It was just this time of year – the beginning of a new academic year – in 1980, when it first occurred to me that higher education in America had been oversold.
I was new to the college teaching ranks and didn’t know just what to expect from students. A few days earlier, I had handed out copies of a chapter from a book that I wanted the students to read and be prepared to discuss. It was an 8-page assignment.
Once the class began and I asked some questions about the assignment, it became evident that few (if any) of the students had done the reading — or if they had read it, they hadn’t bothered to make sure they understood it. After several tries at jump starting a discussion, one student put up his hand and I eagerly called on him.
He said, “Couldn’t you, you know, just tell us the main point?”
Eventually I found out that a great many college students were (and are) like that fellow. They don’t want to trouble themselves with intellectual challenges, but would rather just be told “the main point.” They have little curiosity and desire to learn and just want a college degree served up to them with as little effort as possible, with a big side order of fun.
From everything I read, students today are, if anything, even more inclined to coast through college merely because they want the credential. They – and the taxpayers who subsidize most students – are spending a great deal of time and money in that paper chase because it’s assumed that having a college degree necessarily enhances one’s employability and translates into much higher lifetime earnings.
In my recent paper, “The Overselling of Higher Education,” I challenge that assumption. It turns out not to be true that all good jobs require a college degree or that the “knowledge economy” demands that the nation produce a great increase in the number of college graduates. Nor is it true that having a college degree ensures any boost in earnings. What is true is that America’s colleges and universities want as many paying customers as possible and will do whatever it takes to keep their classrooms filled.
But isn’t it true that on average, college graduates have substantially higher earnings than do people who didn’t go to college? Yes, that is true, but it does not mean that we can take people who didn’t continue their formal education beyond high school, put them through enough college courses to get a degree, and expect them to enjoy a boost in income. One reason is that not everyone is interested in or receptive to formal education. Students with a strong aptitude for advanced education are naturally drawn to college and very few who have strong – or even moderate – aptitude don’t enroll. Therefore, any increase in college attendance would have to come mostly from weak, “disengaged” students.
In fact, many students at non-selective schools currently show a minimal regard for learning. They’re in college mainly for fun and because they have been led to believe that a degree is their ticket to the prosperous life.
What more and more of them are discovering is that it isn’t. Without good cognitive and language skills, graduates are apt to find themselves competing for simple and low-paying jobs that almost any high school student could do. Today we find college graduates working as ushers, delivering pizza, selling video games and similar jobs. They spent years – and lots of money – in college with very little to show for it.
With a few exceptions, most colleges and universities are exceedingly money-hungry and will recruit students who have serious academic deficiencies. Once they have those students, they don’t want to lose them, and for that reason have relaxed academic standards to the point where, as one student recently said to me, “People would be amazed if they knew how easy it is to graduate from (a major state university) without learning anything at all.” As the National Assessment of Adult Literacy shows, less than a third of American college graduates can be regarded as proficient in reading, and the National Commission on Writing found that business executives are widely dissatisfied with the writing abilities of graduates.
Won’t most jobs in the future require a college degree, though? The answer is, again, no. Most of the work in the economy in the future will be the same as in the past, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The need for workers to do things like drive trucks, hang drywall, and prepare food will continue to grow. In fact, the BLS predicts that most of the work areas that will grow the most over the next decade are ones that only call for on-the-job training.
In one sense, however, it’s true that more jobs now require a college degree. It’s true in the sense that many employers now make the possession of a college degree a “requirement” for applicants. That doesn’t mean that the job is so intellectually demanding that no one who hasn’t been to college could learn to do it. All it means is that employers want to screen out those without college degrees, assuming that they’re somewhat less trainable and reliable than are graduates. The term for that is “credential inflation.”
Luring more students into college won’t give us a more talented workforce. It will just give us more credential inflation.
One of the phrases we most often hear from politicians is that we need to “invest more in higher education.” With large numbers of students graduating from college who have learned little and wind up in un-demanding jobs, we need to consider the possibility that we have already gone beyond the point of diminishing returns on that “investment.”
George Leef is the Director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy based in North Carolina.