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America’s College Gap

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson says “The Real Problem With College Admissions is Not the Rankings.”

In the long run, which elite college you attend just isn’t all that important. Longitudinal studies show that the success of the country’s smartest students depends more on where they apply than where they attend. The country’s best schools are all world-class, and the 100,000 new students that they matriculate each year have a relatively equal shot at their own definitions of success.

The bottom line is that college rankings aren’t the monster here.They’re gnats on the back of a monster. After all, if you pay attention to college rankings, you’re already doing something rare. You’re caring enough about college to consult a ranking!

That makes you pretty elite, from the start. Thirty percent of 18-year olds don’t graduate from high school on time. Of those who graduate, half will drop of out of college. Of those who enroll, only nine percent will start at an institution that admits less than half its applicants. Only three percent will attend a school with an admission rate below one-third. The admissions rate at Harvard is six percent.

There is the US News ranking problem. And there is a college crisis. And there’s a big difference. Here is the breakdown of 21-year olds in 2009. Sixty percent aren’t in college. Twenty percent didn’t graduate from high school. One percent is going to the kind of schools that make headlines in rankings.

The breakdown is quite stark. And Thompson argues that it’s important because “in a world of immense risk, higher education might be the last slamdunk bet. Seven of the ten fastest growing jobs in the next 10 years require a bachelor’s degree or higher. Each additional level of education correlates with lower unemployment rates and higher earnings. Employment for workers with Masters, professional, or associates degrees are expected to grow almost twice as fast as the overall job market in the next decade. The benefits of college are quite clear.”

Now, just because the booming jobs require college doesn’t mean that everyone who goes to college will get one of those jobs. And the data are obviously skewed by including people who graduated college long ago in an economy far, far away. The prospects aren’t nearly as good for those graduating in 2011.

Still, things aren’t so good for the 62 percent of 21-year-olds who aren’t either college graduates or college students. Sure, some infinitesimal fraction will go on to start highly successful businesses. And a larger fraction will learn a high-demand trade (plumber, electrician, etc.) that doesn’t require college. But most are simply unprepared for an Information Age economy.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. That 62% number is a bit stunning. Seriously, what are these people doing? Because I don’t see many good paying jobs out there for young people without a college degree.

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  2. steve says:

    For those not going to college, and not going into a trade, we will need ways to train them for future jobs as the rate of change continues to increase. My best guess is that some modification of the community college structure, especially utilizing evening and weekend classes (weekend classes seem awfully rare, but would answer a real need) could be key. As much as we might want, most people do not learn as well w/o direct human interaction.

    Steve

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  3. john personna says:

    I wonder if that chart is all about 4 year colleges and 4 year degrees.

    Those are where costs have increased, student debt has increased, and where returns have decreased.

    Only Advanced-Degree Holders See Wage Gains

    IMO, the best options for those 60% are “non-traditional.”

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  4. john personna says:

    While we’re on topic:

    The Student Loan Bubble, Illustrated

    and

    The Edupunks Guide to a DIY Credential

    We are in transition.

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  5. Ron Beasley says:

    The US does not care about education. It is the only developed country where students must mortgage their future to get a degree with no guarantee they will be able to get a job that will pay enough so they can pay it off. We have people with advanced degrees in computer science and $30,000 in student loans pushing big gulps at 7/11. I was a manufacturing engineer and my factory and job were shipped off to China ten years ago.

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  6. john personna says:

    This site claims the unemployment rate for (their) computer science alumni is 4.5%, which is higher than I expected. Interesting data there, including “still in field” percentages.

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  7. MBunge says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “That 62% number is a bit stunning. Seriously, what are these people doing? Because I don’t see many good paying jobs out there for young people without a college degree.”

    And there’s the flaw in all the happy talk of our new, comparative advantage global economy. Not everyone should go to college. Not everyone is suited to it tempermentally or intellectually. That’s true in America. It’s true everywhere. The idea that EVERYBODY in America can just become computer programmers or what have you when manufacturing and industrial jobs are shipped over seas has never made a lick of sense. It’s also true that there are jobs, like journalism, you can do perfectly well without a college degree but you can’t even get a chance to do them unless you have supposedly validating piece of paper.

    Mike

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  8. Anon says:

    MS students in computer science are routinely getting offers in the 70K range, at least graduates of the university where I teach.

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  9. James in LA says:

    The problem is actually far worse. The changes are going to be coming fast and furious. If we can just set down the Rapture Goggles for five minutes, we see that things such as elvish longevity will be upon us within a generation. Your grandchildren will be arguing with their parents over the age-appropriateness of glow in the dark skin, extra limbs, and gills.

