The Higher Ed Empire Strikes Back

American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray has often irritated establishment liberals by showing that their plans for improving society backfire. Murray’s breakthrough book Losing Ground showed that the supposedly compassionate welfare programs of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” actually made things worse for the poor. His latest book, Real Education (which I reviewed here ) contends that the liberal project of promoting education in order to lift up the country has been a costly failure.

Inevitably, Real Education has drawn counter-fire from the education establishment. One particularly negative review was written by University of California professor David Kirp, author of Shakespeare, Einstein, and the bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education. He takes strong objection to Murray’s argument that too many young Americans now go to college. On the contrary, he maintains, we should be putting more through college.

To reach that conclusion, Kirp relies on economic studies showing that there is a good “return” on college “investment.” On average, people with college degrees earn significantly more than people without them. That leads Kirp to write, “Employers aren’t dumb. If high school graduates were just as productive, companies would hire them and save boatloads of money.”

The problem is that Kirp assumes that having a college degree makes an individual more productive, but that isn’t necessarily so. Kirp believes that students in college are adding to their “human capital”—their knowledge and skills. That is emphatically true for some of them. The academic environment attracts those young people who are eager for advanced learning and they benefit from it when they enter the world of work.

For many other students, however, going to college is not about learning. Instead, it’s mainly about two things: obtaining the credential that many employers now require, and having fun. Are people like that necessarily more productive because they have a B.A.? Do employers reward all graduates with a pay premium?

No, they don’t. Consider occupations where a degree is not a requirement and the company hires people with or without college credentials—airline flight attendants, for example. (According to federal statistics, about a third of flight attendants ages 25 to 44 have college degrees.) Attendants who have college credentials aren’t more productive and aren’t paid more than attendants who have only high school education.

The same is true for many other fields where we now find college graduates competing with high school graduates. For those college graduates, there is little or no monetary payoff to their “investment” in a college degree. If the country expands “access” to higher education as Kirp and other education establishment spokesmen advocate, most of the additional graduates are likely to end up in this “overflow” category—decked out with college credentials but employed in jobs that are learned just through on-the-job training.

Many other college graduates end up in jobs that “require” a degree and tend to pay better than most of those “high school” jobs. But we shouldn’t automatically conclude that employers are paying more to hire the supposedly more productive college graduates. Rather, many employers use a college degree requirement simply to screen out applicants who have lesser educational credentials. With a large surplus of workers who have generic college degrees (from undistinguished schools and in non-specialized majors), employers can afford to discriminate against people who have lesser credentials. That is, they can find the people they need from the ranks of those with college degrees and don’t want to bother considering other applicants.

The degree at least shows the individual to have some measure of persistence and trainability. Someone with only high school credentials might be equally good, but they have no evidence to show it. Increasingly, individuals without college credentials are shut out of better-paying career opportunities, not so much because the college-educated are more productive but because employers don’t want to take a chance on those who haven’t signaled their suitability by getting a degree. Kirp’s “college graduates are more productive” argument entirely misses this crucial point.

(In the past, employers relied heavily on general aptitude tests to help them sort out the applicants they thought most desirable, but the Supreme Court’s decision in Griggs v. Duke Power appears to have deterred them from such testing and brought about the increased use of educational credentials as a screening mechanism. This Pope Center paper makes that argument.)

Therefore, it is an oversimplification to say that college “pays” and that the college educated are “more productive.” Among the college-educated, some reap high rewards for their added knowledge and skill (engineers, doctors, scientists, e.g.) because they have successfully signaled their suitability for admission into the most demanding fields. Many more benefit mainly because their degrees get them past the screening employers often use to limit the number of applicants they’ll evaluate. And finally there is a large segment that has gone through the college credentialing process only to wind up about where they’d have been if they had entered the labor market right after high school.

So when Kirp writes, “Colleges aren’t filled with overmatched 20-year olds who’d be better off in trade school,” I conclude that he hasn’t really looked closely at the labor market.

I am not saying that going to college is a waste. There are, or at least can be, benefits to a college education other than increased earnings. If a person really wants the broad educational experience that college can offer (but often fails to these days) with or without a financial payoff, that’s fine. He can still find a real liberal arts education at many schools if he’s willing to search around for the dwindling number of professors who still want to teach serious students. (Alternatively, he could save a lot of money by buying or renting lecture series from the various companies that serve the education market, such as The Teaching Company.)

For high school graduates who aren’t interested in anything but finding an entre into the labor market, however, getting a college degree is a very expensive and for some a useless exercise. Murray’s argument is that America would be better off if we had a better way for those students to demonstrate their trainability and that argument easily survives Professor Kirp’s criticism.

For decades, America’s higher education establishment has been riding high. It succeeded in persuading most of the populace that more education—that is, formal education—was an unalloyed benefit for both the individual and the nation. That may have been true decades ago, but it no longer is. Instead of trying to preserve the notion that college is good for almost everyone, the education establishment should face the reality that many young Americans would be better off if they didn’t go to college right after high school.