Bryan Caplan  

Question for Fans of Universal College Attendance

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Question for people who think that (almost) everyone should go to college:

Do you also think that (almost) everyone should major in high-paid technical fields like engineering, medicine, and computer science?
If not, why not? 

If the college premium is an overpowering reason to go to college, why isn't the technical premium an overpowering reason to major in a technical field? 

If you think (almost) everyone has the brains and work ethic to finish college, why doubt that (almost) everyone has the brains and work ethic to finish an engineering degree? 

If you think most or all of the college premium is a treatment effect, not selection, why doubt that most or all of the technical premium is, likewise, a treatment effect, not selection?

Pray tell.

P.S. Isomorphic question for anyone who thinks that more people should go to college:
Do you also think that more people should major in high-paid technical fields like engineering, medicine, and computer science?

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COMMENTS (36 to date)
Foobarista writes:

Nah, we need more people to major in "sustainability", "social justice", and " studies". And they should run up six figure debt while doing so, graduate, realize they need a "real" degree to get a job, and go to law school, where they can run up another six figures of debt.

Kevin writes:

Bryan makes a fine point, but I think the real argument for universal college attendance is perfectionist in nature - college exposes people to new ideas, helps them think, become more autonomous, find themselves, etc. The reason everyone should go to college is because all persons should enjoy these great goods because, after all, that is the very point of life. Think Mill. This argument doesn't apply to technical fields because technical fields don't encourage development of the whole person.

Now this argument makes a lot of assumptions about the nature of the human good. In particular, those who make this argument undervalue the expression of excellence and autonomy in the technical professions. That is so especially because those who articulate these ideals are in the humanities (that is, after all, their ranking of goods). And those arguments trickle-down into the public. The financial arguments are tacked-on extras, in my view, meant to draw in the blue collar types for intellectual enrichment that they would not otherwise pursue. I don't mean that in a conspiracy theory sense. I think it is pretty transparent.

tim writes:
If you think (almost) everyone has the brains and work ethic to finish college, why doubt that (almost) everyone has the brains and work ethic to finish an engineering degree?

Why do you think anyone is doubting it? It doesn't take a genius to be a mechanical engineer or a java developer (especially the latter). And I would bet you that obtaining a degree in English is intellectually more difficult than obtaining a degree in Computer Science.

And yet there seems to be a lot of English majors out there (my boyfriend is one of them - he is now an accountant).

Why people in technical fields are paid more is simple - we lack people trained in those fields while demand is soaring.

Disclaimer: I don't have a degree but I am a highly paid engineer who can't find other qualified engineers to fill positions I've had open for months.

Make Believe Media writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

John Fast writes:

I believe that fewer people should go to college and that more people should major in high-paid technical careers . . . and (almost) no one should major in fake subjects like ethnic studies, education, (postmodern) English literature, and sociology.

Like Voltaire, I don't understand how two postmodernists can pass each other on the street without laughing.

“It used to be controversial to say that college is a rip off. At this point, I think the arguments have reached the mainstream."

Alex Godofsky writes:

If you think most or all of the college premium is a treatment effect, not selection, why doubt that most or all of the technical premium is, likewise, a treatment effect, not selection?

Because quite a few of the people arguing "everyone can go to college" barely passed intro calc and thus developed the notion that Not Everyone Can Do Math And That's Okay!

tim writes:
Why? Because it's mostly mental masturbation about critical race theory or some such?

Is it? More data is good I would think. And why is studies into race or education "wrong" in some way? (unless I'm misunderstanding your point).

You clearly have a bias against those that want to sit around and debate topics - so why are you reading this blog?

[N.B. The comment quoted by this comment has been removed because the individual supplied a false email address. Perhaps knowing the person never intended to be a legitimate contributor to EconLog will help alleviate some of the frustration you express in your next comment.--Econlib Ed.]

Addison writes:

Anyone advocating not going to college obviously hasn't seen the unemployment numbers which currently state their unemployment rates as:

bachelors degree: 4.3 %
Some college/ associates: 8.2%
High school/no college: 9.6%

http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t04.htm

I know this is somewhat of a generalization, but it seems to show a clear trend, four year degrees regardless of major are prudent.

In case it matters, my background is I am currently a software engineer due to pay/demand, but studied mechanical engineering in college. And I went to a vocational high school and studied machine technology (machine shop essentially) and have worked in manufacturing.

And while I would recommend engineering/math/science to degrees to anyone, getting any degree at all seems to help the most, and one in those fields seems to give you the biggest return on your investment and depending on the job can be an addition to overall well being, but can be tedious if you don't enjoy it.

