Last time we showed that as the percentage of people who attend college increased, it necessarily meant that the difficulty of courses offered by colleges decreased, thus the value of a “college education” lessened. On average, anyway.
That is, it might still be the case that superior colleges will not falter—as long as matriculation at these institutes does not depend on any characteristic besides ability; as soon as they veer from strict meritocracy, the value of education even at superior colleges lessens. Next time we’ll see that there is a third reason why even good schools will degrade.
Now, even though what is learned at college becomes less difficult, still something is learned. The questions becomes: is it worth it? After all, even bad colleges—for example those excessively committed to sports or that primarily offer degrees in “business”—students usually come out knowing more than when they came in. But is going to college, even at a below average school, worth the cost? At the Center for Student Opportunity, “an online clearinghouse of college programs and admissions information serving first-generation and historically underserved [sic, but interesting spelling!] student populations”, claims “College graduates earn over 70 percent more on average than those with only a high school diploma—that’s an average of $1 million more over a lifetime.”
That statistic is widely reported and believed. It is, at best, misleading. To see why, let’s go back in time sixty or seventy years. Then, many in the upper class and few or none in the middle or lower classes went to college. College graduates usually, but obviously not always, went on to high-profile or well-paying careers. Those Who Care looked at these people and said, “These high-profile people all went to college. People who go to college do better. Therefore, going to college increases people’s earning potential. More people should go to college.”
Alas, this is old error of confusing correlation with causation. Because even the upper class members who went to college and failed to master its subjects also went on to good jobs—because they were in the upper class. Their fathers, brothers, and others had jobs waiting for them. If there were no such thing as college, they still would have had good, well-paying careers. After all, they were upper class. We must also remember that their course of study was purposely non-practical. “Can there be anything more ridiculous than that a father should waste his money, and his son’s time, in setting him to learn the Roman language, when at the same time he designs him for a trade…?” asked John Locke. So why go to college? Knowledge was thought (and is) good in itself, useful to answer the eternal question What is the best way to live?
Those Who Care would have been better served by saying, “Just because somebody is upper class should not mean they can automatically go to college.” This is the busybody argument, because it is none of their business who goes to college if they are not paying for it. If a school lets somebody in on grounds other than merit, it is their mess to clean up. No. What Those Who Care should have said is, “Make it so Those That Are Smartest can attend college so that they can become the wisest among us.” But that smacks of elitism, which is anathema to Those.
Eventually, Those Who Care had their way and a larger percentage of people did go to college (through more colleges being created and not by increasing enrollment at extant colleges). More importantly, it began to look like those that attended college did earn more money than those who did not. What happened was a version of the self-fulling prophecy and bad math.
Bad math first. Suppose upper class members go to college and, because they are upper class, they earn good money on average, even if they only at college to discover, as John Mortimer’s father told him, “the Latin word for parsley.” Others will earn good money by taking difficult course work that is valuable, like electrical engineering, etc. That’s one group.
Contrast these with the group of non-upper class people who go to college and get degrees in hotel management, human resources, business, women’s studies, English literature, or other non-difficult subjects. They will not make as much money. They will also, on average, have debt and will have forgone four years of income.
The average lifetime of all college graduates is thus a misleading number because it does not take into account the quality of the school or the subject studied or the class of the people. That “$1 million” is heavily skewed by the first group of people. What should be compared are those who study non-difficult subjects and those who never attend college. Do that, and the value of college fades away.
Charles Murray has written about this extensively (here, here, here, and others), and proves that a college degree isn’t the guaranteed road to riches most hope it is. A very large percentage of college graduates will not earn as much as those who learn a useful trade: Crawford’s recently popular Shop Class as Soulcraft expounds on this subject at length. The quotation that always appears is, “Do you know what a plumber makes?”
Now self-fulfilling prophecy. Some companies—I mentioned Jamba Juice a while back—require a “degree” for even the most entry of entry-level positions. These companies are indifferent to the material studied behind the “degree”. Because their employees have a “degree”, human “resource” apparatchiks will assign a salary using a formula that pays them more than non-degreed people. Not much more, but more. The reason they pay them more is because these people have a “degree” and certainly not because these people are skilled (as far as I know, no college yet offers a degree in fast food mall beverage management). The result is that the company has hired somebody they still have to train and must pay more. It also, initially, makes it appear that college graduates earn more. But this seeming advantage doesn’t last. Jamba Juice will still have to call in the plumbers to fix their sinks.
Thus, college is not always worth it, particularly to those who do not study difficult subjects. Of course, college still might be valuable morally. We’ll save that for another time.