What Happens When College Is Oversold

waiters.bmpAs I wrote here last week, newly compiled data shows that a great many college graduates have been settling into jobs that do not require higher education. The data, prepared and released by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), show that a majority of the increased number of college grads since 1992—some 60 percent– are “underemployed” or “overqualified” for the jobs they hold. Thus we have one-third of a million waiters and waitresses with college degrees. Some 17 percent of the nation’s bellhops and porters are college graduates. A new CCAP study From Wall Street to Wal-Mart: Why College Graduates Are Not Getting Good Jobs, released today along with this essay, carries even worse news: the proportion of college-educated Americans in lower-skilled jobs has more than tripled since the 1960s, going from 11 percent in 1967 to 34 percent today.
Why are more and more college graduates not entering the class of professional, technical and managerial workers that has been considered the main avenue of employment? Anyone who has read Charles Murray’s great book Real Education (New York: Crown Forum, 2008) has good insights into why this problem has arisen. Truly, Murray argues, only a modest proportion of the population has the cognitive skills (not to mention work discipline, drive, maturity, integrity, etc.) to master truly higher education, an education that goes well beyond the secondary schooling experience in terms of rigor of presentation. Reading and comprehending 200- to 400-year-old literature is useful for advanced leadership -but difficult. Educated persons should read and understand Locke’s “On Human Understanding” or Shakespeare’s King Lear -they are insightful in many ways, but the typical person of average intelligence typically lacks both the motivation and ability to do so. Mastering complex forms of mathematics is hard -but necessary to function in some areas of science and engineering.
Following up on Murray, the move to get more college degrees creates a huge problem. The number going to college exceeds the number capable of mastering higher levels of intellectual inquiry. This leads colleges to alter their mission, watering down the intellectual content of what they do. Rather than studying advanced mathematics, physics or –as I did– 18th century French literature in the native language, more students are studying business administration, communication skills, and doing vocational-school type work on the intricacies of health care provision or administration. Instead of five or 10 percent of students getting “A” grades, we give 40 percent or more. We have created a Potemkin Village -a few truly good universities that come close to meeting the former academic standards, but a vaster melange of institutions that are often neither “higher” nor even “education” in the classical sense, particularly since the typical student spends less than 30 hours a week on academics. Bottom line: too many people go to college.

That brings me to Jackson Toby’s The Lowering of Higher Education in America: Why Financial Aid Should Be Based on Student Performance (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010) which augments Murray’s insights in two important ways. First, the federal financial aid system deserves much of the blame for the current disconnect between labor market realities and the supply of new college graduates. The fact that a Pell Grant recipient with a 2.1 grade point average studying physical education for five years gets the same aid and sometimes more as a 3.9 point GPA physics, engineering or economics student who finishes in four years has caused a disaster, augmenting such modern problems as grade inflation. Second, Toby points out that declining college admissions standards have contributed to the deterioration of the academic quality of our secondary schools, which do not have to teach much to get kids ready for universities.
Lastly, I include my own Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2004). I observed that increases in state government spending for higher education is associated with lower -not higher—rates of economic growth. The new CCAP study is consistent with this. We send kids to school for 17-18 years to prepare for a job, say restaurant manager, that a generation ago would have involved 12-13 years of schooling. We are doing less with more. Putting resources into higher education crowds out spending on worthwhile things, like new machinery for businesses or even folks buying new electronic gadgets.
Read From Wall Street to Wal-Mart: Why College Graduates Are Not Getting Good Jobs and you will understand a little better what Charles Murray, Jackson Toby and I, plus several others have been saying for years: we have oversold college in America.


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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5 thoughts on “What Happens When College Is Oversold

  1. Hi there, my name is Leo Skarphol and I have to claim that What Happens When College Is Oversold definitely is a reliable piece of writing.

  2. Being the product of the educational system in the US, it’s become apparent that education has become a factory, an industrial process, which churns out products as cost efficiently as possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, we have far too many students to even begin thinking that we can custom build an education for all possible customers. But when a mass market for education has been created, there is no way that the product’s quality isn’t going to be diluted. I have a degree in Engineering Physics, and I can assure you that many students had understanding of the subject matter. How I know is that the university I graduated from, Oregon State, had to change their curriculum based on the department’s testing of their students a week after completing a course. What was discovered was mass confusion, the students didn’t or couldn’t remember what the concepts were or how the math worked for a particular course. But instead of blaming students, the administrators had enough integrity to realize that it was the pedagogy that was the problem. Despite the fact that OSU was just as much a part of the factory system of higher education as any other university, the department revamped their courses so that very important topics would be studied intensively for a month, in which experienced profs would teach, a grad student would be in class to assist undergrads, and no one assumed that because you had taken an upper division math class that you instantly knew how it applied to physics. Instead they showed us how the math/physics worked, and we learned physics. But it cost money, it took away time from their precious research, the profs/grad students had to pay a price, but the outcome was students who knew far more about the subject matter than they would without that commitment.
    OSU is unique in how they approached a problem which is found in most unis that teach physics. Most colleges could care less if their students learn, the research and loan money is what they are after. Plenty of research exists which verifies that graduates wasted several years learning little of the subject matter that they studied. It’s a national scandal, but one which won’t be rectified if students stop thinking of college as primarily a place to get laid, loaded and drunk.

  3. I am working as a professional tutor in a SUNY college full of the students you are commenting on as well as in one of the truly good universities. One thing not taught/connected in either (particularly in the SUNY college) is how what is taught in whatever course relates to the student’s life, now and in the future. Doing this could/will make the education and the funds expended much more valuable and justifiable.
    One way to do this is to take advantage of our growing population of elders – people with real world experience, time, and who could be incentivized to participate. Are there barriers? You bet, and isn’t it time to plan and work for results instead of just the knee-jerk reaction world we have come to?

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