Do We Need More College Grads?

Richard Vedder calls it “the single most scandalous statistic in higher education,” an assessment that doesn’t sound overstated to us. Writing on the Chronicle of Higher Education site, Vedder says “a small army of researchers and associates” gathered by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) shows that “approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the (Bureau of Labor Statistics) considers relatively low skilled—occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less.” This means that the great push to increase the number of college grads has apparently come to very little—only a minority of the additional grads are in occupations regarded as requiring a bachelor’s degree.
Of the nearly 50 million U.S. colleges graduates, 17.4 million are holding jobs for which college training is regarded as unnecessary. The number of waiters and waitresses with college degrees more than doubled from in the years 1992-2008, from 119,000 to 338,000, and cashiers with college degrees rose from 132,000 to 365,000. This makes the push for more college graduates very controversial. Vedder writes: “Some in higher education KNOW about all of this and are keeping quiet about it because of their own self-interest. We are deceiving our young population to mindlessly pursue college degrees when very often that is advice that is increasingly questionable.”
Four of our writers have weighed in on the CCAP report, Stefan Kanfer, Fred Siegel, Mark Bauerlein and Daphne Patai.

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Four Years of College to Become a Bellhop
Posted by Stephan Kanfer
Like the dollars that pay for them, degrees from U.S. colleges and universities are rapidly declining in value. The College Board, a consortium of 5,700 institutions of advanced education, would have us believe that “the pay premium for those with bachelor’s degrees has grown substantially in recent years.” But in the real world, where at least some of those board members live, a B.A. is hardly a guarantee of salary or success. The report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity reveals that some 60 percent of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that didn’t require the skills that sheepskins are supposed to guarantee—and that didn’t offer much in the way of big-league compensation, either.
Examples: Nearly 30% of flight attendants had BA’s. Some 24% of retail salespersons had similar degrees. So did more than 17% of baggage porters and bellhops. Taxi drivers: 15%; hotel, motel and resort desk clerks, 16%; manicurists and pedicurists, 11.5%. The list goes on to include locksmiths, shampooers and telecommunications installers.
Some of this situation can be ascribed to the perilous economy—college graduates have to take what they can get, even if it’s washing someone else’s hair or cutting someone else’s toenails. But the principal reason for the lack of high-grade employment lies with the colleges themselves. Anyone who inspects their catalogues will find a glut of courses designed to separate the student from his cash, without imparting anything that might be defined as wisdom. Core curricula that once discussed the great tradition in literature, art, and science, have been elbowed offstage by banal courses in feminism, black studies and queer theory. All too often, the powerful and useful contributions of Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Mann, Joyce et al are dismissed as the work of “dead white males.”
The result: students who can spout a line of political correctness designed to dazzle their peers and professors. With that and $1.50 they can get a bus ride downtown to the unemployment offices. And when and if they do land a job, chances are that their abilities will be sorely tested because they come to work with an ignorance of history, economics and society.
The future is not hard to predict. If current conditions prevail, the deflation of a bachelor’s degree will soon be accompanied by a corresponding inflation in the value of advanced degrees. A B.A. will be considered the equivalent of a high school diploma, and candidates for fast-track jobs in business or the professions will have to enter the work force with at least a master’s degree. Colleges will grow richer and students poorer. And if matters go far enough, one day municipal workers will have Ph. D’s to qualify for a position in the sanitation department.

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The Downgraded Status of Our Colleges
Posted by Fred Siegel
Insipidly correct, painfully self-conscious guardians of their own status, “higher” “education”, as Richard Vedder’s piece makes clear is, to a considerable degree, just another bureaucratic interest group looking to keep its bubble – built on the assumption of an unlimited market and endlessly rising value – going. Like New York’s public sector workers who are guaranteed a Madoff-like eight percent return on their pensions come boom or bust, the typical institution start its annual budgeting with the assumption of a 7% tuition increase and goes on from there regardless of whether or not the people it credentials are actually educated.
In the wake of its transformation by the cataclysms of the late 1960s, the so-called humanities moved from reflecting on the great works of the western tradition to an academic parody of the class struggle. The upshot has been that the intellectual value of the credentials colleges bestow has moved inversely with the rise of tuition. What Mr Vedder has uncovered statistically is known, albeit inchoately, by much of the public, which having already implicitly downgraded the status of our colleges is coming to recognize that a college degree may not even carry earning power.
Academia has a ready response to all this. It will argue in its learned journals that the rise of cheaper means of credentialing such as on-line courses was all a part of the right-wing conspiracy, inspired, no doubt, by Sarah Palin.

