Commentary Magazine


Topic: student loan bubble

Should Scott Walker Get His Degree? Should We Care?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked–again–yesterday about whether his lack of a college degree is an impediment to his (presumptive) presidential hopes. He responded, according to CNN: “I don’t think I needed a college degree to be in the state assembly or to be county executive or to be governor. I don’t know about any other position. But in the end I think most people, for example [as] governor, judge me based on performance and what we’re able to do.”

That’s a fine answer, but it almost certainly won’t put an end to such questions. And that might just be a good thing–not for Walker, certainly, but because it’s a discussion quite relevant to the current higher education bubble and also because it can be revealing about those asking the question. Walker has already somewhat undermined his own defense by claiming he might go ahead and finish up his degree–a suggestion that is unobjectionable but which is difficult to separate from the current discussion about that degree and his presidential hopes.

It’s also logistically problematic to get that degree while running for reelection as governor and then for the Republican presidential nomination. Who would want to grade his papers under such circumstances? Only, one would think, people who shouldn’t be grading his papers. Taking classes in person would be a security nightmare, not to mention a media zoo making it a less than ideal environment for other students. Which raises the possibility, hinted at by Walker himself, that he would participate in a program like the University of Wisconsin’s “flexible option,” which would enable him to study on his own, remotely.

That might take the media circus off campus, but it wouldn’t cure all the headaches involved in Walker getting his degree while also a candidate for high office. The flexible option, for example, allows students to set their own pace. Were Walker’s pace noticeably slow, he would be subject to endless speculation about his intelligence. Were his pace suspiciously brisk, he would be accused of dodging his governing responsibilities or cheating.

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked–again–yesterday about whether his lack of a college degree is an impediment to his (presumptive) presidential hopes. He responded, according to CNN: “I don’t think I needed a college degree to be in the state assembly or to be county executive or to be governor. I don’t know about any other position. But in the end I think most people, for example [as] governor, judge me based on performance and what we’re able to do.”

That’s a fine answer, but it almost certainly won’t put an end to such questions. And that might just be a good thing–not for Walker, certainly, but because it’s a discussion quite relevant to the current higher education bubble and also because it can be revealing about those asking the question. Walker has already somewhat undermined his own defense by claiming he might go ahead and finish up his degree–a suggestion that is unobjectionable but which is difficult to separate from the current discussion about that degree and his presidential hopes.

It’s also logistically problematic to get that degree while running for reelection as governor and then for the Republican presidential nomination. Who would want to grade his papers under such circumstances? Only, one would think, people who shouldn’t be grading his papers. Taking classes in person would be a security nightmare, not to mention a media zoo making it a less than ideal environment for other students. Which raises the possibility, hinted at by Walker himself, that he would participate in a program like the University of Wisconsin’s “flexible option,” which would enable him to study on his own, remotely.

That might take the media circus off campus, but it wouldn’t cure all the headaches involved in Walker getting his degree while also a candidate for high office. The flexible option, for example, allows students to set their own pace. Were Walker’s pace noticeably slow, he would be subject to endless speculation about his intelligence. Were his pace suspiciously brisk, he would be accused of dodging his governing responsibilities or cheating.

So if he isn’t going to get his degree before running for president, does the debate over his education help or hinder his candidacy? That would depend a great deal on the extent to which the affliction of credentialism has infected the general public. You can sense the conversation shifting as a four-year degree becomes increasingly expensive and the federal government’s loan program continues to inflate the bubble, saddling students with ever more debt even as the job market constricts. But there is still a gulf in earning power between those with and those without a college degree, a fact which understandably causes people to hesitate to discourage Americans from attending college.

There is also a partisan aspect to this. Republicans are aware that the modern American university has become a stultifying atmosphere of intellectual conformity, and so it often confers a degree but not much of an education. (There are exceptions, of course.) Liberals think this actually is an education. Hence you find the strain of anti-elitist populism running stronger on the right than the left.

Last month, Charles Cooke found the liberal website PoliticusUSA using the term “college dropout” as a pejorative description of Walker. After Cooke pointed out just how silly this was, the headline was changed. But this week PoliticusUSA was at it again. On the topic of Walker considering finishing his degree, Sarah Jones wrote that “His lack of a bachelors degree is a selling point among Republican voters,” because “Nothing says winning like hating on education and claiming that you don’t need to know anything to be President.”

Jones was quick to add a caveat to this otherwise fiercely clownish statement by noting that “While it’s true that a bachelor’s degree is not required, nor does it determine in any sense the intelligence or lack thereof of the holder, it is important that a President has a solid grasp of history and civics.” In other words, while not everyone needs a college degree, Walker does, because he is in need of a liberal reprogramming. Jones helpfully adds: “This is a the (sic) Republican Party, where the more misinformed and uneducated one is or seems to be, the more they are liked.”

