David Leonhardt, the well-known business columnist of the NYTimes, challenges the skeptics who say college is overrated. And he does it with well-supported statistics and argument. I had argued that Newsweek's pontification about "useless college degrees" was just more career nonsense, ready for the circular file. But Leonhardt does me one better--far better.
Leonhardt points out that nearly a century ago the US made high school near universal at the same time that Europe's elitists decided that universal high school was a waste. Clearly the US made the right decision. As Leonhardt writes, the educated American masses helped create the American century. . . . The new ranks of high school graduates made factories more efficient and new industries possible.
Today we're getting the same negative arguments from the skeptics, emphasizing that teenagers aren't ready for college work and that college costs saddle students with debt. Leonhardt dissects the anti-college arguments piece by piece. And as he says, the most discouraging part of the case is that it encourages parents and students to aim low. There are no statistics, but I'm appalled by the number of parents that aim so low that they refuse to provide kids with either emotional or financial support for college. But I also note that immigrant parents will starve so that their kids can have a college education. Intriguing distinctions.
"Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea," says David Autor, an M.I.T. economist who studies the labor market. "Not sending them to college would be a disaster."
The statistics are especially unique and illuminating. A new study has found that the value of college is that it gives grads entry to high-paying occupations. Skeptics continue to say college is overrated, but degreed workers make more even when their jobs don't require a degree. These are eye-stopping median stats: dishwashers without college degree, $19,000. Dishwashers with college degree, $34,000. Dental hygienist without college degree, $30,000. Dental hygienist with college degree, $53,000. Hairdresser without degree, $19,000. Hairdresser with degree, $32,000.
Furthermore, the costs are not nearly what we've been led to believe. Sure the Ivies cost more than $50,000 a year, but less than 1% of college students attend the Ivy League schools. All the journalistic alarms about college costs and college debt need to be taken with a grain of salt. Many colleges are just not very expensive. Once financial aid is taken into account, average net tuition and fees at public four-year colleges this past year was about $2,000. Take that to the bank.
Another issue of significance. The much-quoted study casting doubt on college education based on statistically significant progress, or lack of, misses a highly significant point. The general skills that colleges teach, skills such as discipline and persistence, may be far more important than academics.
Leonhardt's last two comments should be pasted across some foreheads.
Then there are the skeptics themselves, the professors, journalists and others who say college is overrated. They, of course, have degrees and often spend tens of thousands of dollars sending their children to expensive colleges.
I don’t doubt that the skeptics are well meaning. But, in the end, their case against college is an elitist one — for me and not for thee. And that’s rarely good advice.