So if I had any advice, maybe try a vocational school for HS and hopefully further this in college.

I am also not entirely opposed to subsidizing degrees like engineering/science or even medicine which provide a direct return to the general population.

While it is easy to write this off, incentives like this might help fill the demand for these jobs. And hopefully I do not come off as bias, because I've tried to remain as objective as possible.

tim writes:

Reading the comments depresses me. First off - none of you are actually responding to the question at hand - no surprise there. Second off - education, art, science, knowledge - these are all good things. And have been proven to work. The current political climate in the US discounts these things. And we are worse off for it.

Devil's Advocate writes:

Universal college attendance is about equalization. Not every person possesses the ability to succeed in fields such as engineering, medicine, and computer science, and further, it is not possible to lower the standards to cater towards the median like it is with fields such as literature, history, philosophy, etc. The failure of an engineer or a surgeon is manifestly apparent to anyone, while the failure of a social scientist is another matter. If a great majority of economists say that the minimum wage leads to unemployment, who is any non-economist to disagree? Yet how could any non-economist discern for themselves the truth of economic propositions, without relying on the understanding of someone they regard as more knowledgeable than themselves?

What you have really failed to address is the entire foundation of the argument for universal college attendance: equality. Proponents of universal college attendance assert that inequality results in real social harm, and that this harm can be effectively reduced by universal college attendance.

Evan writes:

Bryan, one of your previous posts made me think of a reason for sending people to college that you might find intriguing.

In "Signaling that I'm Not Signaling About Signaling," you write that:

For very young children with negative marginal productivity on the job, I'll admit the character-shaping effect is more positive. But by the time they're teen-agers, the character-shaping effect is mildly negative relative to employment.....Even worse, school often indirectly inculcates counter-productive character traits. Students spend a lot of their energy trying to show their fellow students that they're defiant, cool, etc.

It occurs to me that an important function of college might be deprogramming students of their defiant attitude. By giving them an environment where they're much less regulated than in high school, the incentive to develop such attitudes lessens. It is commonly observed that college students are much mellower than high schoolers and middle schoolers.

Is sending people to college the best way to improve their attitudes? Probably not, but it does seem to work. Is four years overkill if attitude-improvement is the main non-signaling value people get out of college? Probably. But I wonder if the mellowing effects of college have some effect on employability.

Andy writes:

Yes, more people should major in the "in demand" fields. And by "should" I mean "would benefit from". Of course not everyone can succeed at any field, but it seems like choice of major is based exclusively on interest and not at all on financial prospects. Kind of strange.

Pavel writes:

I was at an IT conference a while ago and a keynote speaker asked how many have a degree in Computer Science, Software Engineering or similar. Almost everybody raised their hands. Then he asked, how many have used anything they learned after the first year of the degree. There was a lot of laughter and almost no one raised their hands....

Dennis writes:

Shouldn't the same argument apply to high school or even primary school? Why should we expect everyone to read and write and do basic math?

GU writes:
"it is not possible to lower the standards to cater towards the median like it is with fields such as literature, history, philosophy, etc."

Please explain how it is possible to "cater towards the median" in philosophy. Undergrad philosophy consists mostly of reading primary sources and then writing critical essays responding to those sources. This requires a relatively high level of intelligence.

There are, to my knowledge, no such thing as philosophy textbooks (there are edited volumes with brief summaries and then large chunks of primary text, but nothing like traditional textbooks).

rgh writes:

We need to change the whole educational model. We need to raise entrepreneurs, innovators and free thinkers not ready to consume employees.

mark writes:

The idea that universal college attendance would somehow reduce inequality is a very weak one. While yes, it would debase the credential, and employers would no longer be able to use college attendance / graduation as evidence of a job applicant's qualities, employers would simply find other metrics to replace it.

Before reading this post, I was reflecting today on how much of my income I would attribute to my college education. I would estimate about 5%. The rest would be attributable to qualities I possessed before attending college - which were evident in my high school transcript, SAT scores and college interviews and which college merely verified - or knowledge I acquired after leaving college.

As someone in a supervisory role in a professional firm, I tell everyone who works for me or wants to that their degrees are meaningful right up until they accept our job offer, and utterly meaningless one minute after.

Daublin writes:

A lot of the arguments in the comments are very easily debunked. You guys might want to consider whether college is an idea you are just used to accepting, rather than something that really seems like a good idea for masses of people.

Evan writes, "By giving them an environment where they're much less regulated than in high school, the incentive to develop such attitudes lessens.". What about holding a job and an apartment? Isn't that even less regulated?