    Extended years without old age seriously changes the health care cost equation, as well as the whole Retirement Question. If you can be milked for 40 years, why not 400?

    To “get it,” you need to be in school, and for good. The future will demand it. We will otherwise become the next generation of tea people.

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns

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  10. JKB says:

    @Ron Beasley: You make a good point. Perhaps to prevent the bad loans on degrees without a chance of breaking even, we should limit or eliminate student loans in majors with low potential of providing returns capable of servicing the debt? STEM, we’ll extend a lot of credit. Fine Arts, Humanities, Law a bit less. -studies, no loans at all.

    You also highlight a growing trend. The paradigm of being an employee all your life is waning as the stability of employment erodes. So more and more, college graduates and not, will have to consider themselves contractors and always be looking to expand their customer base with multiple revenue streams. Perhaps even incorporating as a separate entity from the traditional employer. As such, the credentials of a college degree will lose force as these “contractors” sell themselves on proven capability rather than certificates that really only document attendance and success in test taking.

    It’ll be a different world and it remains to be seen if we can transition but the future is probably less about being a wage earner with government meddling targeted at the wage payer and more about everyone being exposed to the regulations and paperwork that is imposed upon business owners and independent contractors. When the majority of citizens are exposed to the teeth and claws of the unchained regulatory state, will they leave it be or vote for heavy chains and strong fences to control the savagery?

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  11. James in LA says:

    @MBunge: Replace “college” with “education,” and the changing world will demand we go back to school for good. Colleges, as constructed, cannot do it. The individual has to create and manage their own learning pathways.

    To augment Ron Beasly’s remarks, I would add that there also exists sufficient wealth in this country to give college degrees to whomever wanted to earn them, and at any point in their lives.

    The focus has to be on Learning, and this will demand daily focus.

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  12. john personna says:

    @JKB:

    On the change in the nature of work, the recession has seen a stream of articles like this:

    The rise of freelance nation

    The shorter the gig, the higher the stress.

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  13. MBunge says:

    @James in LA: “Replace “college” with “education,” and the changing world will demand we go back to school for good.”

    Uh, the “changing world” doesn’t demand anything and you might want to take a gander back at communism to see what happens when a social and/or economic structure requires a alteration in human nature.

    Or to put it another way, what you call going “back to school for good” can also be seen as being stuck on a treadmill and never being able to get off, no matter what your age, health or personal circumstance.

    Mike

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  14. john personna says:

    @MBunge:

    Humans have lifelong curiosities and like to demonstrate competence. That is “education.” It’s in our nature.

    Sometimes people put up mental walls though, and stay away from the “formal.” They say “I can’t do that” when they do similar things all the time.

    So .. I’m a fan of lifelong learning, and breaking down the walls.

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  15. James in LA says:

    @MBunge: @MBunge: You are already on a treadmill. Even the richest among us run on theirs. All that changes is your choice of treadmills upon which to run. We mistakenly assume that some day will arrive when we can get off, and “do what we want.”

    That is the day you die.

    Even when you do the thing you love, to an observer, you are busy on a treadmill.

    Even in what quaintly passes for retirement is still a treadmill: bills have to be paid, now on a fixed income for most, compounded with crippling disease. And I am telling you this is not the future in terms of actual health, and these folks are going to need to “do” something in an increasingly complex world. This requires ongoing education, beginning today.

    As for the time-worn siren of of “communism,” all of this can be done while keeping our democratic republic united. We just have to, you know, want to.

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  16. MBunge says:

    @James in LA: “You are already on a treadmill.”

    Yes, but what you’re doing is speeding it up and telling me that you’ll shoot me in the head if I can’t at 45 run as fast as a 22 year old. You’re pushing a fantasy that, much like communism, will inevitably result in an even harsher reality.

    Mike

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  17. Ron Beasley says:

    If you really want a career for the future learn to make furniture with hand tools or farm with draft animals.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. MBunge says:

    @john personna: “So .. I’m a fan of lifelong learning, and breaking down the walls.”

    1. Not everyone is like you.

    2. There’s a difference between lifelong learning and being forced into an existence of no stability or permanence.

    What we’re talking about here is simply a further embrace of the idea that human beings are nothing more than cogs in the economic machine to be worn down, used up and thrown away. The only innovation this time is forcing the cogs to constantly try and improve themselves in a desperate attempt to last just a little bit longer.

    Mike

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  19. john personna says:

    @MBunge:

    Isn’t it harder to find someone who doesn’t learn anything?

