‘Ditch…the College-for-All Crusade’

Robert J. Samuelson (photo by Fritz Blakey from Washington Post News Media Services site)

The highly respected columnist Bob Samuelson, writing for the Washington Post, recently wrote: “The college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness. Time to ditch it… We overdid it. The obsessive faith in college has backfired.” He brilliantly points out most of the reasons for these assertions.

The two most important reasons are, first, that an unintended consequence of the college-for-all movement has been “we’ve dumbed down college.” Kids study less than their parents attending college did. I suspect that grade inflation is an outgrowth of two things: first the late 1960s/early 1970s movement to “democratize” higher education involved introducing student evaluations of professors, providing incentives for professors to give higher grades. Second, and often overlooked, is that dropout rates would have reached embarrassingly high levels given the declining average quality of students arising from the college-for-all movement, unless higher education lowered grading standards, which, of course, was done.

The other big problem relates to the job market. The “college-for-all” crowd, personified by President Obama and the Lumina Foundation, argues, correctly, that the average college graduate earns more than the average high-school one. But that calculation fails to use a more appropriate measure (more of a Bayesian approach to the statistical cognoscenti) to analyze the returns to college. Specifically, if 45 percent or so of students fail to graduate in six years, earnings comparisons unadjusted for the high risk of dropping out are totally inappropriate.

Samuelson beautifully attacks another argument used by the “college-for-all” movement: the fact that a larger percentage of, say, Norwegians, have college degrees than Americans. Samuelson notes educational quality may be better in European countries, implying the “dumbing down” problem may be less keen there, but he even more relevantly notes that the U.S. Labor Department says the majority of new American jobs over the next decade do not need a college degree. We have a six-digit number of college-educated janitors in the U.S. Was the subsidization of their college education by the federal and state government optimal for a nation whose inability to pay its bills has led to a credit-rating downgrade? Is supporting a $45-billion or so a year Pell Grant program optimal when the proportion of recipients not graduating is so scandalously large that the Education Department does not even publish the statistic? (Where is 60 Minutes? John Stossel? House Republicans like Virgina Foxx, John Kline, Paul Ryan, or Jim Jordan?)

I would like to expand upon a point that Samuelson also makes: Emulating European social democracies with regards to social spending is not necessarily good. Europeans subsidize higher education even more than we do from the student perspective (low or zero tuition fees in many countries). To what end? Rates of economic growth that for the last three decades have been consistently, on average, lower than in the U.S.? For higher overall rates of unemployment? For a macroeconomic fiscal condition that, while highly variable, on average, is far more precarious in Europe than in the U.S., leading Europeans to buy U.S. government bonds despite their negative real yields, simply as a means to try to preserve their assets from being destroyed?

Finally, let me make a point Samuelson does not discuss. The motive behind governmental support of higher education is very egalitarian in nature—we are providing opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged to get the ticket to a prosperous middle-class life already available to more-affluent students. Yet my reading of fairly sophisticated econometric analysis of mountains of data suggests that we may have pushed pass the tipping point with respect to the equality/college-attainment relationship: Having more kids going to college is now probably increasing, not decreasing income inequality in the U.S. Too many kids, disproportionately from lower-income backgrounds, are going to college and, if they are fortunate to graduate (a big “if”), end up getting janitorial jobs that they could have obtained with a high-school diploma—and without running up huge college debts.

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