Media Memes about Higher Ed vs. Some Actual Numbers

A popular idea floating around in the public consciousness is that we send far too many kids to college these days and not all of them benefit from the experience.  You can add to this idea any number of variant themes.  Here are a few of the more popular ones:
  • College isn't needed because, hey, Bill Gates and those guys who founded Tumblr, Spotify and Pinterest were all college drop outs.
  • The high cost saddles students with so much debt that a college degree has become a bad deal.
  • College just isn't for everyone.
There is some truth to all of these ideas.  If you happen to be a tech genius, insanely lucky and driven, then you probably don't need a college degree.  After all, there are 41 tech companies currently listed in Forbes Fortune 500 and last year there were between 21 and 22 million students enrolled in higher education of some form.  That means our anecdotal dropout has a .000186 percent shot at becoming the next big-time high-tech jillionaire.  So go ahead.  Drop out.  Who knows?  You could be the next lucky winner.

Setting aside anecdotal nonsense, there's the cost/benefit argument.  According to the most recent data, the average American college student walks across the stage with around $25,000 in debt.  That's nothing to sneeze at, but the data also shows that this grad is still economically better off over the long haul.  At left is Pew Center data from 2012.   As you can see, the prospects for a college grad are still better--indeed, significantly better--than they are for those entering the workforce with only a high school diploma. 

According to the Pew study, too, a college graduate in 1965 earned $7,500 more than someone with a high school diploma. That gap has grown steadily larger, and today it's doubled to $17,500 among those aged 25 to 32.

The lower unemployment rate for college grads is particularly striking, but so is the correlation between escaping poverty and a college education.  Despite all our hand-wringing, college is still a way to improve one's economic lot.  Sadly, though, people on the bottom rungs are far less likely to enter college, even though they would realize the greatest benefits from earning a degree. 

To be sure, we should be alarmed about the debt load our graduates face, but that average of 25K factors in the enormous sums run up by students in the for-profit sector.  About 10-13 percent of all college students are enrolled at for-profit institutions, and 96 percent of them have taken out loans to cover costs (compared to 57 percent at private non-profits and 49 percent at public non-profits).  As you might imagine, the debt load at for-profits is 30 percent higher than it is at public and private institutions. 

But here's a telling stat: the small number of students enrolled at for-profits account for half of the loan defaults.   Indeed, there are very few numbers that look good for the for-profit sector (grad rates, retention, job placement...).   Yet these numbers are often blended into the over all averages when taking the measure of the health and viability of higher education.  But if you avoid the for-profit sector, choose wisely and think of college as an investment that yields its benefits over time, a degree remains an awfully good deal.  Caveats apply to any investment, of course, but the average 20-year return-on-investment on even a low-paying professional degree still outperforms most mutual funds.

But let's take seriously the last bullet point: college isn't for everybody and we're just turning out too damn many grads these days.  The point-man for this argument seems to be the American Enterprise Institute's Charles Murray, who argues that two-year voc. tech. programs would be better for a whole bunch of students who have been wrongfully pushed into college.   In other words, more certificates and fewer diplomas.  There's some truth to this, although I can't stomach Murray's racist rationales (he thinks disadvantaged groups can't compete with white men, who are intellectually, psychologically and morally superior, so most minorities would be better served with vocational training). 

In other words, college is for the sons of privilege.  The rest of you lot can be shipped off to trade schools where you'll be taught some useful skills that will benefit the knowledge-worker plantation class. "A bit less slagging and a bit more cacao, my boy!"

Indeed, Murray argues minorities today are over-represented in higher education and get “a large edge in the admissions process and often in scholarship assistance and many of whom, as whites look around their own campus and others, ‘don’t belong there’ academically.”  

Over-represented?  Hardly. 

Yes, the percentage of minority enrollment in college has steadily increased over the last 40 years.  Even so, these increases are, at best, modest and under-reflect the demographic changes in American society.  From 1976 to 2012, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 4 percent to 15 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from two percent to six percent, the percentage of Black students rose from 10 percent to 15 percent, and the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native students rose from 0.7 to 0.9 percent (National Center for Education Statistics). 

So are there too many college grads and is there too much emphasis on sending everyone to college? 

Maybe.  But consider this.  Two-thirds of all future jobs will require a college degree.  There's a reason so many (and perhaps too many) kids are headed to college these days.  They get it.  Good paying jobs in manufacturing or the skilled trades don't exist anymore.  If they are going to have any kind of shot, they have to get a college degree.  That's truer than ever for poor and working class kids. 

Here's the truth: unless we seriously rethink our economic and public spending priorities, market forces will continue to push more and more kids into higher ed.  Maybe it shouldn't be this way.  Maybe there ought to be other opportunities and choices for high school grads.  But right now (unless you're the next Gates or a Zuckerberg), getting a college degree remains the best statistical bet for bettering your lot in life. 

That's not a meme that plays into our suspicion and cynicism about higher education these days.  It doesn't even make for a sexy, click-baiting headline.  It's just what the numbers say. 


Anti-Dada said…
Hate to be a buzzkill, but those knowledge-worker jobs aren't all that secure any more (and will be less so over time):

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