Arnold Kling  

College Education Oversold?

Belief in Communism... For Open Borders...

George C. Leef writes,

we waste resources on a more extensive higher education system than is
necessary. We employ more professors, administrators, and support personnel than would be the case if individuals were not subsidized and prodded to attend college.

The article is a long survey, so it is not easy to excerpt. I mention it because many politicians and pundits are arguing for more mass higher education, and yet sober analysis appears to suggest that we already have too much.

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Randy writes:

I think much of higher education would be correctly classified as a luxury good. Many degrees have little value to any other than those who pursue them. So to say that we have too much education is like saying we have too many fashion designers or diamond cutters.

TGGP writes:

Randy, are fashion designers and diamond cutters subsidized like education?

Randy writes:


Good point. Maybe we should stop allowing public funds to be spent for luxury degrees.

paul writes:

Higher Ed is definitely a privilege not a right
Contrary to a popular believe, and we are making it to easy for some people to get it. I am talking about the public colleges here people are getting public fund to get a BA in Dance?
People all over public colleges are getting education below the market rate and complain about how expensive it is.
But these degrees that we are getting from these subsidized colleges are usually worth much less then the once from a good private school no meter how great the school is
Here we are with BAs with jobs not related to them if we have any and everyone around has the same worthless degree making it obsolete even before we graduate. No comparative advantage over anyone because now we are commodities.
Dime a Dozen

nelziq writes:

I think that non-technical degrees are by in large status or positional goods, i.e. a liberal arts degree from Harvard is only valuable because of the relative selectiveness of Harvard compared to other liberal arts programs, not because of the content of the degree. Subsidizing of positional goods is at best a fools errand: everyone runs faster to stay in place, costs spiral out of control, and tax dollars are wasted.

Omer K writes:

I read somewhere that it would be suicide for Microsoft to hire Bill Gates if he applied to work there today. The lawsuits by more credentialed prospective employees (probably being minorities and charging discrimination) alone would be huge.

We need the free market to operate in this corrupt mess. Less laws (Griggs Vs Duke Power, EEOC etc) less subsidization ('State' colleges, a push for school vouchers or no state involvement in paying for education etc).

Or... we could all wait a decade or so and go get a job in India...

Giovanni writes:

Even dance classes help young people mature. Many employers value well socialized people with dance degrees over people without degrees at all.

If you could come up with more efficient mechanisms to provide the services of the current higher education system, I'd be all for it.

I would like to see more focus on for-profit education models and less emphasis on the prestige, tradition, luxury, and status of the current higher education system.

Omer K writes:

"mature"? Thats putting the cart before the horse.

Young people will 'mature' fast enough once they have to fend for themselves. I cannot think of any faster, more honest or realistic method than that. You seem to be arguing for the status quo simply because it is the status quo...

Matt writes:

College is fun, as near as I can remember it.

The problem is not too much college, the problem is that flatter taxes has motivated higher income investors to use college as a means of educating their workers. The solution is to make taxes more progressive so that the expense of specialized education moves from the government sector back to the private sector.

While it is fun to snipe at the lunacies and inefficiencies of Universities, I think that the future should continue to see expansion of higher education - more education for more people. Almost universal access to higher education in a (substantially) market system has been a great advantage to the USA, IMO - with all kinds of benefits. These are well described in the work of Martin Trow eg.

At the same time, US higher education has expanded too fast, and without sufficient regard for quality and relevance. It would be a good thing for the system to suffer a 'short sharp shock' with temporary contraction.

This will happen anyway, as a result of unsustainable subsidy-fueled inflation of tuition fees - the bubble will burst, and what survives should be an improvement on what went before. We should see more efficiency (more untenured professors spending more effort on teaching) and more teaching of science and other systematic subjects (rather than preachy moralizing and indoctrination disguised as academic subjects).

But the US HE system is much the best in the world, overall, and should continue to be a source of pride rather than disdain.

As for reforming US schools, yes it must happens and yes - vouchers. But I'm not sure what it will take to overcome the vested interests of teaching unions and government education bureacracies.

Lord writes:

There is never supply if you are in the business of providing it.

If a college education is worth $1M, then it is worth at least $0.33M to government through taxes, by which standard we are likely undersubsidizing it.

dearieme writes:

"But the US HE system is much the best in the world, overall": but much of its merit is concentrated at research level. That's not the bit that most of your youngsters ever see. Nor do any but a tiny handful get exposed to the intellects of those who make that reputation.

quadrupole writes:

One set of data I've wanted to see forever is a breakdown of expected increase in lifetime earnings from getting a college degreee broken down by major.

Why? Because I strongly suspect that the average numbers are washing out the fact that some degrees lead to a much larger than reported increase in lifetime earnings while others lead to almost no change.

This becomes a MUCH bigger deal now that we are increasingly encouraging young people to pay for their education with student loans. It is frankly criminal to encourage a child to incur $100k of debt for a degree that does little to nothing to increase their lifetime earnings. And student loan debt is VICIOUS. It cannot be discharged by bankruptcy, it is not bound by the Fair Debt Collections Act restrictions, etc, etc, etc.

Talking Ed writes:

I generally agree with the proposition that HE has been oversold in the US. In my experience, standards are indeed low; gifted students have an easy time earning a degree and less dilligent individuals usually get enough aid to squeak by, provided they put in minimal effort. I'm all for raising standards and reducing some of the incentive to pursue a degree.

However, reducing incentives too much will have a corollary downside--students who would truly benefit from HE and raise their human capital in a meaningful way, but for one reason or another (financial, motivational, etc.)would not choose to go college without subsidies, would be casualties. The right balance must be struck.

It is clearly a fact that low skilled labor is being outsourced to lower wage regions of the globe on an ever increasing basis. We have to have an answer for those that will inevitably ask, "If not college, then what?" Skill training, job seeking, interview skills (along with higher, universal standards for secondary education) must be incorporated into the high school experience those not attending university.

One last point..."general" education classes are a joke. The basics--math and english--should be learned in HS. There should be more meat required for everyone. I think students who pursue majors that tend to be less valuable to society would benefit from more required classes in business and technology. If you truly seek a well-rounded individual, how can some of the most salient intellectual arenas be disregarded altogether?

Dean writes:

The debt to go to college is insane. Quadruple, Fox News did a documentary on college expenses, I'm not sure if you can find it on the website anymore but they did compare those with a college degree and those with just a HS degree. It showed that those with only HS school degree made just a little bit more then those going to college but it is easier to succeed with a college degree. Argueing for more mass education will not only lower standards but raise the cost of tuition even more.

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