Many students, opposed to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s higher education cuts are protesting his selection as Spring Commencement speaker. How they must turn red with envy when they recall last year’s speaker, President Barack Obama, and his oft-repeated pledge to make the United States the most college-educated nation in the world. Of these two leaders, which offers students and graduates the better vision of a responsible education policy?
Before reflexively answering “Obama,” consider this: Policy experts from all sides of the political spectrum are concluding that a college degree isn’t necessarily worth the investment — not for the student, and not for the state.
The simple truth is that the U.S. already has too many college graduates. As a result, Obama’s push to increase the college graduation rate to 90 percent is unlikely to yield much economic benefit. Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist, published some telling statistics in The Chronicle of Higher Education in December. Over the last 20 years, more and more graduates have taken jobs that do not require a college education. For example, there are now twice as many waiters and waitresses with degrees than there were in 1992.
Think of it this way: If it takes a person tens of thousands of additional dollars and four to five years extra to do a given job than it did two decades ago, the U.S. worker is actually becoming less efficient. It makes little sense to encourage such inefficiency by urging every young person to go to college. It makes even less sense to force taxpayers to subsidize inefficient behavior.
If this strikes you as some sort of Right-wing assault on public education, you may be surprised to learn who else is taking the side of the skeptics. Paul Krugman — a New York Times columnist as reliably liberal as they come — recently disparaged the notion that higher education spending is key to economic growth. Krugman called degrees “tickets to jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay middle-class wages,” while noting that advances in computers are displacing college-educated workers faster than less skilled workers. Why hire an information analyst when Watson the Jeopardy!-winning robot can do the job better? Unskilled laborers, on the other hand, aren’t so threatened.
It’s true that the educated have an advantage over others to the extent that prospective employers attribute more competence to them. But this distinction is harder to document on paper than you might expect. A study released this year by professors at New York University and the University of Virginia found very little actual learning among a representative sample of 2,300 undergraduates from 24 colleges. After two years of college, nearly half the students demonstrated no measurable improvement in a variety of subjects. After four years, a third were still no discernibly smarter.
In that case, college degrees are a product — an expensive, time-consuming product — with a remarkably high failure rate. If a third of the cars coming off the line at Ford Motor Company were defective, would anyone still buy Fords? Would we urge the state to invest huge sums of money in a faulty manufacturer?
Apparently, Obama would. Melody Barnes, a White House policy advisor, made the president’s case for higher education in a Huffington Post article just last week, reiterating Obama’s goal to boost the U.S. college graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020. Barnes noted, somewhat bizarrely, that half of today’s 30 fastest-growing jobs require a college degree — as if the statistic strengthened her case. But this also implies that half of the 30 fastest-growing jobs do not require a college degree. In other words, graduating from college provides about as many opportunities as not graduating from college, but the Obama administration still wants everyone — or nearly everyone — to go for the degree. This is lunacy, not policy.
College degrees are expensive (for students and taxpayers) defective (for a third of all students sampled), and increasingly unlikely to yield an actual job. In light of these uncomfortable facts, Snyder’s 15-percent cut to higher education funding seems all-too reasonable.
And in a day and age when college dropouts found billion-dollar companies while graduates wait tables, should we be so confident that higher education spending is a commitment, rather than a curse?
Robby Soave is a University alum and a former editorial page editor of The Michigan Daily.