Why The College Degree Mania?

RALEIGH, N.C. — For many years, the conventional wisdom in the United States has been that the more people who graduate from college, the better off we’ll be. It’s time to challenge that “wisdom.” The evidence says it’s wrong.

In his first major address early in 2009, President Barack Obama set forth a national goal of becoming first in the world in the percentage of college-educated citizens. Supposedly, that would make our economy more productive and competitive.

The notion that the economy can be pulled up by processing more young people through college has lots of allure at the state level as well. Two University of North Carolina professors, for example, recently proposed that North Carolina set as an “aspirational” goal having 32 percent of the state’s working-age population have bachelor’s degrees or higher by 2018, up from 28 percent today.

There are two problems with such goals.

First, politicians and bureaucrats shouldn’t be setting goals for citizens. It should work the other way around, especially when the know-it-all government consistently fails to meet minimum competency standards itself, such as passing a budget on time.

Individuals usually make pretty sensible decisions on their own. We don’t need public officials to set goals for us.

But how could more education be harmful?

That brings me to the second problem.

America already has gone far past the point of diminishing returns on higher education. Trying to lure more young people into college, just so we can say we have more college graduates, will lead to more 20-something Americans with college degrees who are holding down jobs that don’t require degrees or don’t pay enough to cover the cost of college.

For decades, we have been subsidizing college through increasingly generous student aid programs. That has worked — in the sense that more high school graduates go on to college.

But many graduate without learning much. That’s because as the number of students entering college has gone up, academic standards have gone down.

Many books and articles have been written about the “dumbing-down” of college and how administrators encourage faculty to mollify students — many of whom are ill prepared and poorly motivated — by inflating grades and watering down the material. Professors have been telling us that for years, but few of us have paid attention.

Now, as a result of two events from last year, many Americans are starting to realize that college has been oversold.

The first was the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. A large percentage of the occupiers were unemployed college graduates who had a lot of grievances, foremost among them the fact that they couldn’t pay back their college loans.

That was a direct hit on the belief that college graduates have the inside track on good, high-paying jobs. In fact, hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of college graduates today — in addition to those who are unemployed — are working part-time or holding jobs they could have done while still in high school, such as serving coffee, waiting on tables, working a cash register.

Supply doesn’t create its own demand. The simple fact that we produce more students with bachelor’s degrees doesn’t create more jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees.

The second 2011 event was the publication, by the University of Chicago Press, of a remarkable new book, “Academically Adrift,” in which the authors, two highly respected sociologists, showed that a high percentage of college students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during their student years.

As veteran higher education writer Scott Jaschik commented in Inside Higher Ed, “If the purpose of a college education is for students to learn, (the book showed that) academe is failing.”

Pushing more people through college hasn’t raised our national skills level or made us more productive. Instead, it has helped create a bloated, inefficient higher education sector; it has strapped millions of students with high levels of debt; and it has caused a bad case of credential inflation — with employers demanding college degrees for work that calls for only basic skills and trainability.

It is time for our leaders to recognize that higher education, like almost everything else, is subject to diminishing returns. More isn’t always better.

George Leef is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, N.C.


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