Should more young people go to college? This morning’s papers presented very different answers to the question. The New York Times reports on President Biden’s idea that we ought to ensure there are good and interesting careers and stable incomes for people who do not want to, or find it very difficult to, obtain a college degree:
Mr. Biden’s approach is a shift from previous Democratic administrations, which were far more focused on college as a path to higher pay and advancement. Mr. Obama, during his first joint session of Congress, said that the United States should “once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”
The benefits of raising the aggregate number of degree holders are difficult to calculate. Individuals get a high payoff to a degree in terms of employment prospects, but that payoff arises from two factors. One is the accumulation of what economists call human capital: knowledge and skills that contribute to higher productivity. The second factor is signaling: the college degree tells employers the graduate had the capability of doing intellectual work, and serves to make the graduate a preferred hire to someone without a degree – and without that signal – even if the intellectual work does not carry with it anything transferable to what the job will actually entail. To the extent that a college degree involves the building of human capital, more college graduates will indeed lead to a richer economy overall. But to the extent that it is purely signaling, more college graduates do not make the country as a whole richer – in fact it makes it poorer, as resources are effectively wasted in driving more and more people to obtain these costly signals.
The strength in Biden’s argument is that, first, college is not necessarily the optimal place for human capital development; for some fields, a short-term tech school experience combined with an apprenticeship could much much less costly in time and money. And second, a lot of people don’t want to go to college; they finish high school simply having had enough of the classroom, and sitting through the requisite hundred and twenty credit hours needed for a degree is boring and useless to them. As a professor I teach many students who are truly interested in the subjects we cover, but I also have many who are dragging themselves through a degree they think they need, but who simply want the four years (or more) to be done with. I empathize with this second group, and wish there were institutions in place such that they would only be hearing Professor Rushton’s thoughts on communitarianism and arts policy if they really wanted to.
The US President’s approach is in sharp contrast to the President of the University of Montana, who has an op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post. Seth Bodnar sees declining enrolment rates at university as a threat to national security:
The college-going rate of high school graduates has dropped from 70 percent in 2016 to 62 percent in 2022, and if this trend continues, a group of young Americans will — for the first time in our history — enter the workforce with less education than the one before.
As a university president, I worry not simply for the financial health of the institution I serve. Rather, my fears are for our country’s long-term economic competitiveness as we experience a widespread devaluing of education and the erosion of the educational advantage that we’ve held in global affairs for the past 70 years. This is the most serious long-term national security challenge facing our country.
The reality is that though our students absolutely need a broad base of knowledge to navigate the complexity of today’s world, they also need the tangible skills to be job ready on graduation day. Doing both requires universities to work more closely with employers to adapt programs to meet emerging needs…
The philistinism of Mr. Bodnar reminds me of people who approach arts policy with the idea that we need the arts for economic growth, for national soft power, for alleviating all manner of social problems, but not for the reason of anyone’s actual experience of art.
University participation is like arts participation: you cannot force the benefits, whether through making uninterested students wade through their “general education” requirements, or thinking that if only more people really tried listening to opera they would come to like it.
In a very insightful Substack post on college students of the present, Paul Musgrave writes:
The rising costs of everything but tuition (although at my university that will increase next year as well) shade everything about college. It’s incredibly expensive to do any of this, and the only way that people can afford it–not justify it, but afford it–is to turn the credential into higher wages. If you’re thinking about short-term economic necessities (and I don’t just mean employment after college, but balancing 30 or 40 hours a week of work with school right now), then anything that doesn’t seem immediately practical will be viewed with hostility.
If the rationale for college is economic payoff, and students are being told that even by university presidents(!), then why should my students care about what John Rawls or Charles Taylor had to say about anything? I cannot pretend there is an economic or “national security” benefit to any of it.
Which leaves me in the Biden camp. The college experience should be for students who really want the college experience, in the classroom, the lab, the studio, the stage. They will not know at the start what they will get from it (I certainly didn’t at that age), but they have to approach with enthusiasm, even if mixed with a large dose of apprehension. And if that means lower college enrolments in future, I think the country will survive it.
Abby Ladin says
I’m always pleasantly surprised when a post by you shows up in my arts journal news feed. Your thoughtful approach to big topics is why your teaching still resonates with me. And the fact that you managed to work in a reference to opera.
Michael Rushton says
Thanks Abby, and nice to hear from you