Jim Hunt believes colleges are not measuring up

In a report recently issued by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt and businessman Thomas Tierney address the question “How does American higher education measure up for the 21st century?” Not very well, they conclude.

I happen to think their conclusion is correct, but not for the reasons they give. The difficulty is that Hunt and Tierney are obsessed with the notion that we have a quantity problem. We don’t. We have a quality problem.

The tone for the report is set by former New Mexico governor Garrey Carruthers in his foreword. He states that, due to the demands of the “knowledge-based global economy,” it is imperative that “more Americans must prepare for, enroll in, and successfully complete degree and certificate programs.” Carruthers provides not the tiniest bit of evidence to support his assertion, but this is only the foreword. He calls for government, schools and colleges, and public leaders to “ratchet up the educational level” of the populace.

In his lead essay, Hunt begins by reiterating an old favorite of his – that “higher education must be an ‘engine’ of both our economy and our democracy.” In an effort to demonstrate his “engine” analogy, Hunt observes that the U.S. economy experienced rapid growth and became the world’s economic leader following the adoption of the G.I. Bill in 1944 and the subsequent surge of the percentage of Americans who go to college.

True enough, but Hunt has fallen into one of the most common logical fallacies here, post hoc ergo propter hoc, which is the logical mistake of assuming that because one thing followed another, the first thing caused of the second.

The U.S. economy did grow rapidly after World War II, but no faster than it had grown throughout most of our history when only a very small percentage of the population went to college. We can hardly attribute American’s economic success of the last 60 years to the fact that more of us have had more formal education than in the past when the nation did very well throughout most of our history when higher education wasn’t subsidized.

The point that Hunt and others who make the same argument overlook is that human beings learn most of what we need to know in places other than classrooms. The Wright brothers mastered aviation despite the fact that they ended their formal education with high school. As economist David Henderson writes in his book The Joy of Freedom, “Schools don’t have a monopoly on learning.”

Hunt then delivers his assessment of our educational situation: “The emergence of a global and highly competitive new knowledge-based economy … requires enormous numbers of workers with education and training beyond high school.” That’s exactly what Carruthers said, but one might expect that in the main essay of the paper we would get more than just an assertion. Our former governor, however, provides no evidence at all that what he says is true. I’m not surprised, though – I have seen the same assertion made dozens of times, but never with a serious attempt to demonstrate that changing economic conditions make it imperative that we greatly increase the amount of formal education Americans receive.

Here’s what we’d need to see before we could even provisionally accept the “we’ll suffer unless we invest more in higher education” thesis as true.

First, exactly what are the jobs that are coming into existence in the “knowledge economy” and how many of them will there be? Do those jobs really require a level of ability that only college graduates could possess, and if so, what specifically are those abilities? How many U.S. college students currently pursue a course of studies that would prepare them for “knowledge economy” jobs? If those jobs will be high-paying ones, won’t the financial inducements that ordinarily attract people to areas of high demand accomplish that?

We shouldn’t conclude that we need to increase the percentage of Americans who pursue formal education after high school until those questions have been answered.
The case for Hunt’s policy has not been made, and I doubt that it can be made because it’s contrary to a seldom observed fact, namely that the U.S. already appears to have a glut of college graduates, many of whom end up doing work that calls for no particular intellectual skill.

In her book Bright College Years, Anne Matthews writes, “Market saturation is on everyone’s mind; one college graduate in five now works in a job that does not require a college degree. A third of Domino’s pizza-delivery drives in the Washington, D.C. area have B.A.s. A recent warehouse supervisor ad for The Gap is all too clear: ‘Bachelor’s degree required, and the ability to lift fifty pounds.’”
Department of Labor statistics support Matthews’ point, showing that many college graduates are spilling over into jobs like theater ushers, derrick operators and office clerks. Furthermore, job market estimates that the Bureau of Labor Statistics does every two years do not disclose that there will be any dramatic shift toward high skill employment. In fact, most of the jobs expected to have the greatest numerical growth are ones that only demand on-the-job training, such as retail clerks and truck drivers.

While it may be true that the nation would benefit if it graduated more people with strong backgrounds in engineering, mathematics, science and similar technical disciplines, the truth is that a great majority of American students prefer to major in soft fields with low academic demands. Even though we could probably lure more students into higher education with increased government spending, most of those who do not now go to college have weak academic backgrounds and wouldn’t be interested in any of the demanding technical majors. So if it’s true that the nation needs more engineers, mathematicians, scientists, etc., expanding the percentage of young people who go to college isn’t going to help much.

The U.S. produces a huge quantity of education. Unfortunately, much of it isn’t very effective. To his credit, Hunt does say that he wants to see American colleges and universities become more accountable for their results, but why not first insist that American K–12 education do what it used to do fairly well — graduate young people who are competent in the use of the language, can do basic math, and who can readily be trained for most jobs? Better quality in the earlier years would eliminate the need to worry about the quantity of “higher” education, which for many students is just at attempt to make up for things that weren’t learned in primary and secondary school.