Commentary Magazine


Topic: college

Are Too Many People Going to College?

I know that punditocracy is not democracy, but can I vote for abandoning the slogan “too many people are going to college”?

Let’s start with the optics. I am sure I am not the only Jewish man in his mid-forties who grew up in a family and extended family that deeply valued attending college and made sacrifices to do so. This was not because the president told them to, or even just because they thought it was essential to earn a decent living, but because they thought that education was not only a path to material advantages, but also part of a good life. My mother, who as a legal secretary earned a better wage than some college graduates, always regretted not finishing at Brooklyn College, and communicated to me the value of the few books she held on to from her college days. What I am trying to suggest is that “too many people are going to college” is a slogan to break a mother’s heart.

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I know that punditocracy is not democracy, but can I vote for abandoning the slogan “too many people are going to college”?

Let’s start with the optics. I am sure I am not the only Jewish man in his mid-forties who grew up in a family and extended family that deeply valued attending college and made sacrifices to do so. This was not because the president told them to, or even just because they thought it was essential to earn a decent living, but because they thought that education was not only a path to material advantages, but also part of a good life. My mother, who as a legal secretary earned a better wage than some college graduates, always regretted not finishing at Brooklyn College, and communicated to me the value of the few books she held on to from her college days. What I am trying to suggest is that “too many people are going to college” is a slogan to break a mother’s heart.

But it’s also not demonstrable. Richard Vedder has argued that this “too many” is a simple observation about supply and demand. “Thirty percent of the adult population has college degrees . . . . The Department of Labor tells us that only 20% or so of jobs require college degrees.” But the Department of Labor’s figures, as Vedder has conceded before, do not explain why the premium employers pay to degree holders has persisted in the face of such an oversupply.

So he retreats into the position that “supply creates its own demand.” Because employers now are blessed with a large pool of degree-holding applicants, they use college degrees as a screening device even for jobs that do not require one. Regardless of whether they learned anything in college or not, degree holders on average “have higher levels of cognitive skills” and “relatively high levels of motivation and discipline developed before attending college.” Vedder laments that the courts have made it difficult for employers to subject potential employees to other screening tests. Employers fear being slapped with a “disparate impact” lawsuit, so they rely on college degrees.

But as Dylan Matthews has proposed in a recent piece, even if the possession of a college degree were no more than a signal of qualities that predated a student’s entry into college, we would want more of our children to have one. Vedder’s argument proves at most that if we lived in a different world than the one we presently occupy, one in which more employers were listening to Vedder and clamoring to replace the college degree with their own screening tests, then too many people would be going to college.

Matthews also links to evidence that not only average but also so-called “marginal” students “may not gain as much as average students, but . . . still gain substantially in many cases.” In attempting to dismiss Matthews, one critic has huffed that to say “college is always worth it is a gross oversimplification of the question.” It will surprise no one to learn that Matthews doesn’t say that college is always worth it. Indeed, I am not sure anyone has ever said that college is always worth it. But establishing that college is not always worth it is a far cry from establishing that too many people are going to college.

A more powerful argument, which Vedder also makes, is that when even 6-year graduation rates are relatively low, going to college is a risk for many students, and one does poor, underprepared students no favors by encouraging them to take on substantial debt and incur the cost of lost wages in the hope that they will beat the odds and finish. That’s true, and Vedder and his allies do everyone a valuable service by drawing attention to it. Still, there is some evidence (cited here) that low-income students underestimate rather than overestimate the potential returns of a college education. And William Bowen has argued that many students “elect . . . not to borrow modest sums needed to finish degree programs in a timely way.” There is no question that some students who attend college are very unlikely to succeed there, and that they should not be encouraged to borrow to attend, but that does not mean that too many people are attending college or that too many opt to borrow.

To return to the family and extended family in which I grew up, I think they would have listened with interest and concern to the evidence that too many students are unprepared for college. I think they also would have listened with interest and concern to the evidence that some colleges are doing a poor job of educating their students, though they would have found Vedder’s observation that students unable “to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or even Hopkins, are more liable to get bartending jobs” a bit snotty. But I think they would have been suspicious of the claim that “too many people are going to college.” They may have thought it referred to people like us.

