The website “Minding the Campus” features a debate between George Leef and Peter Sacks on the question “Are Too Many People Going to College?” Leef answers “yes” to this question and Sacks answers “no.” Leef and Sacks really seem to be arguing whether policymakers, using public funds and rhetorical encouragement, should promote more people going to college, not whether it would be desirable if more individuals, left to their own wishes and judgment, would happen to decide to pursue post-secondary schooling.
Sacks clearly favors national educational planning and public investments in directing more people toward advanced schooling, although he does necessarily see this as a matter of four year degrees. This planning orientation underlies his criticisms of arguments against promoting college. He says for example, “the real argument here is whether we are over-investing in higher education leading to bachelor's degrees, and if so, how do we legitimately ration higher education opportunity. How do we decide who "legitimately" deserves this privilege?” This presumes that the decisions are always those of planners, who make decisions about how many people go to college and who those people should be.
Leef’s position, on the other hand, can be taken in two different ways. One is a different version of the planning orientation: too many people are going to college and this is directing them into the wrong occupational directions and creating credential inflation. Therefore, policymakers should plan the lives of the public differently and direct more people into vocational training or some other activity. But Leef’s position can also be taken as simply saying we should stop trying to push more people into college and let individuals make their decisions on the basis of market conditions. I’m inclined to believe this second interpretation is closer to Leef’s view. Still, it is important to be clear about whether the debate concerns what is the right type of national educational planning or the extent to which we should have national educational planning.
Sacks raises excellent questions at the beginning of his statement, when he asks “[f]rom what or whose perspective are there too many college goers? From an individual's point of view at the present time? From a societal perspective now and in the long run? From a macroeconomic viewpoint?” At heart, the perspectives may be: does the job market need more college graduates? Does it benefit individuals to have college degrees? These are radically different ways of looking at the issue.
Looked at from the first perspective, I think the answer is clearly “no.” The view that America is becoming a place in which everyone will be doing advanced high-tech work is pure fantasy. Many technical advancements, such as the cash register that computes change, actually bring down the skill requirements for work. We do need some highly trained individuals, especially in technical fields. However, the main reason that undocumented immigration is such a big issue for us today is that there is such a huge demand for low-skilled, low-credentialed labor. If the need for low-skilled labor were disappearing, it would be difficult to understand why people have been pouring across our borders to take those types of jobs.
According to a 2007 publication by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “occupations that usually require only short- or moderate-term on-the-job training … will continue to account for about half of all jobs by 2016. These occupations require little, if any, postsecondary training. Among such occupations are retail salespersons, food preparation workers, and personal and home care aides, all of which are expected to add numerous jobs over the coming decade” Along similar lines, in a skeptical discussion of “the new knowledge economy,” I recently cited a 2006 Forbes article entitled “The 10 Hardest Jobs to Fill in America.” “Engineer was indeed number 1. However, the list also included truck drivers, explaining “They are hard to recruit because they have to be away from home for long periods, receive low wages, work very long hours and put up with a fluctuating workload.” Another hard-to-fill job was laborer. Forbes explained the shortage by the fact that This is very physical, unskilled and often repetitive work at low pay.” A more recent MSNBC article by Eve Tahmincioglu quotes Peter Creticos, president and executive director for the Institute for Work and the Economy. “If you look at the job growth distribution of the last two recoveries, it suggests we’re going to see growth of a lot more lower-income jobs.”
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Forbes recently looked at the top ten employers among 18 to 29 year olds, probably the most highly credentialed generation in history. The military topped the list, but other big ones were Walmart, Starbucks, Target, Best Buy, McDonald’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, the YMCA, CVS, and UPS. Would you like fries with that BA?
So, if we look objectively at the evidence, the answer is clearly that from the macroeconomic viewpoint we don’t need more people in college. What about from the point of view of the individual? Well, on average people with degrees make more money than people without degrees. So, it may make good economic sense for you or your child to plan on higher education. But that doesn’t mean that it necessarily makes good sense for taxpayers to subsidize your personal good fortune or that of your family. In fact, given the competition for professional positions, your good fortune may not be in my interest at all.
But to what extent will college really promote your good fortune? That may depend on what you study. I analyzed individual level U.S. Census data from the 2009 Public Use Microdata Sample to see what people in different degree fields make. Those with at least four years of college with degrees in electrical engineering had a median income of $80,000. In geological and geophysical engineering and aerospace engineering, incomes were even higher, with medians of $85,000 and $85,500. Petroleum engineers and nuclear engineers topped this, earning $104,000 and $100,000. Getting an engineering degree pays off. However, those with degrees in early childhood education had a median income of only $34,000. Those with degrees in area, ethnic, and civilization studies were somewhat higher, at $40,000. Those with degrees in advertising and public relations and in communications were also at $40,000.
What about people who did not go to college? Obviously, given the above paragraphs on job demand, many of them were doing important and needed types of work. But in a number of fields they were also doing quite well. To see how well, I looked only at people with no college. I included workers without high school diplomas as well as those with, so the estimates of incomes are modest and understate how well one can do financially without college. Among workers with high school degrees or less, supervisors of mechanics and repairers had a median income of $46,800. This doesn’t put them in the range of petroleum engineers, but it is considerably better than those who went to college to get degrees in early childhood education. Elevator installers and repairers with no college were doing even better: their median was $58,100. Electrical power installers and repairers had median incomes of $46,000. Without dragging this list on too long, I can state as a social fact that there plenty of job categories employing people without college degrees that pay off better than many types of degrees.
As a final note, I don’t think that monetary return is the only or even the best way to look at education. It may be my professorial bias, but I think a liberal arts education is actually worth financial sacrifice. I think it makes sense to take a lower paying job in order to study subjects that are intrinsically valuable. That’s one of the arguments for keeping educational costs down so that people can afford to put their time and effort into learning if they choose to do so. But this is not any kind of an argument for national educational planning.