What Is the Purpose of Higher Education?

This post at RealClearPolicy is pretty sobering:

Only one-third of college enrollees graduate within six years and then get jobs requiring college degrees.

That is the conclusion of my new report in the Manhattan Institute’s Issues 2016 series. Only 59 percent of four-year college students graduate within six years. Those who graduate face an additional hurdle — only 56 percent of recent college graduates work in a job that requires a college degree (though the figure for all college graduates is 67 percent, suggesting some underemployed graduates move up later in their careers).

Multiplied together, these numbers suggest that only 33 percent of students who enter college emerge with both a degree within six years and a relevant job soon after graduation. This is the true crisis in higher education, and one policymakers must address before they offer up more taxpayer money to colleges.

IMO our present system of higher education is targeted with unerring precision at the economic conditions of the 1950s. Then the purposes of higher education were clear. They were

  1. To prepare professionals for their post-graduate education.
  2. To pre-select managers for big businesses.
  3. To function as a place where middle and upper middle class women could meet and marry men of the appropriate social classes.

and none of those are operative today except maybe the first. The system of legal education seems to be collapsing even as I type and Lord knows the system of medical education is in drastic need of reform. How much sense does it actually make for GPs to get the same training as medical researchers?

I don’t think our system makes any sense at all in an environment of mass education. As the stats in the post suggest more than half of the people are guaranteed to fail.

I’ve made no secret that I think it’s a scandal and an outrage that kids are being saddled with debt they’ll never be able to repay. I agree with Bernie Sanders’s goals with respect to education but my tactics would be different. I’ve said it before: the five biggest states should each close one of their non-performing state universities (they all have them), take the money, and create a program of online education they’d be willing to offer an accredited degree for (associates if not bachelors) and in which anyone could participate free of charge.

13 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I cannot tell whether the stats in the post take into consideration post-graduate education. Students who continue with advanced degrees are not likely to have a job within six years of starting school. At least it might be useful to have broken that out separately and consider whether the undergrad degree is worth as much as it once was.

    (Not certain that marriage is still not an aspect. Vaguely recall an article from a woman from an Ivy League school who bemoaned friends telling her college was the best time to meet the right kind of guy before getting saddled with her career)

  • Modulo Myself Link

    I’ll take a stab and say that an intangible thing higher ed offers is a chance for an 18-year old to go somewhere else, meet new people, and leave where they grew up. This can make a huge difference in someone’s life. It’s a sad commentary on what goes on in America, and it shouldn’t let the cash-hungry vortex of higher ed off the hook but in my experience growing up in a place that can be politely considered to be ‘dying’, getting away is better than sticking around, having a job, seeing the same people, and drinking oneself to death.

  • Actually a pretty small minority of students. More than half of students stay home for college; almost three quarters stay in-state; just over 10% travel attend school 500 or more miles from home.

  • Modulo Myself Link

    In-state is going somewhere else. I ‘know’ (via Facebook) a lot of people I graduated HS with, and the people who want to Penn State branch campuses, or the ones who went to Slippery Rock or IUP, seemed to have moved a great distance from where we grew up. Charlotte, Phoenix, Florida, Ohio–anywhere but my home town. They have middle-class lives even if their jobs didn’t require a college degree. Meanwhile, the kid who I babysat and who lived at home, and went to the local college in town–he tended bar for years after getting through with school and is now coming out of rehab for coke and booze. He’s not the only one.

  • Guarneri Link

    It’s hard to really analyze these stats without considerable slicing and dicing. My daughter has chosen her school and the placement stats are sparkling. I hope no one here went to Western IL, but I suspect that’s glorified high school, and would wonder about placement success there.

    System-wide we have a mess. But in sub-categories we are just fine. Milton Friedman wrote about this issue some 40 years ago. I sure others saw it coming as well.

  • steve Link

    ” How much sense does it actually make for GPs to get the same training as medical researchers?”

    They don’t. Who tells you these things?

    To add to what Drew said, the last time I read up on these stats they did not include students who transferred to another school and graduated, so we don’t know if that is a part of what is happening. Also, the numbers on graduation rates for the for profit schools are very low. They contribute to the drop. Finally, this varies wildly per state. Close a school in California or Pennsylvania? You would get much more out of closing some in Louisiana, Florida or Texas.



  • Well, let’s just consider one: Anthony Fauci, just picked at random. He has the same MD as a GP and did an internship and residency just like a GP would have. If he cared to, he could work as a GP.

    Yes, he has a specialization. That’s the tip of the iceberg not the iceberg.

    Now, who is it who tells you that the medical education of docs who are medical researchers is drastically different from that of GPs?

    There is more difference between the education of electrical engineers and chemical engineers than there is between internists and immunologists.

    Here’s a question for you. Why is medicine an advanced degree in the United States? We’re practically the only country in which it is.

  • Guarneri Link

    “There is more difference between the education of electrical engineers and chemical engineers than there is between internists and immunologists.”

    Heh. I can’t speak to the doctor debate, but that statement sure is true. I had to drop out of EE. It made no sense to me. The math was Greek. Circuit design. WTF?? But chemistry just came naturally, intuitively.

    I know this. If you hired me, rusty as I am, to refresh and work on either the extractive or physical side of chemistry it would work out. If you hired me – even with training- to do EE work you would have hired a worthless slug. Different worlds.

  • Andy Link

    Yet the intelligentsia keep telling everyone that you are nothing without a college degree.

  • ... Link

    The purpose of higher education is to create debt slaves. That’s fairly self-evident.

  • ... Link

    Oh, and sinecures for the Select. And places where professional athletes in training can learn how to use PEDs and get away with rape.

    See, there’s all kinds of good stuff in a university.

  • steve Link

    First, for an allopath (me), a GP has always had a specific meaning; a person who hangs out a shingle after finishing just an internship, no residency. Osteopaths used to have a number of general practice residencies, but they now call them family practice just like allopaths for the most part. The family practice DO I had lunch with today didn’t know if there were any actual GP residencies left.

    Who told me? Uhh, what we all saw in med school. The wife who was a researcher. The researchers I know and work with. Anyway, go look at the place where Fauci works, NIAID. Most of his staff are PhDs or MD/PhDs. A minority are just MDs. In med school, the MD/PhD programs tilt towards research and the PhD part. GPs get none of that. So, a GP does not even come close to the same training as a researcher. Even those who are plain MDs, without the PhD, tend to spend a lot of time in residency doing actual research in their area of interest. In short, most researchers are not MDs (go look at the Nobel list), those researchers who are MDs are often PhDs also. Those who are plain MDs have, usually, time spent trying on research during their residency. The researcher group has typically put in 2-5 years more training in their area pertinent to research.

    Now, if you want to say researchers with an MD have the same basic training as a GP, yes that is true. They all went to high school, undergrad and med school, though even then most of the researcher types took a different course load than those going into family practice. (The GP in the US pretty much doesn’t exist but family practice comes closest to the concept.)

    ” Why is medicine an advanced degree in the United States?”

    Tradition I would guess. We could adopt a European type program and knock two years off of the process. In Germany they manage to delay starting med school until the age of 21 for most students, so I would favor that if i had a choice. We have had to deal with some students from combo undergrad/med school programs where they graduate in 6 years like in the EU and maturity has been an issue.


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