Hollywood Gets It

It may not be Tom Hanks’ greatest cinematic triumph, but the recent film Larry Crowne deserves two thumbs up from those of us trying to reform higher education.

The film, starring Hanks and Julia Roberts, tells the tale of Larry Crowne (Hanks’ character), a man laid off from his job for no other reason than his lack of a college degree.  Crowne is fired while a colleague is promoted, even though it’s obvious to all involved (even the man promoted) that Crowne was much more capable.

The rest of the movie is the story of Crowne trying to get back on his feet. After visiting all the retail outlets in town, he discovers that without a college degree he can’t get a job similar to his previous one (a store manager at “U-Mart”). So, he enrolls at a local community college.

The movie illustrates a number of points the Pope Center has been making for some time. The first is credential inflation. That is, because there are so many people with degrees, businesses are using degrees as a screening mechanism to weed out potential employees, regardless of actual talent.

This is troubling, because, as in the case of Larry Crowne, many competent people are overlooked. Potential employees are thereby obliged to get a degree—even if it isn’t necessary—or find another line of work. Pope Center research director George Leef has made the argument many times (recently, for example, at a Miller Center for Public Affairs debate).

Another consequence of credential inflation is that not having a degree can keep you from getting a job, but having one isn’t a guarantee of a job, either. Richard Vedder, an economist and president of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), looked into Bureau of Labor Statistics data and found out that there are about 17 million college graduates doing jobs that don’t require a degree. In the film, one of Crowne’s former bosses—who had a college degree—is later found to be working as a pizza deliveryman.

One of the reasons we’re in this situation is the inability of employers to use standardized testing as a screening mechanism. Use of tests that had a “disparate impact” (i.e. in terms of race) came under much stricter scrutiny following the 1971 Griggs vs. Duke Power Supreme Court case. In a 2008 paper for the Pope Center, Richard Vedder and Bryan O’Keefe examined the connection between Griggs and the increased disparity in earnings between college graduates and non-graduates. (George Will highlighted the connection in a column for the Washington Post.)

Of course, part of the problem is that it’s just a bad economy, and the movie gets that, too. “Hard times, I understand,” says Crowne while walking out of another retail store that didn’t give him a job.

The second policy-related success is movie’s positive portrayal of community colleges.  For example, although Crowne’s economics professor is pompous and quirky, Crowne learns enough to fix his personal finances and escape crushing debt.

Indeed, attending a two-year public college is a cheap, useful option for many people seeking career advancement. As I have previously written, community colleges are much more focused on their teaching mission and thereby able to keep costs (and thus tuition) lower.

Having never attended a community college, I can’t say exactly how close the movie’s portrayal of day-to-day community college life came to reality. Still, I suspect it came closer than the NBC show Community (which, to be fair, doesn’t really try to be realistic—see the intro to the episode “A Fistful of Paintballs”). For one, there were no dramatic paintball duels in Larry Crowne (to my disappointment). Additionally, in the movie as in life, the students attending such schools are often in transitional periods. This can be seen in Hanks’ character and his flirtatious scooter-driving friend Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who opens a thrift store before finishing the semester.

One thing that struck me as odd, though, was that hardly anyone dropped any classes. The class taught by Julia Roberts’ character only had ten students and, as far as I could tell, all ten students remained for the whole semester. Community colleges generally have very low graduation rates, often in the 20 percent range. Students I have talked to tell me that a significant portion of every class usually drops the class before they finish.

But, then again, it was Julia Roberts teaching the class.

Overall, Larry Crowne is a decent film, cheerful and humorous if generally predictable. But the best feature is that it shows that Hollywood has caught on to what members of the higher education establishment are loath to admit: the use of a degree as a screening mechanism is widespread and often unfair.  Let’s hope that some business leaders see the movie, grasp that point, and then put the brakes on credential inflation.