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Youth Prefer Jobs to Hope and Change

The president is having a hard time rounding up the support of young people to generate enthusiasm and votes for his reelection campaign, no doubt because this time around, he’s forced to run on his record, verses vague promises of “hope” and “change.” In 2008, young voters constituted a full fifth of his support, but this time around less than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 plan to vote in November and only 40 percent are even registered to do so currently. Young Americans certainly have more time on their hands this time around, with 1 in 2 new graduates unemployed or underemployed in jobs that don’t utilize their education background. Too bad for Obama that it doesn’t seem they will be using that time to campaign for another four years of his economy.

How has the president tried to get on the good side of young voters? This week Obama and Biden have made tours of colleges in swing states touting a plan to prevent a doubling of interest rates for students who take out federally funded Stafford loans (despite not even bothering to be present for the 2007 vote). The plan wouldn’t help Americans already paying off student loans, nor would it help those who took loans from private institutions. How many students will this plan actually help? Very few. Like many other lofty presidential plans, however, the most important part is merely the optics – actual results are just a bonus. I’ve written previously on the $1 trillion student loan bubble, and unfortunately, the program being touted by the White House will probably do more harm than good.

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The president is having a hard time rounding up the support of young people to generate enthusiasm and votes for his reelection campaign, no doubt because this time around, he’s forced to run on his record, verses vague promises of “hope” and “change.” In 2008, young voters constituted a full fifth of his support, but this time around less than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 plan to vote in November and only 40 percent are even registered to do so currently. Young Americans certainly have more time on their hands this time around, with 1 in 2 new graduates unemployed or underemployed in jobs that don’t utilize their education background. Too bad for Obama that it doesn’t seem they will be using that time to campaign for another four years of his economy.

How has the president tried to get on the good side of young voters? This week Obama and Biden have made tours of colleges in swing states touting a plan to prevent a doubling of interest rates for students who take out federally funded Stafford loans (despite not even bothering to be present for the 2007 vote). The plan wouldn’t help Americans already paying off student loans, nor would it help those who took loans from private institutions. How many students will this plan actually help? Very few. Like many other lofty presidential plans, however, the most important part is merely the optics – actual results are just a bonus. I’ve written previously on the $1 trillion student loan bubble, and unfortunately, the program being touted by the White House will probably do more harm than good.

The president has, on numerous occasions, promoted the importance of making college more affordable so that more Americans can have access to higher education. In 2010, he held a “Summit on Community Colleges” where Vice President Biden’s personal connection was highlighted:

As a lifelong educator and community college instructor for the past 17 years, Dr. [Jill] Biden knows that community colleges are uniquely positioned to graduate more Americans with the skills that businesses and the economy will need to compete in the 21st century.

While President Obama continues to pour taxpayer money into government grants and loans, further escalating the student loan crisis, these 1 in 2 unemployed or underemployed Americans with college degrees have got to be wondering why they’ve bothered. Yahoo News reports,

According to government projections released last month, only three of the 30 occupations with the largest projected number of job openings by 2020 will require a bachelor’s degree or higher to fill the position — teachers, college professors and accountants.

This graduating class of Americans has a sense of entitlement unlike any previous generation. They fill their teen years with extracurricular activities instead of after-school jobs, they expect to go to the college of their choice and demand government grants and loans to pay their way, and upon graduation are shocked to learn that their Creative Writing degree with a minor in Gender Studies doesn’t automatically qualify them for a well-paid job writing creatively about gender.

It’s time for the president to state some uncomfortable truths: America cannot, and should not, be spending its resources on giving money to universities that raise tuition at three times the rate of inflation, encouraging even more student debt. Why do we teach our children that college is not only a necessity, but also an entitlement? Why is a generation of liberal arts majors languishing in unemployment, leeching off their parents while blue-collar jobs go unfilled?

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