The Higher Education Hobgoblin

, George C. Leef, Leave a comment

There is a cottage industry in the U.S. (located mostly in Washington, DC, but with satellite plants scattered around the country) that produces hand-wringing policy reports saying that America faces a crisis unless it finds a way to put more students into and through college. (Here are two recent examples: “The Waning of America’s Higher Education Advantage” published last June by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley, and “American Higher Education: How Does it Measure Up for the 21st Century?”) H. L. Mencken once wrote that politics is a game of menacing the people with “an endless series of hobgoblins” to keep them clamoring for governmental officials to make them safe. This business of scaring people into thinking that we’ve got to get more students through college fits that description perfectly.

The most recent addition to this genre is a paper released March 7 entitled “Hitting Home: An Analysis of the Cost, Access and Quality Challenges Confronting Higher Education Today” published by the group Making Opportunity Affordable. The paper’s big point is that the U.S. suffers from a “degree gap” that threatens our economic future. In the words of the author, “In fact, the size of this gap – the difference between degrees produced in the United States and those produced by nations who are among our top competitors – could reach almost 16 million degrees by 2025….” To close this supposedly dangerous gap, the paper advocates government action to get far more young Americans into and through college – thus “producing” the degrees that will enable us to keep right up with those competitors.

“Hitting Home” even goes so far as to calculate the increase in the annual rate of “degree production” that we need – 37 percent. If we don’t manage to meet that target, we’ll fall behind the “top degree producing nations.” Precisely what harm that would do is left to the imagination, but we’re supposed to assume that it would be quite bad.

The central weakness of these policy papers is that they leap to unsupported conclusions and ignore all evidence that doesn’t align with the “be very afraid” message. If a college student submitted such a paper, it would come back with lots of red ink where the professor has pointed out logical or evidentiary flaws.

“Hitting Home” begins exactly where these papers usually do – with the contention that the workforce of the future will have to be far more highly skilled than the workforce we have today. The evidence? “A recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that high-skill jobs that require advanced learning will make up almost half of all job growth in the U.S. While low-skill jobs will continue to grow, the rapid expansion of high-skill work is an indication of the nation’s shift from manufacturing and farming toward a more service- and information-based economy.”

Let’s say that “Hitting Home” is a college student’s paper. At this point, the professor adjusts his glasses to look closely at the Bureau of Labor Statistics document he has downloaded to see if it actually proves the point the student says it does. It’s a table taken from a BLS survey on labor force trends in the decade 2004-2014. According to estimates made by the BLS, work that requires only on-the-job training is expected to grow by 28.6 percent, jobs requiring some previous work experience but no formal education by 9.6 percent, and jobs where postsecondary vocational training is called for will increase by 17.7 percent. “Hmmmmm…. It appears that there are still going to be lots of jobs in construction, truck driving, food service, cashiers, salespeople, and so on,” thinks the professor. “That doesn’t seem to prove that the economy is undergoing any great change.”

Looking at the document again, the professor sees that it predicts that work requiring a doctoral degree will increase by 31 percent, work calling for some professional degree by 19 percent and work the requires a bachelor’s degree by 19.6 percent. “That must be what caused this writer to say that we need to put far more people through college,” thinks the professor. He picks up his red pen and starts to write in the margin.

“First, those percentages don’t necessarily tell us much. If the high growth in jobs requiring doctorates starts from a fairly low base, that doesn’t indicate that the country will need a big surge in the number of people with Ph.D.s. For the same reason, even though the anticipated increase in the number of jobs that only require on-the-job training is lower, if that growth is from a larger base number, then the country would need substantially more workers without any formal education than it would need workers with a great deal of formal education. These statistics don’t prove your point at all.”

“Second, there is a lot of ambiguity in the terms used here. When the BLS says, for example, jobs that ‘require’ a bachelor’s degree, what does that mean? That no one who hasn’t completed his BA could possibly learn to do the work? In a few fields that might be true, such as engineering. But it’s often the case that companies say they ‘require’ a college degree only as a screening device. When employers do that, it doesn’t mean that the job demands any particular academic preparation, but simply that with so many college graduates in the job pool, the employer doesn’t want to bother interviewing people with less formal education. So unless you can show the extent to which this ‘requirement’ is actually based on the need for academic study and not just what Professor David Labaree calls ‘credential inflation,’ you haven’t made your case.”

The professor reads a ways on in the paper and stops when he comes to a table showing “Differences in College Attainment” between various nations. The United States was fairly high, but several countries surpassed it, especially with regard to the percentage of younger workers (aged 25 to 34) who have college degrees: Japan, Canada, Korea, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, and Norway. As he read the sentence, “We are losing ground to other nations largely because of relatively low college completion rates,” he again takes the cap off his pen.

“You’re evidently assuming that there is a direct relationship between these ‘degree completion’ statistics and economic prosperity, but nowhere do you explain why that is true. There are a great many factors that enter into a nation’s economic performance besides workforce skill. Furthermore, you give no reason to believe that formal college education is the only or the best way for people to acquire work-related skills. In fact, the data in your chart undermine your argument. Switzerland has one of the highest GDP’s in the world, yet lags quite a way behind with regard to ‘college attainment.’ Also, Canada leads the world in ‘college attainment,’ but the U.S. economy consistently grows at a faster rate than the Canadian. If there’s really a problem here, you haven’t demonstrated it.”

By now, the professor has gotten quite a headache, but he goes a bit further, coming to the paper’s “What Needs to Be Done?” section. He read that the supposed problems discussed make it essential that we establish a “national agenda” for higher education. Again, out comes the red pen.

“You make the assumption that a program of educational central planning is necessary, but it’s not convincing. For one thing, if there is really a need for more formal education, won’t individuals and employers realize it and act accordingly? After all, there are incentives to gain the optimal degree of knowledge and skill. Workers and employers don’t want to lose out on opportunities and can be expected to react. Instead of having the government set ‘production’ goals for degrees and deciding what educational standards we should have, why not leave all of that to individual action – what we call free market forces?”

He sighed, then writes one more comment: “Please try again.”