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The Everyone-Should-Go-to-College Dogma
Posted by Mark Bauerlein
I have a friend who is unemployed and has been for the last few years. She left a clerical position at a magazine and has since scrounged around doing some Web consulting work here and there, picking up a temp job off and on, but never finding anything durable. I pushed and prodded her recently to check out a few for-profit online schools in the area that have short vocational programs of some kind along with a financial aid package (she has credit card bills). We went to Web sites, dug into various programs, and she promised she’d pursue it.
I had a note from her with an answer a few days later. She’d spoken to others who told her to drop the vocational approach and instead to investigate programs in the second largest university in the state. An online degree wouldn’t earn her sufficient “respect,” they told her, and she listened. It would cost more money and take longer and force more courses upon her, but that only made it appear to her a better long-term decision.
I shot back: “You need a job, not respect, and the employers who will hire you don’t care about the school you attended. They just want to know that you can do the job.”
No word since. The idea of the standard four-year diploma is too settled and firm. In this case, and, I suspect, thousands of others, a streamlined, job-oriented program can’t break the spell–and it’s frustrating. Perhaps more studies like this one will dislodge it, and all will benefit. The cover of this week’s issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education has this front page headline: “Graduation Rates Fall at One-Third of 4-Year Colleges.” Obviously, we have many, many young people who don’t fit the four-year mold for one reason or another, and when they arrive on campus they soon feel the mismatch and leave. They might have been spared the experience if the “everyone-should-go-to-college-right-out-of-high-school” dogma weren’t so universally broadcast.

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Why Are Students Doing So Badly?
Posted by Daphne Patai
Over several decades, I have observed students arrive at the large, public university at which I teach with ever deteriorating preparation. And then, four (increasingly, five) years and many thousands of dollars later, those who stick with it graduate, often with little to show for it except a diploma.
If we really believe that job preparation is the goal of higher education why not install a system rather like Huxley’s in Brave New World, in which children are born and bred to fulfill particular slots in society? Remember how Huxley’s castes are indoctrinated day and night into the belief that they are the best and most fortunate group in their society? We’re already moving part way there, with our absurd emphasis on “self-esteem” totally unrelated to actual efforts and accomplishments. If we do not want Huxley’s perfectly functioning society, surely it behooves us to note that higher education is not merely, or even primarily, a job-preparation issue.
So, in my view, the scandal isn’t that students don’t find lucrative jobs after college. No; the real scandal is that we’re doing so badly what we are supposed to be doing halfway decently: providing our students with preparation to lead lives as thoughtful and free citizens of a democracy. But this failure shouldn’t be laid at the feet merely of university professors. The majority of students reach us already poorly educated but well trained in making the least effort. To that, we then add further disincentives: higher grades for less work; fewer requirements, and more credits per course; shorter semesters, reading lists, and students’ attention spans.
If we actually demanded that students put in the time, effort, and work required to become proficient in an area, and were giving students the grades they deserved, at least we could be claiming to be fulfilling one of the implicit promises of higher education. But if we did those things, college admissions and enrollments would drastically drop, as young people not interested in or able to make the serious intellectual effort that ought to be the hallmark of higher education, would seek out other ways of achieving their job goals. Meanwhile, the notion that everybody has a right to higher education would be exploded for what it is: an unrealistic and probably pointless pretense. However, I doubt that my fellow faculty members support the endless expansion of higher education out of a desire to line their own coffers. Many seem genuinely to believe that this is akin to the right to primary and secondary school education — and so it’s no surprise that those levels are what higher education has come to resemble. In such a situation, graduates ought to be disgruntled: they end up without either adequate job skills or the education-for-life that in some way they were promised, which certainly does turn their diplomas into a mere piece of paper, a formal requirement easy to despise.
Of course young people should have options for job training suitable to different interests and abilities, and these may or may not involve university attendance. But reinterpreting a liberal arts education as a job-training program is quite a drastic step, not to taken lightly. Meanwhile, those of us who teach at the university level should find it increasingly difficult to live with our abject failures. And those, emphatically, do not include our inability to solve the nation’s economic or employment problems by rewriting our curricula. The lack of connection between attending college and becoming educated is what we should really be upset about. Can’t we at least get that right?


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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