A popular position to take in both academic and political circles today is the notion that everyone—or at least as many people as is practically feasible—should attend college. But is this true?
“That article of faith…may simply be mistaken,” Jerry Muller writes at Minding the Campus.
As Muller points out, many organizations and activists believe that higher education is an “economic, civic, and personal necessity for all Americans.” One nonprofit aims to have 60 percent of Americans obtaining higher education degrees and certificates by 2025.
Yet is this a good goal? Quoting University of London professor Alison Wolf, Muller writes: “[I]t is true that those who have a B.A. tend to earn more on average than those without one. Thus, on the individual level, the quest for a B.A. degree may make economic sense. But on the national level, the idea that more university graduates means higher productivity is a fallacy.”
That fallacy, Muller says, springs from the fact that “education is a positional good—at least when it comes to the job market. For potential employers, degrees act as signals: they serve as a shorthand that allows employers to rank initial applicants for a job.”
“Having completed high school signals a certain, modest level of intellectual competence as well as personality traits such as persistence. Finishing college is a signal of a somewhat higher level of each of these.”
In societies where college completion is rarer than it is in the United States, “having a B.A. signals a certain measure of superiority,” Muller says. “But the higher the percentage of people with a B.A., the lower its value as a sorting device. What happens is that jobs that once required only a high school diploma now require a B.A.”
That is not because the jobs have become more cognitively demanding or require a higher level of skill, but because employers can afford to choose from among the many applicants who hold a B.A. while excluding the rest. The result is both to depress the wages of those who lack a college degree, and to place many college graduates in jobs that don’t actually make use of the substance of their college education.4 That leads to a positional arms race: as word spreads that a college diploma is the entry ticket to even modest jobs, more and more people seek degrees.
Thus, there are private incentives for increasing numbers of people to try to obtain a college degree. Meanwhile, governments and private organizations set performance measures aimed at raising college attendance and graduation…
But the fact that more Americans are entering college does not mean that they are prepared to do so, or that all Americans are capable of actually earning a meaningful college degree.
In fact, there is no indication that more students are leaving high school prepared for college-level work. One measure of college preparedness is the performance of students on achievement tests, such as the SAT and the ACT, which are used to predict likely success in college (they are, in part, aptitude tests).
For the most part, these tests are taken only by high school students who have some hope of going on to higher education, though in an effort to boost student achievement, some states have taken to mandating that ever more students take such tests. (Probably a case of misplaced causation. Students who took the tests tended to have higher levels of achievement. So, it was mistakenly reasoned, by getting more students to take the test, levels of achievement would be raised. The flaw is that better-performing students were more likely to take the test in the first place. That is, policymakers mistook cause for effect.)
“A consequence of students entering college without the ability to do college-level work,” Muller points out, “is the ever-larger number of students who enroll but do not complete their degrees—a widespread and growing phenomenon that has substantial costs for the students who do so, in tuition, living expenses, and earnings foregone.”
“High dropout rates seem to indicate that too many students are attempting college, not too few. And those who do obtain degrees find that a generic B.A. is of diminishing economic value because it signals less and less to potential employers about real ability and achievement.”