The Debate Over Higher Education (Updated)

There’s an ardent, sometimes acrimonious, discussion going on in the comments to this post on the value of higher education at Outside the Beltway. Rather than adding my observations there where they’ll be lost in the din I’ll put them here.

First, to those who cite the statistics on earnings for those with college degrees, I’d suggest a little more caution. When you subtract the relatively small number of those who graduate with medical degrees, those who graduate with law degrees from the top 15 law schools, and a very few others, the expected earnings for somebody with a college degree aren’t a great deal different from those of a high school graduate.

Second, you’ve got to consider opportunity costs as well. Bluntly stated it doesn’t make any sense at all to go into debt to graduate from college as an English major. You’d be far better off getting a job in the trades or with state or local government, e.g. a police officer or firefighter, if you can.

China is graduating about 2 million of its people from college every year. India number of annual graduates is about the same. According to the Census Bureau we’re graduating about 1.5 million people from college annually. Neither China nor India is currently producing enough jobs for its college grads and the pay they’re expecting is a lot lower than that expected by our college grads. My interpretation: if a job requiring a college degree can be off-shored, it will be; if a job requiring a college education can be filled by a foreign graduate, it will be (it’s well documented, for example, that Microsoft pays its H1-B visa holders well below the prevailing wages for those jobs).

A prosperous and secure future takes more than just any old college degree these days. Markets matter and today’s graduates had best pursue a niche that will give them the skills for a lifetime’s worth of different jobs. What is that? I have no idea.

The greater challenge than encouraging more American students to pursue higher education, to get graduate degrees, or to get graduate degrees in science and engineering is getting more American students to graduate from high school. The number of dropouts has remained stubbornly high for decades: roughly 40% of the students in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York drop out of high school or fail to graduate on time. I can only speculate that they don’t see their high school educations as worthwhile and can’t seem themselves performing work that requires a high school education let alone a college education. I have no idea how to solve this problem and I especially see no way that spending more on education will address it. We already spend more on education in this country than any other country in the world either on a per capita, per student, or total basis. We don’t get enough for our education dollars.

One word on computer software development. There are lots of bright, capable, hardworking software developers who are just scraping by (for one thing, there are lots of bright, capable, hardworking software developers in India). IMO the difference between success and survival is salesmanship. The app stores opened by the companies that sell smartphones has changed that equation somewhat but the entire area is still in its infancy. If it follows the pattern of the past, a handful of today’s app developers will be the core of the software development departments of a few large companies that will eventually dominate the field. Might this time be different? Sure. Will it? Beats me. The odds are against it.

Finally, please don’t lecture me on the value of an engineering degree. I received my post-graduate degree in engineering 40 years ago.

Update

There’s a very timely post at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Richard Vedder and a “small army of researchers”, sifting through a mound of BLS data, have determined something that might be horrifying to some people but doesn’t surprise me at all:

Here it is: approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled—occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less. Only a minority of the increment in our nation’s stock of college graduates is filling jobs historically considered as requiring a bachelor’s degree or more. (We are working to integrate some earlier Edwin Rubenstein data on this topic to give us a more complete picture of this trend).

20 comments… add one
  • john personna

    That last line is pretty odd.

    You know that new engineering graduates command the highest starting salaries of any major, and you know that people like software engineers are aggressively thinned over the years.

    So, obviously the field commands pay, but it isn’t enough to learn once and be done.

    A 50-something engineer has to be as aggressive about learning popular new tech as a 20-something. Sitting on a tech, hoping a niche will last (or worse yet, come back) puts people in the long-term unemployed.

  • I have no idea how to solve this problem and I especially see no way that spending more on education will address it.

    Labor market scarcity. Get these people into jobs. Count on employers offering incentive for these drop-outs to learn job-related skills by enrolling in adult-education classes as a means of qualifying for jobs which require a more developed education and skill set. How to increase labor market scarcity, you may ask? I’m sure that you know my answer already.

    When you subtract the relatively small number of those who graduate with medical degrees, those who graduate with law degrees from the top 15 law schools, and a very few others, the expected earnings for somebody with a college degree isn’t a great deal different from those of a high school graduate.

