Blind Faith in College Completion

The American higher education establishment suffers from the same problem as ruling establishments everywhere—the inability to look objectively at itself. Do you think that the members of the old Soviet Politburo ever asked, “Do our five-year plans actually do any good?” Of course not, and members of our higher education establishment are no more inclined to wonder, “Have we oversold college?”

Illustrative of the inability of elites to question the basic assumptions of their status is the latest book from William Bowen and Michael McPherson, Lesson Plan. It is billed as “an agenda for change,” but just what problems do these former college presidents see and how do they want to change things?

America’s main problem, our authors declare, is that we are not putting enough people through college. We need to achieve “higher levels of educational attainment,” they write, lamenting that the U.S. has lost its “premier place” among nations in the percentage of the population with postsecondary degrees.

That is true. The nation with the highest percentage is Russia, followed by Canada, Japan, Israel, and then the U.S. (Data and the rest of the top ten are given here.

Bowen and McPherson evidently look at higher levels of “attainment” the same way the old Soviet leaders used to look at steel production—the more of it, the stronger your economy and country. And, remarkably, the successor to the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, is the world leader in educational attainment. Given the weakness of its economy (around 50th in the world), however, it should be apparent that being first in this educational metric doesn’t guarantee anything.

Well, having lots of college graduates isn’t a panacea for national problems, the authors would probably respond, but it is perfectly clear that higher educational levels mean higher earnings for individuals. And again, that is true—on average. Those Americans who have earned college degrees unquestionably earn more on average than those who haven’t. 

The problem is that those averages don’t ensure elevated incomes for current graduates. Bowen and McPherson never acknowledge that very large percentages of recent grads find themselves underemployed, working for low wages in jobs that most high school students could do. 

For decades, colleges have been luring students into enrolling based mainly on the idea that a degree will greatly enhance their lifetime earnings. The elephant in the room that Bowen and McPherson manage to completely ignore, is the huge problem of graduates (even of “good” universities) who end up working in fast food, telemarketing, or other jobs that require nothing more than basic trainability.

In mid-2015, roughly half of the recent graduates responding to a survey said they thought they were underemployed. And since many students have accumulated considerable college debt that must be paid from meager earnings, this is no minor problem. 

Jaison Abel, Richard Deitz, and Yaqin Su observe in a 2014 study for the New York Fed that among college graduates “the percentage who are unemployed or underemployed—working in a job that typically does not require a bachelor’s degree—has risen, particularly since the 2001 recession. Moreover, the quality of the jobs held by the underemployed has declined, with today’s recent graduates increasingly accepting low-wage jobs or working part-time.” 

Furthermore, the glut of people with college credentials on the labor market is not a new problem we will shortly get over. In their 1999 book Who’s Not Working and Why, economists Frederic Pryor and David Shaffer observed that for at least a decade, the U.S. had been graduating so many people from college that large numbers of them were spilling over into what had formerly been “high school jobs” and pushing the workers who used to get such jobs further down in the labor market.

The way our zeal to produce more and more college graduates has distorted the labor market is not apparent from the lofty vantage point of these writers, but it is real. Their idea that we need to put substantially more people through the college credentialing process can only exacerbate it.

At least Bowen and McPherson acknowledge one of the strongest criticisms of the “We’ve Oversold College” camp, namely that many students graduate without having learned much. But instead of trying to prove that college really does cause most students to gain a lot in knowledge and skills, they blithely dismiss the findings of the two scholars who have most rigorously researched the matter of cognitive gains by students: Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa.

Arum and Roksa’s 2010 book Academically Adrift was a body blow to the smugness of the higher education establishment, for it demonstrated that a high percentage of students showed scant cognitive gains from their college years. So what is the benefit of putting still more young people through college if many who now go don’t learn much?

Bowen and McPherson try to turn the tables by writing, “The fact that 45 percent of students failed to pass a statistical threshold designed to assure us that they in fact improved their basic skills means only that we don’t know how many students did improve their basic skills—conceivably quite a large number.” They dust off this key challenge to their “higher attainment” agenda by saying that the findings “could well be interpreted as encouraging.”

What a weak attempt at avoiding the issue of learning.  If roughly half of the recruits in army basic training showed no improvement in their strength and stamina, would anyone say that the results aren’t so bad and might even be encouraging?

The fact is that many observers of higher education who aren’t in the establishment have said that standards are low and many students simply coast through.

For example, in his Wall Street Journal article “We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn,” psychology professor Geoffrey Collier explains why so many college students learn little from their classes. “Students arrive woefully unprepared; students study little, party much and lack any semblance of internalized discipline; pride in work is supplanted by expediency; and the whole enterprise is treated as a system to be gamed in which plagiarism and cheating abound.”

There is a mountain of evidence that many colleges, intent on enrolling and retaining as many of those unprepared kids as possible, have lowered their standards, watered down or eliminated hard courses, added soft, fun courses, and encouraged grade inflation—but the authors think they’ve dispatched all doubt about the intellectual value of college.

One more dubious claim the authors make is that college degrees are valuable because “students who complete degree programs have demonstrated a capacity to ‘get it done.’” 

Sometimes getting through college demonstrates that, but quite often not.

That’s because many programs at many schools demand little or no work that makes the student improve, as Professor Collier observed above. Charles Murray made the same point in his book Real Education: “If surviving to a diploma is the definition of ‘cope with college-level material,’ then almost anyone can do it if he shops for easy courses in an easy major at an easy college.”

That is exactly how many students approach college, and if we draw still more high school grads into college, they will mostly be the academically unprepared, let’s party types.

In sum, the authors, wedded as they are to the “completion agenda” of putting far more Americans through college, vastly overestimate the benefits of processing kids into bachelor’s degree holders. Never having dealt with today’s typical student, they don’t know how indifferent they are to academic work. Professor Collier nails the truth: “The idea that students can obtain a serious education with their disengaged, credentialist attitudes is a delusion.”

Give Bowen and McPherson credit for wanting to reduce the cost of college, but experts have been vainly calling for that for a long time. What a real change agenda needs to include are alternatives to the status quo’s college credentialing norms. For that, readers will have to go elsewhere.