Devil's Advocate writes, "Universal college attendance is about equalization.". How does universal college help that? All of the marginal students are going to be in fluffy subjects at third-rate universities. Their resumes are going to stand right out, as is their performance.

Kevin writes something inscrutable about the "whole person". I don't think that passes the smell test. In college, anything goes, and students take advantage of it. Compared to people who work to support themselves, the college kids I've met are snotty, narrow-minded, and constantly itching to pick a fight.

jb writes:

I don't know if more people should go to college or not, but more people should major in technical subjects.

I'm using the Tyler Cowen 'TGS' style of analysis, where things that increase median family income are good (such as an in-demand technical degree), but things that don't really affect median family income (such as an english degree) are not. And I'm being tongue-in-cheek.

Not tongue-in-cheek: If we doubled the people graduating with CS degrees every year (and using them), I suspect that it would be like building the equivalent of the Interstate highway system - a massive increase in our 'knowledge' infrastructure that would pay huge dividends to our society for decades to come.

Floccina writes:

Better we should ask what we think that people should know and what skills traits we would like for them to have and what is the cheapest, most efficient and effective way to deliver on this.

Also I think that we can all agree that if everyone held off work to attend school full time to the age of 65 that would be too much schooling. On the other hand I think that we can all agree that it would best if all but the mentally retarded would know how to read, write and do basic arithmetic. So the question is how much schooling is ideal?

Robin Hanson writes:

You might just ask if they think most everyone should get a masters or PhD.

GU writes:

Re: Hanson,

Yes!!! The statistics are ironclad, those with post-graduate degrees earn more over their lifetimes! Everyone get an M.D. or we're toast!!!!

Jack writes:

Good point, but the college premium is about both money and compensating differentials. I get an art history degree, my income is no better than if I worked at a burger joint, but I get a lot more fulfillment out of it.

A better question, I think, is why people think that the *marginal* student will gain as much as the *average* student. A simple but often overlooked problem.

Devil's Advocate writes:

GU:

You write,

Please explain how it is possible to "cater towards the median" in philosophy. Undergrad philosophy consists mostly of reading primary sources and then writing critical essays responding to those sources. This requires a relatively high level of intelligence.

It's simple; stop doing that. Catering towards the median in this instance obviously means a suspension of these requirements, i.e. the reading of primary sources and writing of critical essays. Instead, philosophy students could read summaries provided by their professors, and the tests would be simplified, e.g. multiple choice, lower standards for grammar and spelling, etc.

Mark:

You write,

The idea that universal college attendance would somehow reduce inequality is a very weak one. While yes, it would debase the credential, and employers would no longer be able to use college attendance / graduation as evidence of a job applicant's qualities, employers would simply find other metrics to replace it.

I don't see how your first sentence is related to the rest of your statement. Universal college education is about equality. It's completely obvious that this would "debase" the credentials; I've said as much in my initial post.

Daublin:

I said the point is equality, so obviously all colleges should adopt the same curriculum.

Evan writes:
Evan writes, "By giving them an environment where they're much less regulated than in high school, the incentive to develop such attitudes lessens.". What about holding a job and an apartment? Isn't that even less regulated?
Just because something isn't the best way of serving a purpose, doesn't mean it doesn't serve that purpose. What I should have added, but didn't because I thought my comment was getting too long, was that someone who just got out of college probably has a better attitude than someone who just got out of high school, making them a much better hire. Obviously someone without a college degree who held a job for a few years might mellow out in the same way. So even if college does have the mellowing effect, it would probably become less important a few years later. That's why I said 4 years for that effect was probably overkill.

I'm also curious about Arnold's summer camp theory. Is college a way to let people who were once heavily regulated teenagers learn to be free in a relatively low stakes environment (it's harder to get kicked out of college than fired from a job)? Again, probably not the most efficient way to serve that goal, but that doesn't mean it doesn't serve it.

kc writes:

I know, I know collage is rip off, over rated, ...
However, as a father, I will send my kids to collage still, since:
1. Collage is their last, happiest childhood(They are still children in my eyes) years they can enjoy for life.
2. They will have friends who can help each others later in life.
3. Just in case those naysayer are wrong.

Jordan writes:
And I would bet you that obtaining a degree in English is intellectually more difficult than obtaining a degree in Computer Science.

That is of course a load of garbage. The kids who failed out of my Computer Science classes went into liberal arts fields. There were no kids failing English and coming into CS.

It's not a coincidence that there are a bazillion more English majors than CS majors.

GU writes:

Re: Devil's Advocate

Fair enough. I guess I was saying that I haven't noticed the dumbing down of philosophy (e.g. by using text books or abjuring essays), even at non-prestigious universities. I was defending the honor of philosophy, but you're correct that it could be "median-catered."

