Shocking: The Chronicle Supports the Case Against College for All

The May 6 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education contains two illuminating and rather unexpected articles: Should Everyone Go to College? by Scott Carlson and When Everyone Goes to College: a Lesson from South Korea by Karin Fischer.

What makes these pieces so interesting is that they say clearly what so many in the higher education community have long been at pains to deny, namely that a country can go overboard on higher education.

We are used to hearing from the higher education establishment and its organs that college is a great investment for almost every student and that we can solve many of our national problems by significantly increasing our college completion rate. Therefore, it’s startling to read in Carlson’s article that, “The college-for-all talk is like fairy dust sprinkled over the conversation.” (That’s a quotation from Diane Ravitch.)

This is about the same as if Bernie Sanders said during a campaign rally, “Look people, I recently read a book by Milton Friedman that makes a lot of very strong arguments against socialism, so I’m rethinking much of my platform.”

Carlson begins with the experience of a community college remedial writing instructor who was exhausted after the semester.  A few students had actually made progress, but more than half had failed. But failing them was not acceptable because many would drop out. She was left wondering, Carlson writes, “Why were they in college at all?”

The answer is that over the last few decades, vocational educational has become associated with failure, a last resort for hapless kids who weren’t “smart enough” (as Alexander Astin says) for the really worthwhile postsecondary education—a four-year college.

Thus, Carlson observes, “policy makers ignored viable practical training.” At the same time, high school counselors began pushing most students, even those who obviously did not thrive on academics, to go to college. Large numbers wound up struggling in remedial classes and moving on to graduate only because administrators wanted the money.

As the college-for-all mania took hold, one result was credential inflation. For decades, college completion advocates have said, “Just look how many jobs now require college degrees” to support their agenda. Carlson points out the truth that many jobs like car-rental representative now call for college degrees because “employers use degrees to filter applicants by perceived ability, or by class or race.”

How nice to see The Chronicle coming around to a point Rich Vedder, Charles Murray and I have been making for years.

Are there any real alternatives to college, though? The conventional wisdom has been that occupational training is only for people who didn’t have any chance at the good life that college put you on track for. Carlson points out to the contrary that alternatives not only exist, but are thriving.

One is Dunwoody College of Technology in Minnesota, run by a number of firms located west of Minneapolis. It enrolls many students who already have four-year degrees, but no work. The school, Carlson reports, has a 99 percent placement rate for graduates, in jobs paying an average of $40,000 to start.

Another good development Carlson mentions is that of “stackable credentials.” Young people (or older ones, for that matter) do not have to “invest” in a bachelor’s degree first and then start working. Instead, they can study and earn a badge or certificate in some skill, work a while, then figure out if another badge or certificate would make sense.

Students don’t have to buy the entire college bundle, but can gradually find their ideal learning pathway.

For some, the process might eventually lead to a traditional degree; for many others, something different will be best. Carlson quotes Northwestern sociology professor James Rosenbaum on the advantages of this gradual approach to education: “With each step, they get a payoff and a success, and if life interrupts with a crisis, as it often does for low-income students, they have got whatever they accomplished in the meantime.”

That’s right, but it isn’t only low-income students who stand to benefit from moving to a more incremental system. Many from wealthier families also suffer from having made big “investments” in college degrees that proved to have little value; they’re looking at options like Dunwoody and many others.

Among the others are Aveda Institute and General Assembly, both extolled by Jeffrey Tucker in his recent article “Ditch College, Get a Real Skill, Live a Good Life.”  It’s evident that young Americans are increasingly doing exactly that.

The exodus (or non-entrance) of many Americans who aren’t inclined toward academic pursuits will hugely deflate the college bubble, but will also allow schools to better serve those who truly desire deep and advanced study, not merely prolonged high school.

One reason why the U.S. wound up with the inefficient, bifurcated educational system it has is that public schools got into the business of “tracking” students—the bright ones being tracked toward college and the apparently un-bright tracked into vocational education. Although Carlson doesn’t make this point, the movement toward stackable credentials means that we’re letting students track themselves.

That makes far better sense than putting the decision-making responsibility in the hands of some school official who probably doesn’t have very much knowledge about the student and won’t bear any cost for making a bad tracking decision.

In short, we’re seeing a move away from government educational planning and toward the spontaneous order of the free market.

It is the same development that Peter Stokes discussed in his book Higher Education and Employability which I discussed here. Stokes wrote about the shift from the old “learn-learn-learn-certify-wait-wait-deploy” model most Americans accepted as given to a more sensible “learn-certify-deploy, learn-certify-deploy” model. The higher education establishment’s halcyon days when most Americans thought that earning a B.A. was essential are over.

Karin Fischer’s article about the way South Korea has oversold higher education further strengthens the case against “college for everyone.” She writes that “increased enrollment has devalued the college degree” and led to a labor market glutted with college grads struggling to find work. That sounds familiar.

In fact, the Korean government, she reports, “is trying to shutter some universities and bring college-going down.” We haven’t gotten to that point yet, what with the Obama administration’s project of making the U.S. the nation with the world’s highest percentage of college graduates, but Americans are catching on that we can’t pull the country up by the bootstraps through higher “college attainment.”

Another parallel between South Korea and the U.S. Fischer notes is the way the mania for getting into a prestige college has spawned a wasteful industry devoted to maximizing the admission chances for students. Some Korean parents, she writes, spend as much as a sixth of their income on “cram schools” for their children.

The U.S., South Korea, and no doubt other countries have oversold higher education to the detriment of most of their citizens. But now the inefficiencies are obvious and the market’s discovery process is working to create alternatives that cost less and give people more value.

Not even The Chronicle can ignore that any longer.