Two Conflicting Visions, Part II: Will Producing More Degree Holders Benefit Society?

Editor’s note: Perhaps there is no debate more important in higher education than that of access. Are we sending too many people to college or not enough? Today’s Pope Center commentary presents two sides of this vital discussion. First, Eric Johnson, a freelance writer who also works in financial aid for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expresses a liberal view—that more people should go to college. Click here to read Johnson’s piece. Below, an alternative view is presented by Pope Center writer Jesse Saffron; it is primarily a conservative view—that expanding college access, though well-intentioned, creates substantial economic and social costs. Both writers are speaking only for themselves and not their organizations—nor for any political institution.

Yes, There Is Such a Thing as Too Much Access to Higher Education 

By Jesse Saffron 

Higher education has long been viewed as a leading source of national progress and as a panacea for social and economic ills. Increasing the number of degree-holding citizens, the mainstream thinking goes, will improve our cultural and political institutions. It will catalyze commercial, technological, and artistic advancement. It will create upward mobility for minorities and the less fortunate. And it will reduce social pathologies such as crime, substance abuse, and the breakdown of traditional families.  

In other words, more postsecondary education equals more individual and collective success. Such is the approved gospel. 

That view has produced a society in which access to higher education has never been greater. There are more colleges and universities than ever before. There is more government spending on higher education than ever before. There are more financial aid options for students than ever before.  

But therein lies the problem. The Law of Diminishing Returns cannot be denied indefinitely: eventually there can be too much of even a good thing.  

Strong cultural momentum—strengthened over several generations by parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and elected officials—has fostered an unwarranted faith in college’s benefits, raised attendance to irrational levels, and yielded an oversupply of graduates. 

And that oversupply is severely distorting labor markets. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says that fewer than 30 percent of jobs today require postsecondary education. However, according to the Census Bureau, roughly 50 percent of workers possess such education. Future projections are cause for concern, too. By 2022, the BLS says, the economy will have created about 50 million new jobs since 2012, but only 27 percent of those will require an associate degree or higher. 

Yet it is the rare advisor who provides such crucial information to would-be college students. That partly explains why, despite abundant examples of overeducated, debt-enslaved baristas, almost 70 percent of recent high school graduates will go on to either a two-year or four-year postsecondary institution this fall (for comparison, in 1973 only 47 percent of high school graduates went to college). 

There are other strong forces maintaining the status quo and amplifying the “more graduates” mantra. One is credential inflation. Expanded college access has resulted in a glut of degree holders and, concomitantly, a diminution in the value of a college education. Certainly, unemployment for degree holders is lower than that of people with only a high school education. But that’s partly because employers now have the pick of the litter. And as more people respond to the intense competition for well-paying jobs by chasing ever-higher credentials, the problem exacerbates.  

Still, policymakers tend to ignore these trends. The latest thinking seems to be that underemployment and other distortions are caused by students majoring in the wrong disciplines. Instead of producing impractical liberal arts degrees, some say, colleges should churn out more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees. It turns out, however, that there is a glut of STEM degree holders, too. Unfortunately, the number of students pursuing such degrees is increasing as a result of the conventional thinking. The most likely results are even more gluts, underemployment, and student debt.  

Policies aimed at increasing college access have contributed to more than just job market turmoil; they’ve exacted high social costs. For example, many graduates, facing dismal job prospects and high student loan payments, have been forced to postpone marriage, home ownership, and other important decisions.  

Also, with virtually every high school student now a potential candidate for college, and many of them unprepared for the rigors of high-level coursework, academic standards have slowly eroded. We see students spending four, five, or six years in college without improving their reasoning and writing skills. And we see students who know more about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s relationship than basic United States history. 

We also see college departments, attempting to lure pop culture-minded Millennial students, increasingly offering trendy courses about zombies, rock music, and sexual practices rather than the classic works of literature and philosophy that helped to shape modern civilization. And we see universities focusing less on educational quality and more on fancy amenities to attract student-customers and the public dollars trailing them.  

These developments are not helping to increase the supply of well-rounded, thoughtful, articulate individuals who will go on to advance our civic and social institutions. Rather, there appears to be a cultural, intellectual, and moral vacuum that is not being filled by many colleges and universities.   

Some would have us believe that a baccalaureate education is a Constitutional right. That is nonsense. Higher education is, and always has been, an exclusive meritocracy. In fact, the minute it ceases to be based on merit it ceases to be a true education and becomes egalitarian social engineering. It makes both practical and moral sense for costly college educations to be reserved for the best and brightest. For those who have not yet proven themselves capable of benefiting from a university education, there is an open and inexpensive alternate pathway via community colleges. 

There may have been a time when increasing the incentives for people to attend academic colleges made sense. But times change; today, the feel-good policy of expanded college access for all does more harm than good. 

(Editor’s note: Part I of this debate, featuring Eric Johnson’s liberal viewthat more people should go to collegeis available here.)