More Education Doesn’t Always Make You Better Educated

Among the several “the sky is falling!” arguments we hear about higher education is that the current generation is “in danger” of being the first generation of Americans that will be “less educated” than the generation before it. In that formulation, “less educated” means having fewer years of formal education. With a somewhat smaller number young Americans enrolling in and completing college than in the past, the higher education establishment frets that “attainment” is going down.

In a June 20 piece published on Inside Higher Education, Arthur Hauptman took issue with ten “dubious claims” about the decline in higher education. The ninth of those claims was “This is the first generation of young adults to have an attainment rate lower than the oldest group of adult workers.” Hauptman proceeds to argue that the claim is untrue, but I am not going to challenge his data.

Instead, the problem lies in the assumption that more years of education – i.e., “educational attainment”–necessarily makes you a better educated person. It does not, and therefore we should stop focusing on that meaningless metric.

Many of us have parents and grandparents who achieved great things during their lives despite the fact that they “only” attained a high school diploma. My high-school educated grandfather started a business and my high-school educated father successfully ran it for decades. I happen to have two degrees but do not think that I’m any “better educated” than they were.  They knew a lot more about many highly practical things than I do.  They learned those things outside of formal education.

Americans now spend quite a bit more time in education than they used to, but less progress per year is expected than it used to be. Consider these questions on a high school graduation exam given in Kansas in 1895:

Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent. What is Punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of Punctuation. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn, and Howe? Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers. How would you stop the flow of blood from an artery in the case of laceration?

Many college graduates today would fare poorly on those questions.

Another way of looking at this matter is to examine at the results of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. NAAL was first given (to a large sample of Americans) in 1992 and then again in 2003. In that stretch of time, educational “attainment” rose (the percentage of Americans with college degrees increasing from just over 21 percent to 27 percent), but the levels of literacy shown by the exam fell. Despite having more “education,” the America of 2003 was less educated in this vital respect than it had been eleven years earlier.

Furthermore, there is good evidence that college students today put substantially less effort into their studies than students used to. In their paper Leisure College, USA, economists Phillip Babcock and Mindy Marks concluded that the number of hours they devote to coursework each week has fallen greatly over the last several decades. While students in demanding disciplines still have to work hard, we now have a large number of academically weak majors that appeal to students who simply want to coast through. For them, “higher attainment” does not mean more learning.

For a large percentage of Americans, what we call “higher education” is merely longer education. That only benefits our overstuffed higher ed establishment.


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