    – doesn’t read the sports page
    – doesn’t turn on the TV
    – doesn’t read the webs
    – learns no new repairs around the house
    – cooks nothing new
    – wears the same thing, every day

    What you’ve got, seems to be a wall, between learning that is “cog-like” and that which is not.

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  20. john personna says:

    @MBunge:

    And for what it’s worth, many do revel in it:

    Do It Yourself: Creating a Producer Society

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  21. john personna says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    If you really want a career for the future learn to make furniture with hand tools or farm with draft animals.

    I know a guy who was raised by parents who ran away to do that 45 years ago 😉

    He went into the oil business, himself.

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  22. Fiona says:

    @MBunge:

    What we’re talking about here is simply a further embrace of the idea that human beings are nothing more than cogs in the economic machine to be worn down, used up and thrown away.

    Aren’t we already there? Globalization has meant decimating local communities and national industries to ship jobs overseas where labor is a lot cheaper and environmental and other regulations are a lot more lax. The language of human resource departments reinforces this reality with their full-time equivalents and human capital. As we recognize that we’ve entered a period of low, no, or negative growth the current trends will only accelerate. We need a whole new set of paradigms with which to view both government and industry. The current ones are based on a vision of progress and perpetual growth that no longer has much relationship to reality.

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  23. MBunge says:

    @john personna: “Isn’t it harder to find someone who doesn’t learn anything?

    – doesn’t read the sports page
    – doesn’t turn on the TV
    – doesn’t read the webs
    – learns no new repairs around the house
    – cooks nothing new
    – wears the same thing, every day”

    Only two of those things can possibly earn anyone some money and those two require a lot more effort than a casual “love of learning”.

    Mike

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  24. MBunge says:

    @john personna: Uh, what’s being talked about in that link is the equivalent of subsistance farming.

    Mike

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  25. James in LA says:

    @MBunge: “Yes, but what you’re doing is speeding it up and telling me that you’ll shoot me in the head if I can’t at 45 run as fast as a 22 year old. You’re pushing a fantasy that, much like communism, will inevitably result in an even harsher reality.”

    I said no such thing, and I will ask you to refrain from making further references to gun violence done in my name, rhetorical or otherwise.

    The fantasy is insisting the future will not arrive. The fantasy is believing you cannot cope with it because you have reached the advanced and venerable age of 45, ready for retirement next month from the sound of it.

    If you *could* run as fast as a 22 year old, would you still do what you are doing today? Your perception of the world would change quite quickly, given that very real future option. What happens next?

    That is the question the future will be asking us. And it is just a taste. Put down the retirement/rapture goggles for just five minutes.

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  26. john personna says:

    @MBunge:

    Only two of those things can possibly earn anyone some money and those two require a lot more effort than a casual “love of learning”.

    As I say, a wall. And say a guy does have sports scores and statistics packed in his head … should he fear flipping some of that effort to something more economic?

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  27. john personna says:

    @MBunge:

    Uh, what’s being talked about in that link is the equivalent of subsistance farming.

    Not everyone gets a BMW, but it seems better than a vacuum, with everyone admitting defeat and signing up for the dole.

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  28. James in LA says:

    @Fiona: ” The current ones are based on a vision of progress and perpetual growth that no longer has much relationship to reality.”

    100% agreed. It will be a race between Ron Beasly’s Green Acres and Renaissance. What we have now is utterly unsustainable.

    But I do tire of the End of All Things meme. Not if we can help it.

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  29. john personna says:

    @James in LA:

    Renaissance is not a sure thing, but it’s good to have so many trying.

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  30. James in LA says:

    @john personna: “Renaissance is not a sure thing,..”

    No it is not, which is why subsistence farming is an excellent fall-back position. More broadly, energy independence. Find and invest in those technologies with make you less reliant on the grid and the brown sticky cocaine.

    I do not see any real progress until our politics change, and so the race is on.

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  31. john personna says:

    @James in LA:

    Hmm. I think the subsistence farming thing is at odds with the supercities thing.

    We all place our bets of course, but I think that many (like my friend’s parents) might “bail prematurely.”

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  32. MBunge says:

    @James in LA: “The fantasy is insisting the future will not arrive.”

    The real fantasy is acting as though the future is something completely out of our control. A close second to that is discovering that the inevitable future just happens to magically coincide with your ideological or personal view of what it should be.

    Mike

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  33. MBunge says:

    @john personna: “everyone admitting defeat and signing up for the dole.”

    The only one admitting defeat here is you by insisting that the best people can hope for is whatever scaps are left over after we’ve finished sacrificing to Our Holy Economy.

