Professor X vs. Professor Carnevale

“Professor X,” an anonymous adjunct English instructor at a community college and a small private four-year institution, has received a great deal of attention for writing a scathing critique of higher education for The Atlantic in 2008 and amplifying it this year in a full-blown book, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic.

In a very clever, if sometimes cruel, memoir, Professor X makes two related arguments to suggest that egalitarian impulses in higher education are creating problems similar to the push for home-ownership for all. Just as George W. Bush helped enable unqualified buyers to artificially inflate housing prices before the bubble burst, the author contends, so Barack Obama’s college for all agenda is pushing under-prepared students into higher education, creating “credential inflation” that is bad for the country.

Professor X’s argument has two related but distinct components.  The first—that many students are woefully underprepared for college work—has received the most attention, and the most criticism, because the author pulls no punches in ridiculing the deficiencies of his students. “Many of my students have no business being in college,” he writes. “They think that Edward Said is a literary technique, and ‘allusion’ the author of Ulysses.”

But the second component of Professor X’s thesis—that we are educating too many students—deserves separate consideration. “When everyone owns a house, the economic benefits of home ownership diminish,” he writes. “The college market is equally mature.” He quotes a George Mason University economist to suggest that a college degree is used “to signal to employers that students are smart, hard-working and conformist.” But now too many people are getting degrees. “Going to college is a lot like standing up at a concert to see better. Selfishly speaking, it works, but from a social point of view, we shouldn’t encourage it.” As a result, Professor X writes, “the number of jobs calling for college has become artificially inflated.” Granting college access isn’t the problem, he writes. “We have done too good a job.”

The two strands of Professor X’s argument are related—part of the reason he thinks too many students are going to college is that too many are underprepared and won’t profit from the experience—but also are severable. If the problem is student preparation, we can redouble our efforts at education reform. If the issue is that the economy doesn’t need college graduates at the rate we’re generating them—if Americans are over-educated—then what’s the point of improving preparation?

But a new study out this week by Georgetown scholars Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose emphatically concludes that Americans are undereducated, not overeducated. Despite the anecdotes about college graduates serving as janitors, the skyrocketing of the “college premium”—the wage differential between college and high-school graduates—suggests that “the United States has been underproducing college-going workers since 1980.” (Full disclosure: Carnevale and Rose have both contributed to volumes on education that I have edited for The Century Foundation.)

At certain points in our history, the supply of college educated workers did outstrip the demand, Carnevale and Rose write, but for more than two decades, demand has exceeded supply, which helps explain why the college wage premium increased from 40% in 1980 to 74% today. If we were to add 20 million postsecondary-educated workers by 2025, Carnevale and Rose project, supply would meet the economy’s demand—and the college premium would decline to 46%. That wage differential would provide sufficient incentive for students to pursue postsecondary education but would reduce income inequality from today’s high levels, they contend.

Professor X has underlined, in very vivid terms, the reality that too many students in college today are utterly underprepared. But Carnevale and Rose’s study makes clear that the remedy is not to toughen college admission standards and weed out those who aren’t “college material.” The more sanguine—but also more challenging—news is that the economy will need us to reach many more of the students that Professor X dismisses as having “no business” being in college.

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