Raising the percentage of Americans who have college degrees is a major component of the Obama administration's education goals. It's a policy that can swing many billions of dollars towards the higher education industry—an industry that is growing every more conscious of the fact that its financial foundation is not solid. "Promoting higher education" sounds like a good cause, in the abstract. But it may be a huge waste of money.
A new report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity points out that, technically speaking, a whole lot of bachelor's degrees are going to waste in the job market.
About 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests requires less than a four-year college education. Eleven percent of employed college graduates are in occupations requiring more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor's, and 37 percent are in occupations requiring no more than a high-school diploma...
Past and projected future growth in college enrollments and the number of graduates exceeds the actual or projected growth in high-skilled jobs, explaining the development of the underemployment problem and its probable worsening in future years.
So, at a time when our collective student debt level is dangerously high, when nearly half of college graduates are not in jobs that require their college degrees, we are actively, as a matter of government policy, trying to raise the percentage of Americans who get college degrees—even though the supply of college grads is already projected to exceed the supply of jobs that might require a college degree.
This naturally raises the question: why the fuck would we be encouraging more people to get college degrees? It sounds like we should be encouraging fewer people to get college degrees.
Education is good. And going to college is nice. But sending millions upon millions of our young people to college comes with a cost: a huge financial cost to the public that subsidizes those degrees, and a huge financial cost to the students themselves, in the form of student loans. (There is also the opportunity cost of all those kids spending those years in college when they could be doing something else more productive.) Having spent billions upon billions of dollars getting all these extra college degrees, the graduates find that when they leave school, they are forced to get the same jobs that they could have gotten without a college degree. At best, we are simply inflating the resume requirements for menial jobs; at worst, we are pursuing a woefully misguided policy that expends great effort and financial resources producing a bunch of indebted graduates that no one has a productive use for. It amounts to a pointless government subsidy to the higher education industry. It also displays an irrational fetish for credentialism. If the government wants to invest in public education, there are many more economical ways—free online classes, more funding for libraries—than funneling more students towards unnecessary bachelor's degrees.
Would it be nice for every high school graduate to get a college degree? Sure. It would also be nice for every high school graduate to take a year off and travel around the world, to expand their horizons, at no cost to themselves. But you don't see a massive public movement to subsidize such a program, even though you could make the same arguments for its benefits to the minds and souls of young people as you could make for going to college.
College is not magic. It is a system of education that costs money, and it exists based on the assumption that that education will ultimately pay for itself on the back end. If it becomes abundantly clear that such extended periods of schooling do not pay for themselves, and that they are, on balance, detrimental, what with their penchant for locking wide-eyed idealistic young grads in prisons of inescapable debt, then we should not be promoting it as a matter of policy! Do not fall prey to all these silver-tongued college administrators! They've spent decades honing their crafty rhetorical tricks!
Going to college is great, assuming you put your degree to use one way or another. (Going to college just for fun, or just for the sake of reveling in the beauty of knowledge, is also great, but it is a luxury, and like any luxury, it goes only to those who can afford it. We do not as a matter of course recommend that people ruin their financial futures in order to indulge in momentary luxuries.) There is absolutely no shame in not going to college, if you want to do something in life that does not require a college degree. We should not be subsidizing colleges in order to provide America with a desperate, indebted class of future temp workers. It does not make sense.
[CCAP. Photo: Getty]