Why Are College Degrees Falling in Value?

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After decades of steady increase, the numbers of young Americans who enroll in some postsecondary educational program has started to fall. Many schools are desperate to keep their numbers up, but keep falling short. As we read here, between 30 and 40 percent of small colleges missed their targets last year.

The reason for this change is that the perceived value of college is declining.

Richard Vedder and Justin Strehle made that point in their recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, writing, “The cost of college attendance is rising while the financial benefits of a degree are falling.” They note, for example, that some 15 percent of cab drivers today hold college degrees, whereas back in the 1970s, less than one percent did. Nobody needs a college diploma on his wall to drive a cab (or for Uber) and if you accumulated much debt in getting that diploma, you’ll have a hard time paying it off with the kinds of low-skill jobs many now have to accept.

I would like to elaborate on a key reason for the decline in value of a college education. The plain fact is that a college education today is often a pale imitation of what a college education used to be. What a college education required was much more demanding in the past than it is now and that change began when government policy, especially federal student aid, started to stress “access” at the expense of excellence.

Until the mid-1960s, higher education in America was a pretty small part of national life. Only some twenty percent of high school grads went to college and most of those students were very well prepared for advanced study and had an interest in intellectual work. Just as importantly, the rigorous academic standards that prevailed meant that students who goofed off and partied too much – think of “Animal House” – were in danger of flunking out. The “Gentleman’s C” was not automatic.

Once the rush to get more and more students into college began, the nature of college education started changing. Many school officials decided that they would rather have a larger student body even if it meant admitting students they would previously have rejected. More students meant more money flowing in and what did a marginal decline in academic standards matter in comparison?

Professors slowly began to water down their courses and inflate their grades to accommodate students who expected college to be little different from their high school. New courses and majors were added to the curriculum so as to appeal to students who wanted entertainment rather than intellectual challenge, or who wanted confirmation of their political biases rather than a broad understanding of our society.

And old requirements that used to make students sweat — especially college math and a lab science – were jettisoned because too many students complained about having to do such hard work. As a result, more students could graduate, but many of them were simply coasting along, accumulating credits for classes that didn’t make them improve upon their skills and knowledge.

So today we “produce” great numbers of college graduates, but many of them have a college education in name only. The decline in the financial payoff from college is a consequence of the decline in the educational content of college.

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