Last week we showed that the percent attending postsecondary school has grown 50-fold since the Civil War. We also saw the views of two unsure if that was justified, and what things around employment and university attendance have stayed the same since Caroline Bird wrote 1975’s The Case Against College. Now we look at four things which haven’t evolved much, along with six overall points to understand.
The first much-the-same area is that, although preparation for specific careers now broadly dominates over personal enrichment, there remains debate over the usefulness of nonvocational course material. Both sides have merit, with things resonating superbly with enough people to justify their teaching offset by the small likelihood of their appreciation by those with marginal ability.
Second, the smartest students and those most open to knowledge in general still benefit immensely, personally, from the liberal arts. Although that is a minority position and has been ever since those in roughly the bottom half of high school graduates started routinely going to college, those running institutions specializing in letters and pure science should not be discouraged.
Third, college still serves valid purposes for students beyond academics. It is a time for them to gain social skills, learn at least partially how to live away from their parents, and experience a relatively protected setting for mistakes they would probably otherwise perpetrate later. While there are problems with excessive drinking among undergraduates, for example, they are smaller and less consequential than they would be if around cars, families, and career jobs.
Fourth, it also continues to fill additional needs for our society. Bird called colleges “aging vats” and warehouses for people frankly unneeded; with the jobs crisis just getting underway in 1975 those functions had only started, but are now crucial and entrenched. Globalization, automation, and efficiency have eliminated most job-market demand for twenty-year-olds, and with even less to do than the average 27 weekly hours in class and studying, many would get in more, and more serious, trouble.
So what can we conclude, and what should we do?
Number one, right or wrong, college is probably more sacrosanct than ever. In scary career times – and if you think our low unemployment rates are putting people at ease, try to confirm that with anyone around age 18 or their parents – the average wage gap between those with and without bachelor’s degrees will overpower any other perception, or reality.
Number two, as Bryan Caplan of this year’s The Case Against Education showed, this statistical pay difference is due less to the merits of college than to its attendance in the first place by the smartest, most capable, and most motivated people. The advantage they get is not from universities themselves, but from their ability to “signal,” as he put it, their worthiness for the best opportunities by graduating.
Number three, those in the top half of students on merit still cannot afford to skip it. For every Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard and did rather well thereafter, there are not hundreds but thousands who cut off their attendance and did not professionally succeed. The signaling above may be superficial, but it has no viable widespread alternative.
Number four, the equation changes for those who, in the probably paraphrased words of Mike Royko, should be slicing salami instead of reading spreadsheets. I am not aware of any completed analysis, but potential university students of the most modest levels, with their high nongraduation rate, should not accrue large amounts of debt in the attempt. If they have the inclination and aptitude, skilled construction-related trades, which still have excellent prospects, would be better choices.
Number five, from all standpoints other than the often-unaffordable luxury of an improved social life, starting with two years at a community college and, if successful, transferring to a four-year school is preferable for all but the smartest and richest.
Number six, education for credentials, as Bird implied and on which Caplan wrote extensively, still helps the individuals getting them more than our nation as a whole. As I showed in Work’s New Age, more schooling does not mean more work opportunities, but only changes who get them; as Caplan ended “The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone” (The Atlantic, January/February 2018), “Trying to spread success with education spreads education but not success.” These are the best attitudes.