence, an ability to put up with boredom, diligence, and the ability to find vital but hard-to-find information are desirable traits. Having these traits is easy to prove with someone who has a graduate degree. Finding them in an employee without more than a high-school diploma is possible but rare. It's not that such precious people do not exist; they are simply difficult to find if one has them and has no obvious means for finding them.

4. Formal post-secondary education has value for more than the person who gets it. It is best that someone know how to write a coherent report, have the ability to recognize logical fallacies, know something about human behavior, and recognize that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Freshman composition is a reliable subject in the freshman year; psychology. philosophy, and economics are obvious survey courses for college students. (If I were a college dean I would make them mandatory.)

It would be best that youths spend a couple years in post-secondary education just to take some courses that offer vital knowledge not usually taught in high school. We need K-14 education just to make people less likely to vote for demagogues, whether Donald Trump or someone equally damaging and destructive on the Left. One Donald Trump is one demagogue too many, and an American equivalent of Hugo Chavez will do similar harm, if with a different political flavoring. Demagoguery in the name of economic growth does not lead to sustainable growth, and demagoguery in the name of social justice rarely results in social justice.

5. The credential treadmill is excessively costly. It partly reflects the low, rigid glass ceilings that have emerged in bureaucratic organizations. Corporate hierarchies have tendencies to insist upon college degrees even for rather menial tasks, as at call centers. This may reflect the increasing concentration of industry and shrinking opportunities.

6. It is worth noting that although college graduates tend not to start businesses (if they have student loans, they will latch onto clerical work with pretensions of professional qualities rather than risk starting any new business other than perhaps a medical practice), people with vocational training can do so. Small businesses other than professional practices have potential for growth in employment as Big Business does not have; government agencies are always under the threat of budgetary cutbacks. I am tempted to believe that K-14 education and vocational training may be the best of both worlds for millions who neither attend college or who are not up to college-level work.
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist  but instead the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists -- Hannah Arendt.


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