College Education Economics: Is A Degree Worth It?
Apparently, some economists are arguing that we’re sending too many people to college. A piece by Jacques Steinberg for the May 14 NYT, “Plan B: Skip College,” outlines the argument.
A small but influential group of economists and educators is pushing another pathway: for some students, no college at all. It’s time, they say, to develop credible alternatives for students unlikely to be successful pursuing a higher degree, or who may not be ready to do so.
Among those calling for such alternatives are the economists Richard K. Vedder of Ohio University and Robert I. Lerman of American University, the political scientist Charles Murray, and James E. Rosenbaum, an education professor at Northwestern. They would steer some students toward intensive, short-term vocational and career training, through expanded high school programs and corporate apprenticeships.
“It is true that we need more nanosurgeons than we did 10 to 15 years ago,” said Professor Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a research nonprofit in Washington. “But the numbers are still relatively small compared to the numbers of nurses’ aides we’re going to need. We will need hundreds of thousands of them over the next decade.” And much of their training, he added, might be feasible outside the college setting.
College degrees are simply not necessary for many jobs. Of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next decade in the United States, only seven typically require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among the top 10 growing job categories, two require college degrees: accounting (a bachelor’s) and postsecondary teachers (a doctorate). But this growth is expected to be dwarfed by the need for registered nurses, home health aides, customer service representatives and store clerks. None of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree.
So far, so good.
However, David Leonardt, in a piece for the NYT Economix blog titled “The Value of College,” counters with this chart:
Relative to everyone else, college graduates have never done better than they are doing right now. In absolute terms, of course, they too have been hurt by the deep recession that began in late 2007. But they have suffered much less, on average, than workers with less education. They have been less likely to lose their jobs, and their paychecks have survived the downturn much better.
It’s theoretically conceivable that these trends have nothing to do with the actual education that college students receive. Perhaps graduates gain little or nothing from college that they didn’t already know — but the economy has been changing in ways that favor the kinds of people who enroll in college and make it through. In that case, the charts above would say nothing about the college.
But what does this chart actually show? Not that a college degree was necessary — just that employers prefer them. The value of a degree has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: it’s become worth so much because people assume it should be.
Let’s do a quick thought experiment. In the example above, it’s not unrealistic to assume at least 10% of the jobs of “college graduates” didn’t actually need the degree for the skills their job requires. Imagine if those 10% of individuals hadn’t gone to college. There would still have been demand for the jobs that they took, so who would have got them? Easy — people without college degrees, possibly even the same ones. Just because college graduates earn more doesn’t mean that their degree provides them any additional knowledge necessary to succeed in their jobs; it just means that employers found them more attractive because of the degree.
These days, four-year colleges have all sorts of majors that didn’t used to be necessary for jobs. For example, at some colleges, you can major in “criminal justice” and get a job as a police officer after graduating, even though being a cop didn’t traditionally require a degree.
Well . . . yeah. But that’s like saying that, in the absence of skilled workers, employers will settle for unskilled workers. Why, if fewer people went to medical school, we might have to let nurses and physician assistants perform more services. And, come to think of it, people used to perform surgery without a couple decades of schooling!
But, in some instances, the jobs have gotten more complicated as knowledge has accumulated. In other cases — like cops for instance — we’d simply rather have bright, educated people filling the slots.
Is college, in many cases, a signaling mechanism rather than a certifier of job-related skills? Sure. But employers apparently have decided that the signaling mechanism works — otherwise, why would they continue to pay college grads more?