The false hope of “college for all”

Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

Freddie deBoer, author of The Cult of Smart, is a Marxist.  Oren Cass, executive director of American Compass and author of The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in Americais a conservative.  Neither one of them believes in “college for all.”

People with college educations on average make more money that people whose education stopped in high school..But that doesn’t mean everybody will be better off if more people go to college.

The more college graduates there are, the less a college degree will be worth.  That is the law of supply and demand.

Some jobs, such as engineer or physician, require college training.  But once there are enough college graduates to fill the available positions, you just create a zero-sum game, you just raise the bar for getting a job.  You wind up with a lot of people in low-wage jobs with huge student debt.

There are just so many jobs you need college training to be able to do.  Any number of college graduates beyond that are surplus, in terms of the job market.  Employers can begin to ask for college degrees for jobs that high school graduates could fill just as well.

When I started out as a newspaper reporter, you didn’t have to have a college degree to get a job and, in fact, there was some skepticism about journalism schools.  I had a bachelor’s degree with a major in American history.

When I retired back in 1998, there were young men and women with law degrees and MBA degrees applying for jobs that were equivalent to the one I had.

DeBoer and Cass pointed out that college instruction isn’t for everyone.  Many people are better suited for skilled trades, such as electrician or auto mechanic, and often can earn as much money.  

High school guidance counselors are wrong when they try to push all their students into college, or treat those who don’t attend or complete college as failures.  They’d be better off in apprenticeship programs to be plumbers or carpenters.

A lawyer friend of mine told me his son is working for a local grocery chain and hopes to be a butcher.

Skilled trades aren’t a complete answer, either.  There is a need for only so many of the different skilled trade specialties.

DeBoer and Cass say vocational and professional education should be tied in to the needs of employers, so that when you complete job training, you have a good chance of getting a job with a specific employer.

But whatever happens, the supposedly unskilled jobs will outnumber the jobs that require college or apprenticeship training.  DeBoer and Cass say waiters, janitors, day care workers, package deliverers and others in the service economy deserve just as much respect as everybody else.

I would say more than that.  All who are willing to work deserve jobs.  All who work deserve a living wage.  People on the lower part of the job hierarchy would be respected more if they are paid more.  

Stronger labor unions, a higher minimum wage, universal health care, a pubic works program—all these would relieve the pressure to get a college degree just to survive economically.

A college education can have a value aside from raising your potential lifetime earnings.  It can give you an opportunity to explore the world of knowledge and figure out who you are and what life is all about.  Of course anybody with a library card and a circle of intellectually active friends can do the same, but college makes it easier.

I think state colleges should be free and affordable to anybody who has the desire and ability to do college work.  That doesn’t necessarily include everybody.  

I think community colleges should provide job training and remedial education to everyone, of whatever level of ability or attainment.  

But I don’t think that these things, in and of themselves, will turn the country around.

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2 Responses to “The false hope of “college for all””

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    “Employers can begin to ask for college degrees for jobs that high school graduates could fill just as well.”

    That has been going on for decades.

    I would not mind seeing a BA or a BS in Liberal Arts or something similar become a national standard for all students to aspire to. Not because employers needs it but rather because (IMHO) the exposure to many different areas of study makes for a better citizen. I don’t think it is useful for most jobs.

    With all the training that is available by internet, employers should be more interested in “What can you do?” rather than “What degrees do you have?” I was one of the last non-degreed engineers to ever be hired by Lockheed back in the 80s. But it is much easier from an HR perspective to look at the papers you have accumulated than to actually determine your competence.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. philebersole Says:

    A liberal education means an education that gives you the tools to understand the world you live in. It includes a basic knowledge of history, science, literature, geography, etc., and also an understanding of where to go and what to do if you want to learn more about a subject.

    It would be good if everybody, or a majority, aspired to a liberal education in that sense. But anybody with a certain amount of leisure time, and access to a public library and other cultural institutions, can educate themselves.

    I think the main value of a college degree from the standpoint of an employer is that it shows the graduate has a certain minimum amount of self-discipline and ability to complete tasks—or at least to endure boredom in order to attain a goal.


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