Must Keep the Bubble Going!

The College Board is the organization that administers the SAT to students who are considering postsecondary education. If the number of young Americans in that category drops, so does revenue for the College Board. You can easily see that it has a strong interest in keeping the college bubble growing.

With that in mind, let’s take a look the latest publication of the board’s Advocacy and Policy Center, a report entitled “Education Pays 2010” available here.

The thrust of the report is simple: the more people who go to college, the better. College is good for individuals because they’ll earn more money, have more satisfying jobs, and be much less likely to become unemployed. And it’s good for society to put more people through college because graduates pay more in taxes, are healthier, and are more inclined to do good things (like voting and volunteering). Nothing but benefits.

Reading the report, you don’t even find the kind of carefully hedged writing that’s common in scholarly work. For example, we read, “Students who attend institutions of higher education obtain a wide range of personal, financial, and other lifelong benefits….” Not may obtain or many students obtain. Just as advertising copy never admits of any doubts about the product, this report never admits that higher education’s costs might exceed its benefits for some people.

Nor is the giddy, hyperbolic style of this report the worst of it. The authors try to brush off reasonable doubts and concerns that people might have about college. Knowing that there have been many stories in the past few years about college graduates who can at best find low-paying jobs that don’t cover their student loan payments, they say, “We believe it is critical that more people … examine for themselves the evidence of the benefits of a college degree, rather than relying on the opinions of others—opinions that are too frequently grounded in ideology and anecdotes rather than evidence.”

I cannot fathom what “ideology” has to do with the argument that college isn’t a good idea for everyone, and “anecdotes” can be very useful to an individual in making the college decision, particularly if the circumstances of the person in the anecdote are similar to his own. In effect, the report says, “Just think about the big picture we present, not about instances where someone claims that college was a poor choice.”

Here is another example. An argument that many critics of the overselling of higher education make is that most high school graduates who are borderline regarding college are so academically weak that they’d probably be better off choosing something other than college, such as vocational education or the military.

But the authors of the report want to obliterate such thinking and so make the astounding claim that students who hesitate to enroll in college “stand to benefit the most from a postsecondary degree.” Compared with students “who knew from an early age that they would attend college,” those at the margin will supposedly enjoy even larger incremental gain in earnings.

Really?! Many marginal students are academically weak and disengaged and often drop out if they do enroll in college. What justifies the assertion that they will have any earnings gain, much less incrementally larger ones than students who have been on track for college since they were born?

The evidence cited in support of that contention is a paper by two sociologists who hypothesize that “individuals with relatively disadvantaged social backgrounds, or those with the lowest probability of completing college, benefit the most from completing college.” (Emphasis in original.)

Read the paper and you find out that this research is based on two data sets, one comprised of individuals nationwide who were 14 to 17 years old in 1979 and the other of individuals who graduated from high school in Wisconsin in 1957. Pretty old data—educational and labor market conditions have changed a lot since the time those people were entering the labor force. Furthermore, the authors don’t know how much better the non-college group would have done if they had gone to college, so they rely on estimates.

Whatever that paper may demonstrate, it certainly does not prove that marginal students thinking about college in 2010 will undoubtedly benefit if they enroll, yet the authors of “Education Pays 2010” make it sound that way.

Actually, the report contains data that refute the notion that college is financially beneficial for just about everyone. We read (p.15) that 20 percent of male and 16 percent of female college graduates earn less than the median earnings for high school graduates. What that means is that a substantial percentage of those who go to college spend years of their lives and a lot of money but end up with work that is less remunerative than the typical high school graduate has.

That is more than a few anecdotes. The figures are consistent with the argument  that for large numbers of young Americans, college degrees are now almost worthless credentials. Since that is not something the College Board wants people to consider, however, those data pass by without any comment from the authors.

What about the societal benefits trumpeted by the report?

It’s true that unemployment is more prevalent among people who don’t have college degrees, but it does not follow that having a degree is any protection against the possibility of unemployment. If everyone had a college degree, the unemployment rate would be just the same as it currently is. If an employer can no longer afford to keep a worker on, his or her educational credentials won’t matter.

It’s also true that good behaviors like voting and participation in volunteer activities, and the absence of harmful ones like smoking and obesity, correlate with higher education but that does not mean that going to college has much (if any) causal effect on them. The authors point to some research finding a causal connection, but even if there is, the cost of putting many people through college to achieve small marginal increases in social goods or small marginal decreases in social bads looks very high.

Naturally, the report says nothing about a significant social bad that we get from the “college for everyone” agenda: credential inflation. By credential inflation, I mean the fact that employers are increasingly demanding that applicants have college credentials for jobs that don’t require any advanced academic preparation—work that most high school graduates could readily master.

Here is an excellent statement of that problem by Stanford professor David Labaree in his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning:

The difficulty posed by [the glut of college graduates] is not that the population becomes overeducated (such a state is difficult to imagine) but that it becomes overcredentialed, as people pursue diplomas less for the knowledge they are thereby acquiring than for the access that the diplomas provide. The result is a spiral of credential inflation, for as each level of education in turn gradually floods with ambitious consumers, individuals have to keep seeking ever higher levels of credentials ….Employers keep raising the entry-level education requirements for particular jobs, but they find that they have to provide extensive training before employees can carry out their work productively. At all levels, this is an enormously wasteful system.

The lead author of “Education Pays,” Sandy Baum of Skidmore College, said in a New York Times story about the report, “For reasons that are not entirely clear, more people are questioning whether it’s necessary to go to college.”

What skeptics are questioning is whether the great push to get ever-increasing numbers of young Americans into college doesn’t cost much more than it is worth.  It has given us credential inflation, a notable erosion of the college curriculum and educational standards, and large numbers of people with large college debts they can barely pay.

Instead of putting out smiley-face reports that irresponsibly promote the idea that college is good for everyone, the College Board should do the country a favor and face the fact that for some Americans, college is a big waste of time and money.