2011 February 07 Monday
Harvard Study Questions Universal College Education

The 4 Year degree is not the solution to all of our problems.

But increasingly, some educators are calling for more attention to the career part of the equation – and questioning whether a traditional four-year college degree is necessarily the best path for everyone.

A new report released by Harvard Wednesday states in some of the strongest terms yet that such a “college for all” emphasis may actually harm many American students – keeping them from having a smooth transition from adolescence to adulthood and a viable career.

“The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken,” concludes the report, “Pathways to Prosperity” (pdf).

They acknowledge that some kids do not want to sit in classrooms. Imagine that. Of course, they can't say that some kids have IQs that are too low to finish high school, let alone go to college. But this admission is an important step on the road toward greater realism about the limits to college as a tool for raising up the poor.

They point to vocational training programs in Europe as a model for making education more relevant to those who are now dropping out. They argue that the heavy emphasis placed on the college track in high school is driving away those students who are not interested in all that book learning. But how many of the skills taught in vocational learning tracks are for jobs that are going to get automated out of existence in the next 20 years?

The report assumes (very incorrectly) that higher education accounts for the bulk of the differences in financial outcomes between those with different educational levels.

Workers with at least some college have ballooned to 59 percent of the workforce, from just 28 percent in 1973. Over the same period, many high-school dropouts and those with no more than a high-school degree have fallen out of the middle class, even as those who have been to college, and especially those with bachelor’s and advanced degrees, have moved up.5 The lifetime earnings gap between those with a high school education and those with a college degree is now estimated to be nearly $1 million. And the differential has been widening. In 2008, median earnings of workers with bachelor’s degrees were 65 percent higher than those of high school graduates ($55,700 vs. $33,800). Similarly, workers with associate’s degrees earned 73 percent more than those who had not completed high school ($42,000 vs. $24,300).6

What they do not say: A large part of that gap is due to smarter people going to college and therefore smarter people removing themselves from the category of the less educated. 60 or 70 years ago the average person who got no further than high school was much smarter than today. A large fraction of the smart people did not go to college. Today so few smart people do not go to college that the high school drop-outs and those with only a high school degree are much dumber than was the case in the past.

Their argument: lots of jobs require training other than a traditional college education. Quite true and quite obvious. But now someone at Harvard has said it. So it is okay to believe it now. Don't you feel a sense of relief that your common sense is backed up by a report from Harvard? You can now make this argument without being outside of the mainstream.

The Georgetown Center projects that 14 million job openings—nearly half of those that will be filled by workers with post-secondary education—will go to people with an associate’s degree or occupational certificate. Many of these will be in “middle-skill” occupations such as electrician, and construction manager, dental hygienist, paralegal and police officer. While these jobs may not be as prestigious as those filled by B.A. holders, they pay a significant premium over many jobs open to those with just a high school degree. More surprisingly, they pay more than many of the jobs held by those with a bachelor’s degree. In fact, 27 percent of people with post-secondary licenses or certificates—credentials short of an associate’s degree—earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient.7

Well, lots of bachelor's degrees are earned in subjects that are nearly or totally economically worthless. It is not a surprise that some people who get trained in market-relevant skills make more money without attending college. Even some of those who make more money after attending college could have saved a lot of time and money by instead going for training in what they ended up doing.

The inter-racial differences in youth unemployment are huge. You might think these facts are an argument against immigration. Hispanic teens have a very low employment rate as compared to white teens. Do we really want to dig ourselves deeper into a hole and bring in more people who won't succeed in a labor market that places a high premium on advanced skills and which finds a decreasing need for manual laborers?

Since the Great Recession began, teens have been hit harder than any other age group by unemployment. As a result, the percentage of teens (16-19) who were employed fell from 45.2 percent in 2000 to just 28.6 percent in June 2010. Clearly, teens now face Depression-era employment prospects. Unfortunately, this catastrophe has hit low-income minority teens especially hard, even though they are the very youth who are most likely to struggle in school and who most need the supports that employment provides. Incredibly, just 9 percent of low-income black teens are employed, as are just 15 percent of low-income Hispanic teens. In sharp contrast, the employment rate among upper middle-income white teens (whose families earn $75,000 to $100,000 a year) is 41 percent—four times higher than among low-income black teens.

