Arnold Kling  

College Education at the Margin

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Richard Vedder writes,

approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled--occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less.

This reinforces my suspicion that if one does the calculation at the relevant margin, adding to the pool of college graduates will not raise productivity or wages.

I hasten to add that this is a highly controversial issue. For some people, the best hope for reducing the dreaded Rising Inequality is more education. Of course, for some people (not necessarily the same people), the best hope for ____ is renewable energy, where the blank can be filled by fighting terrorism, saving the climate, or what have you. These are the sorts of issues where my Sowellian constrained vision makes me unpopular among those with the unconstrained vision.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Michael writes:

Is it not also possible that swelling college and university numbers destroys--or temporarily defers--productivity increases? The current social norm is for high school students and their parents to anxiously obey the push for one type of post-secondary of education. This means that they are exercising a preference for an educational structure, rather than an education or skill, and that they are bidding on prestige rather than future income.

I recently held some interviews for a part-time secretarial job. Half the candidates (N=40) had college degrees, and two were working on graduate degrees. For the record, I hired the person with the best attitude.

Looking around I see plenty of demand for plumbers, electricians, bus drivers, and long-haul truckers. In Canada--even during the recession--employers in those areas were offering starting bonuses and educational subsidies. I do not see those kinds of terrific opportunities for people with MAs in Gender Studies.

fundamentalist writes:

Does the author consider the many grads who work in fields not related to their degree?

The "best hope" crowd (education, environment, etc.) are those who don't know economics and don't want to.

Hyena writes:

A lot seems to depend on what you thnk the first mover is. Graduating ever more people is a supply-side move. It fundamentally assumes that if you increase the supply of skilled labor, the market will respond by utilizing it to meet/create demands.

Regarding the Vedder quote- this has been my suspicion for a while, so it's nice to see some numbers and evidence put to the claim. That said, I don't think that one can automatically claim anything about the link between education d productivity based on that claim, since it doesn't rule out the possibility that more educated people do the jobs better. Personally, I don't find this possibility to be very likely, but I can't rule it out without further information.

Jacob Oost writes:

Makes total sense to me, because as more and more people are crammed into colleges, it just results in more people getting fluff degrees. It doesn't result in a society full of engineers and scientists.

Brian Clendinen writes:

This is what I hate about the whole argument assuming degree = a major increase in knowledge/wisdom. It is a lot like the lack of health insurance argument. The left argues not having health insurance somehow equates to lack of quality and affordable health care.

Having a degree does not mean one learned anything which would add to productivity. A degree does not equal more education let alone a useful education. Or as Mark Twain Said " I don't let my schooling get in the way of my education."

Milton Recht writes:

I would think the final outcome depends on whether a college education increases human capital even for those at the margin.

If there is a human capital increase, then these low skill businesses are investing in human capital, If they weren't why would they increase their hiring of college educated versus high school educated employees. These college educated would otherwise have higher unemployment rates than college grads, which they do not.

When businesses invest in more capital, there is usually, with some lag, a productivity gain in those businesses.

If the businesses that formerly hired high school and now hire college grads are now more productive, everyone wins. Employers make more profit and employees get raises.

mark writes:

the studies that tout the value of a degree focus on the average degree holder's income by thte average is the least insightful form of statistical analysis

MernaMoose writes:

First the government wants to support "worthwhile" education. Presumably things like science and engineering. Though I don't think it would be smart to crank out a whole more of them than we do now, the market doesn't seem to need them and I see science and engineering people moving into fields like IT because they can't find work.

But then it "grew" to include all the favorite things liberals love. All those things that the evil, uncaring market will not fund of its own accord.

So we either pull all government funding out of education (and presumably research), or we live with the inevitable mold and parasite growths. For it is impossible than any healthy creature can exist, without the rapid appearance of parasites who will find ways to live off of it.

Sometimes I wonder, if we got rid of all the garbage that drags the market down right now, what kinds of parasites would rush in to fill the vacuum?

CBBB writes:

There really isn't any excess demand for university graduates, at the same time there's been a explosion in supply.
A lot of the increase in demand for degree holders has come from employers who use a degree as a screening mechanism to make HR's job easier. It has nothing to do with actually NEEDED university educated employees.
You also hear people say that the problem is people aren't getting science or technical degrees but in reality there isn't much demand out there for math, physics, or chemistry majors either. Perhaps engineering is the only worthwhile degree but that means only a tiny percentage of university students are studying a program that will give them a ROI.

I think this is a serious issue as it seems that a huge cohort of the youth have essentially been miss-allocated and put into debt because of this misguided push for university education.

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