    What we have here is a failure of imagination. The way our (both the U.S. and the world) economy is structured did not come about by accident and it is not the only way things could be run. It might actually be the best way the economy should run but how can we possibly know that if WE NEVER EVEN TRY TO THINK ABOUT DOING SOMETHING DIFFERENT?

    Mike

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  34. john personna says:

    @MBunge:

    Each of us carry about 3 pounds of brain at the top of our tippy bipedal bodies. That is a huge metabolic investment. About one fifth of all we eat goes to powering the thing. So why have it?

    Survival advantage.

    But your theme for the day seems to be that it is a perversion of nature to use it, just that way.

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  35. JKB says:

    @john personna:Hmm. I think the subsistence farming thing is at odds with the supercities thing.

    Funny thing about all these urban fantasies. They gloss right over the only factor that matters, economic activity. Doomed stadiums, mass transit, public works matter little and cannot come about if there is not factories, trade hub, etc. first and foremost. Without secure a strong economic base which attracts producers who then pay for the civic structure, you have nothing. And when that economic base fades (and is not replaced), then you have Detroit, a once mighty metropolis that is rapidly becoming ruins. You want to see the Supercities, then don’t look for infrastructure, look to see which cities facilitate an open, free market that supports wealth creation, not wealth redistribution.

    On the otherhand, going off grid is a bit extreme and premature. But boning up on tool skills and collecting tools can provide benefits when you situation precludes hiring someone else to maintain your necessary food, shelter and clothing.

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  36. john personna says:

    @JKB:

    Actually, the greens like the supercity scenarios because they observe that city dwellers already have lower environmental footprints than … certainly the suburban, but often the rural as well. Rural living is energy intensive (cars, heat for stand-alone homes).

    Cities: still greener than small villages

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  37. john personna says:

    BTW, re. megacities and maker movements,

    “The Future is Already Here – It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed” – William Gibson

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  38. jan says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    If you really want a career for the future learn to make furniture with hand tools or farm with draft animals.

    I think Ron is on to something. It seems that for years we have been touting college, because of our ever-growing technological society, plus ‘going to college’ has simply been the natural, somewhat glorified, next step following high school.

    However, as ‘college prep’ became more the way to go in high school, all those ‘shop’ classes begin to disappear, even in the community colleges. Considering a trade, or employment in a manufacturing job even became a “step down,” in the eyes of many parents and their children. But, it is now the trades, and some light manufacturing jobs which have available jobs. The electricians, plumbers, for instance, who we know and deal with, have had sustainable work throughout these recessionary times. The plumber we use, a man from Spain, got a degree in international business. It just didn’t do it for him. So, he interned as a plumbing apprentice for several years, moving around the country from Chicago, to Arizona, and now California, where he has established a thriving plumbing business.

    Another area that is manifesting itself is applying personal innovation — marketing a skill or service that is unique. Younger, computer savvy people, many without college degrees, are finding success with this.

    Then there is exploring some kind of entrepreneurial niche. I was talking with a local independent book store owner the other day. We got on the topic of IQ’s. He said that his was 191, but that he was only able to stand college for one semester, and never went back. Instead, he did the odd job thing, eventually ending up with a half ownership in a book store, does actor/singer gigs, and 1 day a week has a DJ job playing blues on a local radio station. I would say, lacking a college education, has done little to reduce his happiness in life.

    While I always was an active supporter of higher education, my ideas have been changing with the times. Having brain power is not always satisfied or fully realized by the attainment of a college degree.

    And, finally there is the local fire chief’s son, who cleared a million tax-free dollars last year, growing a certain medicinal plant…….

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  39. john personna says:

    Related:

    Will Robots Steal Your Job?

    “You’re highly educated. You make a lot of money. You should still be afraid.”

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  40. john personna says:

    Ah, also dateline yesterday:

    Why You Should Root for College to Go Online

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  41. Ben Wolf says:

    The problem with assuming people will just have to become self-employed is that capitalism is inherently hostile to it. Prior to its rise in the 19th century unemployment was effectively unknown, i.e. most people were in some way self-employed due to the decentralized aspect of an agrarian economy. Capitalism heavily incentivizes concentration of capital to take advantage of economies-of-scale, a process which by definition has meant shedding labor to increase profitability and resulted in birth of the labor movement. Turning back the clock on mass unemployment means transitioning to the post-capitalist world that’s coming whether we like it or not.

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  42. john personna says:

    I think what’s going to happen is that we are going to have to tie the safety net not to other worker’s salaries, but to corporate profits.

    There’s been the divergence, right? Corporate profits climb while wages stagnate and jobless recoveries recur.

    And of course, it effectively makes that “robot replacement” a contributor to workers displaced.

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