The American nation is not on the pathway to prosperity. We got off on an exit and got back on the road going in the opposite direction.

I am reminded of a recent Michael Mandel post where he found that at the end of 2010 for those ages 25-34 high school graduates have a 12.9% unemployment rate while college grads have a 5.3% unemployment rate. The US labor market's demand for less skilled workers is headed downward. Here's graphical longitudinal comparison of unemployment levels as a function of education. The high school drop-outs have about 15% unemployment. What do their labor market participation rates look like? Note that the US economy looks like it can grow without its laid off former workers.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2011 February 07 11:45 PM  Education Returns On Investment

WJ said at February 8, 2011 5:07 AM:

"The US labor market's demand for less skilled workers is headed downward."

And yet. And yet - if you talk to "smart people," credentialled people, it is those with advanced degrees who are more likely to support the notion that the U.S. needs ever more immigrants from anywhere; who support the fanciful notion that all immigrants - absent racism, of course - can be brought to the same level of intelligence and economic usefulness. I have a few friends ( more like "friends") with JDs and MBAs and MSWs who routinely suggest, implicitly or explicitly, that their advanced degrees better qualify them to weigh in on the subject of illegal immigration than me with a mere bachelor's.

Smart people still need college, or some way of learning the ropes of their chosen profession. They still need knowledge to which they can apply their intelligence. It's not that college is bad. It's that for the wrong person it's close to useless - harmful, in fact, and a waste of time and/or money.

I like the argument that it's not that some kids are dumber - it's that they don't want to sit behind a desk! It's the only polite and effective way of saying that some kids simply aren't cut out for the college environment. Education, after all, is not a gift from the state. It has to be earned. I suspect that no matter how you say it, though, that it still won't cut it with La Raza or the NAACP.

"Well, lots of bachelor's degrees are earned in subjects that are nearly or totally economically worthless."

Well as the late Richard Jeni said, "it's not college, it's Amway with a track team."

WJ said at February 8, 2011 5:22 AM:

"I suspect that no matter how you say it, though, that it still won't cut it with La Raza or the NAACP."

And I would add that nearly half the children born in the US now are potential future members of La Raza or the NAACP. The US is going to spend a frighteningly large and growing share of our GNP managing and controlling this underperforming part of our population.

Bob123 said at February 8, 2011 12:30 PM:

'The US labor market's demand for less skilled workers is headed downward."

It isn't heading downward, it's been driven downward by an elite that has prospered by "busting out" (to use the appropriate Mafia term) the nation. They've sent our jobs overseas (and pocketed the cash) and imported third-worlders to compete for the few that are left (again while pocketing the cash). What's happening isn't new to history, it's merely the end stage of classic imperialism where a smaller and smaller group of elitists eventually turn their rapacious desire for imperial loot and power on their own population. (By the time Rome fell there was hardly a Roman in the place.) The destruction they've rained on the lower classes will creep ever upward until only a tiny minority of elitists are left standing, just like in most third world countries. And this creeping doesn't even take into account the racial aspects of the situation - the reality that a large percentage of our self-appointed elites today are members of a racial minority that seethes with genocidal hatred of the majority, and the swarms of non-whites and the inevitable identity politics they bring with them. Your degrees won't save your family.

In said at February 8, 2011 7:24 PM:

What they do not say: A large part of that gap is due to smarter people going to college and therefore smarter people removing themselves from the category of the less educated.

Just saw this video on yahoo. James Altucher almost says that but frames achievement differences as "achievement minded" (~1/3 the way through). Maybe that's the best way of putting it and it is true that achievement is not all about smarts so the framing is at least not completely inaccurate. In any case I think his advice is good.


Randall Parker said at February 9, 2011 8:03 PM:


The price of less skilled labor is going down for 3 reasons in the United States:

- automation.

- a flood of low-skilled immigrants.

- the shift of manufacturing to countries with lower labor costs.

no i don't said at February 10, 2011 6:43 PM:

I think the words "college" and "education" are starting to not go together; just like "military-intelligence" or "happily-married". Pairs that don't go together anymore.

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