Jones isn’t wrong that Walker might relish the opportunity to portray such attacks as elite condescension. But it also indicates why a productive conversation about the state of American higher education and preparing American students for the modern job market is probably not, alas, in the cards for the next presidential election.

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Don’t Believe Everything You Read About Higher Education

On my Twitter feed one morning last week, this story made the rounds. One-third of Millennials (aged 22-32) regret having gone to college. We can expect this finding to become a part of the “higher education bubble” story, which goes like this. Thanks to increasing worries about student loan debt, high tuition, and the difficulty even college graduates have on the job market, students and parents are seeing more and more that college isn’t worth it. As a result, we can expect to see a radical transformation of the higher education sector, which will be conquered by nimbler, cheaper, online alternatives. I have written about the bubble argument here.

The pressures on brick-and-mortar colleges that bubble enthusiasts identify are real. But they have been sensationalized. It is simply not true that one-third of Millennial graduates regret having gone to college.

That number comes from a survey, commissioned by Wells Fargo, and conducted by Market Pro, Inc., comparing the views of Millennials and Baby Boomers (aged 48-66). Alas, the survey is not available online, but I was able to obtain a copy from Wells Fargo.

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On my Twitter feed one morning last week, this story made the rounds. One-third of Millennials (aged 22-32) regret having gone to college. We can expect this finding to become a part of the “higher education bubble” story, which goes like this. Thanks to increasing worries about student loan debt, high tuition, and the difficulty even college graduates have on the job market, students and parents are seeing more and more that college isn’t worth it. As a result, we can expect to see a radical transformation of the higher education sector, which will be conquered by nimbler, cheaper, online alternatives. I have written about the bubble argument here.

The pressures on brick-and-mortar colleges that bubble enthusiasts identify are real. But they have been sensationalized. It is simply not true that one-third of Millennial graduates regret having gone to college.

That number comes from a survey, commissioned by Wells Fargo, and conducted by Market Pro, Inc., comparing the views of Millennials and Baby Boomers (aged 48-66). Alas, the survey is not available online, but I was able to obtain a copy from Wells Fargo.

Millennial college graduates were asked to respond to this statement: “I would probably be better off financially in the long run if instead of going to college and paying tuition, I had spent those years working and starting my career.” Eleven percent strongly agreed with that statement, and 19 percent somewhat agreed with it. While agreeing “somewhat” that one would probably have been financially better off skipping college is hardly the same as regretting you have gone to college, one can, allowing for the loose way in which journalists often report surveys, accept that one-third of Millennials at least doubt that college was worth it from a financial perspective. But there are two other survey findings that have gone unreported.

There is no excuse for not reporting the first, because the Wells Fargo report blares it: “Virtually all Millennials and Boomers believe their college education to be a good value.” “Thinking about the cost of a college education and the opportunities it provides, would you rate the value of your education a great value, somewhat of a value, not much of a value, or no value at all?” Eighty-eight percent of Millennials and 90 percent of Boomers selected one of the first two options. I think the Wells Fargo report exaggerates this finding; thinking that your college education is “somewhat of a value” does not mean that you think your college education is a good value. Still, Wells Fargo’s exaggeration is no worse that “one-third of Millennials regret having gone to college.”

Only 43 percent of Millennials, compared to 53 percent of Boomers, say that their college education was a great financial value. But if you had asked me, even in a good economy, even in a period when graduates carried less loan debt, whether older people would appreciate their college educations more than younger ones, I would have answered “yes” and expected a difference of at least the magnitude Wells Fargo found. What is surprising is that there is no significant difference when the “somewhat of a value” and “great value” categories are put together. Given the growing popularity of the story that more and more young people think that college isn’t worth it, that finding is arguably the real headline news.

Also left out is that Millennials without college degrees were asked to respond to this statement: “I would probably be better off in the long run if I had attended/received a college education, even considering the cost of education.” Notice that this statement, the flip side of the one about working instead of going to college, is, unlike that one, worded to put the respondent in mind of costs, while saying nothing about “opportunities.” Nonetheless, 75 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that they would probably have been better off going to college.

I do not mean to suggest that everything, or much of anything, is rosy for colleges and universities at the moment, nor do I mean to suggest that every graduate or potential student should consider higher education a great value. But people who are concerned about the future of higher education, whatever they think that future may bring, should be able to agree that our reflections on it need to be founded in careful interpretations of the data we have.

Everyone needs to calm down.

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