    This methodology correlates education content with labor market rewards and it discounts the labor market rewards to those who earned degrees in disciplines which present no labor market demand. What labor economists have discovered is that once cognitive abilities are entered into the mix, the value of a degree which doesn’t generate any knowledge desired by the labor market is substantially reduced. So if the labor market premium for a college degree is inconsequential, then a rational response would be to devalue the degree and find methods to recognize the attribute for which the degree is acting as proxy. This would get people into the workforce 4 years sooner and decrease the debt burdens of preparing to enter the workforce. Some vested interests though will find that this optimization procedure will work against their rentseeking interests.

  • Closed italics tag. Just in case.

  • michael reynolds

    Shorter Tango: Eliminate degree requirements, replace with IQ tests, this may screw minorities, yay!

  • If you’re worried about minorities you could advocate that strict quota laws be passed forcing employers to racially balance their workforce. Why not be upfront about your goal rather than trying to achieve it through the back door and imposing onerous costs and inefficient processes on society?

    This credential system that’s developed is a colossal waste of human and financial resources that makes us all poorer. The data on job placement of recent college graduates drive that point home. Do you really need a $40,000 student loan debt and 4 years of studying sociology in order to qualify for a job as a Walmart clerk? How is the nation better off by channeling young people down that track?

  • john personna

    “Do you really need a $40,000 student loan debt and 4 years of studying sociology in order to qualify for a job as a Walmart clerk? ”

    Four years ago this was an uncommon question. No longer.

  • Four years ago this was an uncommon question. No longer.

    There was plenty of talk about credentialism 4 years ago. There are a few factors which are relevant to your point.

    1.) Proportion of young people going on to higher education;
    2.) The ability of the job market to absorb new people.
    3.) Value creation by employees with higher education being a result of their education.
    4.) What is the value created by higher education?

    On point 4, the value perception that was created in the early 20th Century was that college education results in higher standard of living. This value perception is now being upended. Why is it being unended? This might be a partial answer:

    In fact, the variance of the unobserved sector specific skill now decreases in both the professional and service sectors, while increasing very slightly in the blue-collar sector. The addition of IQ into the analysis reduces the returns to education, particularly for 1992, so that there is virtually no appreciable increase in the return to education in either sector after controlling for IQ. The increasing return to education found in Table 6 is now picked up by the increasing return to IQ in the professional and service sectors.

    The value perception that was established long ago was misunderstood. The value that was created didn’t come from being an English major for 4 years of university, it came from the fact that only the smartest students tended to go to university and what they studied didn’t really matter all that much because when they entered the workforce the root of their success could be attributed to their intelligence and not their training in writing essays about Chaucer.

    So today, all those Chaucer essay writing students aren’t having much luck because they are being drawn from deep in the high school talent pool and so their workplace success matches their unobserved abilities much more closely than matching to their documented level of education.

  • michael reynolds

    If you’re worried about minorities you could advocate that strict quota laws be passed forcing employers to racially balance their workforce. Why not be upfront about your goal rather than trying to achieve it through the back door and imposing onerous costs and inefficient processes on society?

    I love your new approach of not arguing with me but just admitting your racist agenda.

    Yes, because if we’re at all worried about treatment of minorities in society then “strict quotas” are the only possible way to go. Just as fairness demands that everything be based on IQ tests.

    But actually, my little VDare friend, why stop at using IQ as a criterion for jobs? Why not base all political power on it? And I don’t mean along melanin lines, that’s rather beside the point since IQ is individual. Rather I think individuals with superior IQ’s should be treated as nobility and be allowed to command all lesser men. Since my tested IQ puts me at the 99.98% level I guess that means I should have dominion over all but a tiny fragment of people I encounter.

    Given what I know of your intelligence I guess that has you washing my car. Don’t forget the wheel covers. I like them nice and shiny.

  • I love your new approach of not arguing with me but just admitting your racist agenda.

    Your delusions of grandeur are really becoming more unmoored from reality. It’s more fair to say that I ground you into dust in the education thread than it is to say that we had an argument.

