Washington Post: College maybe isn't for everyone?

Washington Post

December 13, 2010
By Jennifer Rubin

For years now, both liberals and conservatives have sung the praises of college education, urging increased access to college and spending billions in aid to increase the flow of students into colleges and universities. But is this a good idea?

It's heresy in some quarters to suggest that this is a gross error and misallocation of resources. But a new piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (h/t Ben Smith) by Richard Vedder takes on, what he calls, the "scam" of higher education. His main point is that we have a mismatch between the education we are offering young people and the actual needs of the job market. The basis of his argument is found in a startling statistic: "approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the [Bureau of Labor Standards] considers relatively low skilled--occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less."

So Vedder makes the case:

[T]he push to increase the number of college graduates seems horribly misguided from a strict economic/vocational perspective. It is precisely that perspective that is emphasized by those, starting with President Obama, who insist that we need to have more college graduates.... [A]ll of this supports the notion that credential inflation arises from a perceived need by individuals to demonstrate potential employment competence through a piece of paper, i.e. a college diploma. Employers are using education as a screening and signaling device, at a low cost directly to them (although not costless because of the taxes they pay to sustain much of this), but at a high cost to the prospective employees and to society as a whole.

This is a subject I've discussed before with the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Ed Whelan. I asked him this morning if he agrees with Vedder. Whelan responded via e-mail:

"The net effect is that many employers insist on a college degree for jobs that plainly don't require college-level skills and that many young people who would be far happier and more productive in the working world waste lots of time and lots and lots of money chasing after a paper diploma. The even bigger losers in this system are the young men and women, disproportionately minority, who went to crummy high schools that didn't prepare them for college and who can't get decent entry-level jobs. The big winners in this system are the colleges, which end up with a massively inflated demand for their services."

This strikes me as not only an economic issue, but a legal problem. Back in the day when I was an employment lawyer, I worked on many a "disparate impact" lawsuit in which a minority or female job applicant claimed that a seemingly neutral job qualification wasn't related to the demands of the job but had a disproportionately adverse effect on a group (e.g. women, Hispanics). Isn't that what's going on here? Whelan thinks so:

"We have this crazy system in which racial quotas have been invoked to prohibit employers from using criteria other than a college diploma in making hiring decisions. But the college-diploma requirement also has a racially disparate impact. So why has that requirement -- which is far less connected to job qualifications than skill certificates and other criteria that employers can't use -- been permitted?"

Far be it for me to suggest a whole new cottage industry for plaintiffs' lawyers suing big companies for insisting that college education is a prerequisite for employment, but it seems we should do some hard thinking about this. Whelan suggests that we work to develop "alternative certificates that demonstrate actual mastery of basic skills, and allow and encourage employers to rely on those certificates in making employment decisions." And he also suggests, in effect, starving the beast of higher education: "Subsidize college tuition only for those colleges that keep their tuition increases below the rate of inflation."

This is rich ground for education reformers. But we first have to give up the myth that a college education is for everyone.

Direct link to article: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/right-turn/2010/12/college_maybe_isnt_for_everyon.html

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