The Chronicle Review

The Problem is Elsewhere

July 02, 2012

Higher education has only a little to do with the apparent decline in social mobility in the United States.

The main reason for the decline is that an array of federal, state, and local policies has increased the cost and difficulty for poorer people to improve themselves. Our national arteriosclerosis is a result of the growing burden of regulations that make it more difficult for poor people to start businesses on their own or find job openings with good career paths. Local business regulations, state licensing mandates, and federal minimum-wage and other rules have all made our economy more rigid than it once was, with a strongly disparate impact on the poor.

What role does higher education play in this? Only a minor one. Despite all the talk about how college education is supposed to add to a person's human capital (sometimes it adds much, but often little or nothing), the educational level of the work force has nothing to do with the kinds of jobs created in the economy. No matter how high "educational attainment" reaches in our society, there will always be a great many jobs that do not require any advanced academic study or training—and won't pay any better just because the worker has gone to college.

Because we have done so much to promote college, however, we now have the unintended consequence of credential inflation. That is to say, a large and increasing proportion of jobs are now open only to people who have college credentials. Even though the work required is seldom beyond the capability of a person who has not earned a degree, or even taken a single college course, many employers now screen out workers who don't have a degree. As a result, many good career paths that were formerly open to people who haven't gone to college are now foreclosed to them.

That has the strongest impact on the poor. They have the most difficulty affording the cost of college in money and time. They are also the most apt to struggle with academic work. Credential inflation, unfortunately, confines them to the shrinking segment of the labor market in which educational credentials still are not important, thereby reducing their range of options (already limited by government regulations, as mentioned above).

Developments in online education, independent certification of competencies, e-portfolios, and the like may soon help redress this severe socioeconomic problem. Then people will be evaluated on the basis of their actual knowledge and skills and not on their paper credentials.

George Leef is director of research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.