    As for the racism charge you’re the one who repeatedly keeps invoking racist language and racist beliefs and then bizarrely attributing them to me. I simply accept evolution as being applicable to humans. You cling to creationism. That and the racist language which speaks to the racism in your heart. You have a weird fixation on this person that you imagine I am, on the positions that you imagine I hold, even on my racial and ethnic background. You’re a complete nutcase and you derail so many threads with your crusade against your imagined foe and you never show the courtesy to your hosts of actually attacking arguments that are advanced and you’re always going hyperbolic with attacks on the person. You’re a laughingstock to people and the remainder of your comment provided more evidence of your unbalanced mentality.

  • michael reynolds

    Tango:

    Yes. You’re right. I feel terrible. No one thinks you’re racist who bends every comment thread to his racist agenda.

    No one thinks you’re part of VDare. Because you deny it so . . . Oh wait, you never do deny it, do you?

    Huh.

  • john personna

    I remember talking, more recently than 4 years ago, about college loans being the wrong path to college affordability. I talked about the feedback, agency affects, etc., and how they led to higher tuitions.

    Most people then didn’t get it, and couldn’t see loans as part of the problem.

    That’s what I’m thinking has changed, or is changing. It’s changing from the bottom up, rather than the top down. Government and colleges are still about providing those loans (to cover high tuition), but students and parents are starting to question them.

    So no, your points 1-4 are not where I was heading.

  • steve

    College should be about learning to learn. It has never been a specific preparation for most jobs.

    Steve

  • john personna

    Steve, HS should be about learning to learn. It graduates adults, after all. College is about specialization. It doesn’t teach everything in a field of study, but it does build a specialized base.

  • PD Shaw

    steve, I don’t think it college should be solely judged as a vocational school, but with colleges starting to charge $50,000 per year for tuition room & board, it’s role as entrypoint for middle class jobs has to be scrutinized.

  • College should be about learning to learn. It has never been a specific preparation for most jobs.

    That sounds profound but what exactly does it mean? How do you teach people to learn . Can we teach people to love? Can we teach people to not be seasick? Learning is what we do when we come across new information in the environment. It’s an internal process and I don’t know of any methods which can be taught which improve insights that are gleaned from the inductive reasoning students conduct in order to place the newly learned material into the context of the world as the student then understands it. How exactly are teachers supposed to teach and students learn about learning?

    What I think college should be about is teaching a base of knowledge so that it becomes, for most students, internalized and can be used as a foundation for future learning.

    What would be of most use to a student in medical school, an enhanced ability to learn or the knowledge base that allows the student to place newly learned material into context? If a 10 year old student has mastered the ability to learn (however defined) and you thereafter immediately present them with the course material from an advanced radiation oncology class will the student be able to make heads or tails of the material if they don’t even know what cancer is and have never heard of radioactive elements?

  • michael reynolds

    How do you teach people to learn .

    What a revealing question. It made me laugh. (In a sardonic, knowing kind of way.)

    A few ways: Teach kids epistemology. Teach kids logic. Teach them basic search skills. Teach them to look at multiple sources. Teach them to rank data sources by reliability. Teach them to discount ideas from suspect sources without dismissing them. Teach them about Occam. Teach them how to extract information from fiction. Teach them how to parse clues, like root words or order or sequence. Teach them about context.

    Teach them to hear what isn’t said. One of the many, many lessons you never learned.

    I could go on all night.

    How do you teach people to learn? Start by not filling their heads full of bullshit. You know, like theories of racial superiority. The kind of bullshit that make all subsequent learning impossible so that a moderately intelligent mind closes and calcifies and becomes an object of pity.

  • What a revealing question. It made me laugh. (In a sardonic, knowing kind of way.)

    A few ways: Teach kids epistemology. Teach kids logic. Teach them basic search skills. Teach them to look at multiple sources. Teach them to rank data sources by reliability. Teach them to discount ideas from suspect sources without dismissing them. Teach them about Occam. Teach them how to extract information from fiction. Teach them how to parse clues, like root words or order or sequence. Teach them about context.

    Physician, heal thyself. Most of what you’ve described are ways to improve how one thinks, not how one learns. Quite a few of your points are standard material in research methods classes.

    Teach them about context. Yeah? Teach them what? What are a semester’s worth of general principles that a teacher can convey which would allow a student to understand context better?

    Root words. These are covered in language classes. This is content that is being taught. This isn’t a method for learning how to learn.

