While the realization that we have oversold higher ed is spreading, you still run into a lot of people who are still stuck in the mistaken idea that getting a college degree is a good investment because it will provide good financial returns. For example, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic, who contends that what colleges need to do is better advertise to skeptical students that there are high “returns” to earning a degree.
He’s very excited about a study in Canada in which high-school kids from lower-income families were shown a three-minute video about the returns to college. The problem is that there are no guaranteed returns from spending years of time and lots of money going to college. What is true (and the little video no doubt says) is that in the past, on average, people who have college degrees have earned higher incomes than people without college degrees. The hapless kids then leap to the illogical conclusion that they will similarly benefit. Many of them won’t because a) the labor market is already glutted with students who already bought into that pitch and have discovered that the best employment they can find is the sort of work that requires nothing more than simple trainability and b) it is easy to coast through college these days without learning anything useful.
Thompson goes so far as to say that young people who don’t go to college are “impos[ing] real costs — not just on themselves, but also on the country — in the form of lower wages, lower tax revenue, and more welfare services demanded from government.” Evidently he thinks that just getting through college will cause good things to happen (employment that pays well) while not going to college causes bad things (low-paying jobs or unemployment), but of course that’s mistaken. Lots of college grads are unemployed or underemployed, and lots of people who never went to college have good, steady work. We can’t pull the country up by its bootstraps merely by luring more and more people into years of college. Indeed, it’s a serious deadweight loss to employ so many people in an endeavor that accomplishes so little. That’s the real cost.