But standards can be lowered in engineering and science too, no?

Devil's Advocate writes:

GU:

Fair enough. I guess I was saying that I haven't noticed the dumbing down of philosophy (e.g. by using text books or abjuring essays), even at non-prestigious universities. I was defending the honor of philosophy, but you're correct that it could be "median-catered."

But standards can be lowered in engineering and science too, no?

Yes, I deal with this in my initial statement, from which I will quote.

"The failure of an engineer or a surgeon is manifestly apparent to anyone, while the failure of a social scientist is another matter."

To give this a real world illustration, if we take an engineering student who received a dumbed-down education, they might make a mistake which involves a structure collapsing, resulting in a loss of life and money. Contrast this type of obvious, or apparent failure with the failure of a political scientist or a sociologist.

Timmy writes:

Devil's Advocate:

Contrast this type of obvious, or apparent failure with the failure of a political scientist or a sociologist.

I can't help but think that hundreds of billions of dollars a year routed to ineffective or improper programs is a very real impact from the poli-sci crowd. :shrug

Devil's Advocate writes:
I can't help but think that hundreds of billions of dollars a year routed to ineffective or improper programs is a very real impact from the poli-sci crowd. :shrug

Are you assuming that sociologists are responsible currently for efficiently allocating resources to proper programs? Anyway, I wouldn't deny that there is a cost to having poorly trained social scientists, similar to that of having poorly trained mathematicians. But the man in the street, if he even notices the problems caused by a dumbing-down of the social sciences, would probably not be able to identify the cause. It would be simple to blame some other factor for whatever ills befall society as a result of the type of policy I've been advocating here, such as greed, speculation, inequality, etc.

Craig writes:
Do you also think that more people should major in high-paid technical fields like engineering, medicine, and computer science?

Yes, absolutely. The fact that you added this question bewilders me. Do you not think that most people would answer in the affirmative? Worse, do you think the correct answer would be "No?"

I would go even further: more people should go to college; more people should major in technical fields like engineering, physical sciences, and computer science; fewer people should major in business. (Alternatively, business degrees should become much more rigorous, which may bring about that happy result.)

Neeraj Krishnan writes:

Not an answer to your questions.
But its invariably people with PhDs convincing others why higher education is not for everyone :-)

Will writes:

More people should have the option to go to university, but no one should be forced. I know several people who would enjoy the learning environment of a university but have never had the opportunity. I think that is sad- after all the goal should be providing people with opportunities.

As to technical work, I think that people need to have a realistic assessment of the job market. The US doesn't build things much anymore, so demand for scientists is actually pretty low. A physics phd is a 7 years of very hard work, and the median career in physics after-the-phd lasts only 3 years.

Hence, the problems with engineering jobs going unfilled is more a human resources problem than an actual lack-of-skilled-people problem. I'm a theoretical physics phd, I work in insurance. Most of my cohort of fellow physics phds ALSO works in finance or insurance, but all of us WANTED to work in engineering after our phds. We can all program in many languages, we all have experience with circuit design, machining, etc.

What we don't have, as a group, is a set of resume keywords that will let us get past the HR person at your average engineering company. There are huge pools of phd level scientists who want to work in engineering but can't break in the door due to the terribly broken nature of the way companies do hiring.

Eric H writes:

"Why do you think anyone is doubting it? It doesn't take a genius to be a mechanical engineer or a java developer (especially the latter)."

Tim, I doubt it. I had a number of friends and associates in college who started in engineering, but dropped out after the first semester or two because the math was killing them. You might not have to be a genius, but it does help to have some combination of skill/ability/discipline/whatever to get through those classes. Some of them split off to technology/technician degrees, but many went into education.

You don't need to go to college to obtain an education and earn a living at most of those other things (race, art, science, knowledge). Bookstores (including my favorite, used book stores), libraries, google - there is a literature on everything. Heck, I'm not even sure you need to finish college to become an engineer or coder. Medicine and education, on the other hand, are different.

mark writes:

Devil's advocate writes:

" don't see how your first sentence is related to the rest of your statement. Universal college education is about equality. It's completely obvious that this would "debase" the credentials; I've said as much in my initial post."

I thought it was pretty obvious but I will spell it out. I assumed by "equality" you meant equality of income, not equality of credentials. If so, I am agreeing with you that universalizing college would create an equality of that credential, which is now used by employers to differentiate job applicants. Then I go on to assert, in contrast to your comment, that employers would react by seking or creating alternative credentials to serve the purpose of differentating job applicants. Thus the proposed means would not achieve the end. We live in a dynamic world, not a static one.

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