    Teach them to hear what isn’t said.

    Give us a lesson plan on how this is done. Tie the lesson plan into improvements in the learning process.

    How do you teach people to learn? Start by not filling their heads full of bullshit. You know, like theories of racial superiority.

    You mean like all those people who go to China to adopt kids when there are so many African-American babies in the adoption system that foreigners have to adopt them? Is that the kind of racial superiority that is bubbling around in your mind?

  • john personna

    As I’ve tried to stress before, learning, and then demonstrating accomplishment, are solid parts of human nature. You can’t stop people from learning.

    So why the excessive focus on college?

    Perhaps it is a hold-over from centuries-past associations with class and privilege. We want everyone to go to college and to become a member of the upper class. Except, it can’t really work that way.

    … this seems to be the decade to really drive that home.

  • michael reynolds

    You mean like all those people who go to China to adopt kids when there are so many African-American babies in the adoption system that foreigners have to adopt them? Is that the kind of racial superiority that is bubbling around in your mind?

    Oooh, nice try. I can see how in your fevered brain that would be the only possible reason for adopting from China.

    The reality is a little less, um, Nazi. Not race but gender.

    We weren’t shopping for IQ. We wanted a girl because we already had a boy. The Chinese system is almost entirely girls.

    We looked long and hard at domestic adoption. But we wanted a closed adoption because we think open adoptions are a bad idea. US adoptions are either open from the start or risk being opened by courts. We wanted a baby, not her birth parents. I’m adopted myself and have sound reasons for this conclusion.

    Further, had we wanted a baby who looked like us there’s the Ukraine and many other options. In other words, if we were like you we could have had a perfectly Aryan baby.

    Incidentally, we applied for and were accepted for, what’s called a “special needs” adoption. In other words we were looking for a baby who might be rejected by other potential parents. Which is why our daughter was almost 4 when we finally gave her a home.

    Their loss, by the way. Our gain.

    And there’s your lesson for the day in “how to learn.” A less intellectually rigid person than yourself would have guessed there might be an answer that had nothing to do with his own racist obsession. Then he wouldn’t have stepped in it and made an ass of himself.

    And here’s a bonus lesson in hearing what isn’t said. You never deny, Tango, you just deflect or counterattack. Since you fancy yourself a numbers guy, here’s how you look to me:

    The following is the set of all whole numbers between 1 and 10, inclusive: 1,2,3,5,6,7,9,10.

    See how quickly you notice there’s something missing in that set? That’s how long it takes me to see your evasions and the big, giant, bullshit-filled holes you have in every paragraph you write.

    Some of the people who engage you imagine it’s about data. As if a race-hater can be engaged in honest evaluation of data. Yeah, because if only Mengele had seen better data . . . They’re mostly numbers people who have a hard time imagining that a demonstration of 2+2=4 will have no effect on someone like you who will insist on it equalling 5 no matter how high the data piles.

    But you’re not about data. Numbers are just the toys you scatter on the floor so that the numbers kids will play with you.

    Your actual objective is to push your white supremacist line everywhere you get the chance and you use other people’s blogs to do that. Which is why when your former blog went legit with Discover you were disappeared. And it’s why James banned you from OTB. And why that’s not the first time you were banned for using a blog for white supremacist propaganda.

  • Your actual objective is to push your white supremacist line everywhere you get the chance and you use other people’s blogs to do that. Which is why when your former blog went legit with Discover you were disappeared.

    Accepting evolutionary influences in humans =/ white supremacism. I’ve challenged you before – look through the OTB archives and find me something I’ve written which lends credence to your accusation of white supremacism.

    It’s interesting to watch as your delusions shift. First you accused me of being the publisher of VDARE. Now that fantasy has been discarded and you acknowledge my membership on a group blog. Your anti-psychosis medication haven’t yet taken full effect though because you’re still conjuring up wild theories. People burn out on blogging. Look at the OTB stable of bloggers. Does Steve post as much as he used to? How about Alex? Did OTB “kick them out”?

    Oooh, nice try. I can see how in your fevered brain that would be the only possible reason for adopting from China.

    No, that was me just using your favored argument tactics on you. Accusations are all that matter.

Leave a Comment