College for Everyone Is Not the Answer

A recent study estimated that getting a college degree is worth about a half-million dollars over the course of a graduate’s lifetime. On the surface, that presents an open-and-shut case that college is worth the time and money involved. That’s the conclusion reached in a New York Times column by Dave Leonhardt, who wrote, “Yes, college is worth it, and it’s not even close.”


Leonhardt bolsters his case with data from the Economic Policy Institute: “Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s.”

College presidents would like you to believe that this extra earning power comes because students learn in college that which will make them more productive in life. However, there is no evidence to support that view. In fact, studies by education expert Dr. Richard Vedder have shown that state by state, “higher spending for universities is associated with lower (economic) growth.”

The disconnect between figures showing higher individual income for college graduates but less societal benefit has to do with the real reason graduates earn more. One is the self-selection process. People who go to college had higher earnings prospects with or without college. Another is the value of networking with the people you meet. Networking at Harvard, for example, is very valuable. Not quite as valuable, but still impressive, are the networking opportunities at many fine state and private universities.

A college degree, in other words, has become a valuable credential regardless of whether you learn anything at all. This creates a darker side to the story. Vedder hints at this reality: “Those with high-school diplomas that normally would have no problem getting jobs as bartenders or taxi drivers are sometimes kept from getting the jobs by people with college diplomas.”

In other words, it’s not so much that the college education is making graduates more valuable to society. It’s that they are taking jobs and opportunities away from those who are less fortunate. This is a huge problem and a big reason that those without a degree struggle to make ends meet. A Federal Reserve Bank study found that nearly half of all recent graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree.

A college education can be valuable for many students. But it is currently being abused to establish a pecking order in society. A U.S. Senate candidate from Iowa inadvertently expressed this view by mocking long-time Sen. Chuck Grassley as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Who cares? There are plenty of valuable things that farmers know and a law school graduate wouldn’t. ??There is absolutely no reason to believe that a college graduate is going to be a better taxi driver than someone without a degree. In fact, someone who started driving right out of high school would probably be better than a recent college graduate with no driving experience.

Rather than pretending a college degree will make everyone better off, we should create more pathways to success for people to follow. We need to respect all forms of learning, including the type that comes from on-the-job experience.

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