Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution has a post on higher education, actually an excerpt from an upcoming book of his:
There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college degrees and these graduates don’t get a big college bonus.
Most importantly, graduates in the arts, psychology and journalism are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth. Economic growth is not a magic totem to which all else must bow, but it is one of the main reasons we subsidize higher education.
The potential wage gains for college graduates go to the graduates — that’s reason enough for students to pursue a college education. We add subsidies to the mix, however, because we believe that education has positive spillover benefits that flow to society. One of the biggest of these benefits is the increase in innovation that highly educated workers theoretically bring to the economy.
As a result, an argument can be made for subsidizing students in fields with potentially large spillovers, such as microbiology, chemical engineering, nuclear physics and computer science. There is little justification for subsidizing sociology, dance and English majors.
College has been oversold. It has been oversold to students who end up dropping out or graduating with degrees that don’t help them very much in the job market. It also has been oversold to the taxpayers, who foot the bill for these subsidies.
There’s an interesting chart in the post that illustrates that over the last 25 years the number of graduates per year in science, technology, and mathematics has remained the same or declined slightly while the number of graduates in the performing and visual arts, journalism, and psychology has skyrocketed.
Let me add a little fuel to this fire. According to the BLS the number of people employed in architecture and engineering in 2001 was about 2.49 million while the number in 2010 was roughly 2.3 million. I won’t go into the dreary statistics on the number of unemployed engineers or the engineers who are no longer able to get work in engineering. They’re easy enough to find. Another statistic to consider: the number and length of post docs has been increasing steadily, a reasonably good indicator of a lack of better jobs. That includes biomedical.
There are, essentially, three reasons to pursue higher education (there used to be four). The first and best is that it leads to a fuller, better, more satisfying life. That might well be worth subsidizing. However, unless college students have changed tremendously in the approaching fifty years since I started my undergraduate education, virtually no one seeks higher education for that reason.
Some pursue higher education for the reason that I did: it’s what we do. I no more questioned the idea that I would go to college (and graduate school) than I did that I would enter first grade. Both of my parents had college educations and graduate degrees. Of course I would do the same.
I think that most kids go to college because they or their parents believe it will help them get good jobs. I think that this is fatuous or, as Dr. Tabarrok more kindly puts it, oversold. Higher education does not ipso facto lead to a good job. That’s a cargo cult mentality. Good jobs, like everything else, are based either on supply and demand or fiat. More people with college degrees does not create more jobs for people with college degrees. It just provides a competitive edge over people who don’t have college degrees in securing jobs that could well be performed without college degrees.
In my day there was another reason to pursue higher education: avoiding the draft. Anybody who thinks that those who pursued higher education because it’s what we do actually did so to avoid the draft are merely reflecting their own prejudices and class identities.
Please do not point out the statistics on the income expectations of people with college or post-graduate degrees. The studies rely on the lump fallacy, the idea that there is a lump of undifferentiated college degrees. When you control for a relative handful of jobs (including the dwindling number of jobs for engineers), doctors of medicine, lawyers who’ve graduated from the top 15 law schools, MBAs from top schools, etc. the income expectations of college grads, particularly when you subtract the four years of deferred wages they’ve bought as part of the education package, aren’t nearly as rosy.
When you combine the low realistic wage expectations of people with training in the performing and visual arts, journalism, and psychology, the small number of jobs being created in any field right now, and the unconscionably high cost of higher education, you get the OWS movement.