Graduation, but to What?

, George C. Leef, Leave a comment

This article originally appeared (under a different title) on the web site of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

A recent report published by The Education Trust entitled “A Matter of Degrees: Improving Graduation Rates in Four-Year Colleges and Universities” argues that we ought to be deeply concerned over the fact that only about 60 percent of the students who enroll in four-year institutions in the U.S. earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. (The report is available online at Author Kevin Carey calls this a “huge national problem” and implores colleges to find ways to increase their graduation rates. Is the current graduation rate truly a matter that should have Americans searching frantically for solutions, or is this the educational equivalent of the disaster movie “The Day After Tomorrow?” I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

Carey acknowledges that the low graduation rate in the U.S. is nothing new, but argues that the consequences of not having a college degree have been growing more severe over time. He writes, “The rapidly globalizing 21st Century economy is putting relentless pressure on lower-skill manufacturing jobs that once allowed people without a post-secondary education to stay comfortably in the middle class.”

We often hear it said that jobs for people with less than a college degree are disappearing, but data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics don’t support that notion. According to BLS projections, over the decade 2002-2012, of the ten occupations expected to show the largest growth, only two (postsecondary teachers and general and operations managers) are jobs that call for a college degree. The other eight highest-growth occupations, including registered nurses, customer service representatives, food preparation and service workers, and cashiers, are jobs that can be filled by individuals with no more than an associates degree and usually just with on-the-job training. Furthermore, the BLS forecasts continuing strong demand for workers in such fields as construction and transportation. We are slowly transitioning to a more global, knowledge-based economy, but it doesn’t follow that most jobs will require more formal education than in the past.

It’s worth noting that most jobs for which a college degree is deemed “necessary” do not really have particular knowledge requirements that could be met only by individuals with college degrees. Most business management entry-level positions, for example, entail on-the-job training where prior knowledge of business management is far less important than the ability to read and write English.

Employers generally use the BA requirement simply as a screening device. If they found themselves with more positions to fill than they had applicants with college degrees, they would simply relax the “requirement” of having a BA. There is no reason to believe that the future prosperity of the United States is in peril unless we produce more college graduates.

It’s also true that workers who find that they are unable to get a satisfactory job with their current educational credentials can change. They can pursue studies leading to a degree if they think that it will pay off.

What I’m saying is that we can rely on the spontaneous order of a free society to produce the right percentages of people with different educational attainments. The incentives of employers and employees pursuing their individual goals will give us the right percentage of people with college degrees. We do not need programs designed to deliberately change the results of the invisible hand in the educational marketplace.

Those of us who have taught undergraduates know that a large percentage of them are just not ready, intellectually or emotionally, to take college seriously. They want, as Professor Murray Sperber puts it, a “beer and circus” environment and an easy degree. Unfortunately, a lot of students who receive such college degrees then find that the best they can do in the labor market is to take what used to be known as “high school jobs.”

For that reason, it may actually be harmful to keep young people in college to complete their degrees. Carey praises a number of schools that have unusually high graduation percentages, but without identifying just what those schools do to achieve their high numbers. If they manage to keep more students around for the four or five or six years it takes them to graduate just through high grades, low expectations, and a lot of campus fun, then they are just wasting the time and money of naïve young people and their parents.

If the U.S. has a “huge national problem” in education, it is not our college graduation rate. The problem is that our K-12 system so poorly equips many of our young people that they aren’t capable either of college studies or of doing many good jobs that call for some degree of language or mathematical skill. Business managers constantly lament the fact that many of the applicants they receive – including those with college degrees – lack even the basic knowledge and skills necessary to function on the job.

We don’t have to worry about our college graduation rate. We do have to worry about what happens before students get to college.

George Leef ( is the executive director for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.