WHEN WILL THIS NONSENSE STOP?
For years now, evidence has been mounting that America has badly oversold higher education. We know that many college graduates end up unemployed – most of the Occupy Wall Street protesters were jobless college grads. We know that many more are underemployed, working as bartenders or office clerks or aerobics trainers. And we know that because we have been scraping the bottom of the barrel to get kids into college who have little or no academic ability, standards have fallen to the point where students can coast through and get their degrees without learning much.
And yet we still hear calls for increasing the numbers of college graduates we “produce.” In my state, North Carolina, two professors have recently published a paper arguing that the state needs to hit a target of 32 percent of the adult population having a BA degree or higher by 2018 – up from 28 percent today.
That is reminiscent of the old Five Year Plans of the Soviet Union, with government apparatchiki setting output quotas. And like those plans, this one will fail because central planners cannot know enough to figure out what the “right” percentage is. In truth, there is no more a right or best percentage of college graduates than there is a right percentage of opera singers. In a free society (which still includes the United States even though we’re rapidly becoming less free), each person can find whatever level and kind of education that is optimal for him.
There are good reasons to think that the good old BA degree will not be optimal for many Americans and it’s pointless to set a target of 32 percent – or any percent.
If we do set such a goal, the likelihood is that educational administrators will fulfill it much in the same way as the Soviet managers fulfilled their production quotas, namely by lowering quality.
The inescapable truth is that many young Americans who graduate from high school are woefully unprepared for college-level work. Furthermore, they are mostly indifferent to academic pursuits. They can be lured into college by the prospect of having fun and with the increasingly implausible claim that by getting a degree, they guarantee themselves a large boost in income over their careers. Thus, the “raw material” from which we’re supposed to produce graduates is largely poor, and getting worse year by year.
So how will we turn out the numbers to fulfill the quota? By further lowering expectations and standards, of course. Some students who now drop out might be induced to remain in school if passing courses were easier.
Even lowering standard further, however, is not likely to make much difference. I say that because the perception is spreading that getting a college degree just isn’t the great “investment” it has been cranked up to be. The stories about the graduates who are working in low-skill, low-pay jobs and unable to pay off their loans are spreading. More families are going to look for alternatives to college that cost less and have a higher chance of yielding benefits.
Those college degree percentages are probably going to fall, not increase – but don’t worry about it.