Commentary Magazine


Topic: Dylan Matthews

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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