Most Kids Should Not Go to College

There are a few recurring themes here at BMA that arose unplanned. One of them is college, specifically the wisdom of paying so much for it. I have asked Is a College Degree Worth Anything? and followed-up with Is a Fake College Degree Worth Anything? I mused on the big picture with Why Go to College? and Does it Matter Which College You Attend?

Grads Kit The answers to those titular questions were yes, college degrees are generally economically valuable, and even fake ones have their uses. Which is why most high school graduates should go to college. And it matters which one you go to, sometimes a lot.

However, my advice to the generic 18 year-old, that he or she should go to the best college he or she can get into (where “best” considers cost) is in conflict with my broader society-wide view. Way too many of us go to college.

In 1940, there were 1700 institutions of higher learning in the US and 1.1% of the population was enrolled in college. 5% of the US population over 25 then had a bachelors degree or better.

In the years since, college enrolment has ballooned. We now have 4100 institutions teaching 6.9% of the population. Just over half of those aged 18-21 are currently in college. And those “college age” Americans make up only 43% of those enrolled in post-secondary education. 28% of the US population over 25 now has a college degree and that number grows every year.

Of course, along with the growing number of college grads is the growing number of young people with the heavy burden of student loans. Sending all these students to college is not free, and in fact it has been getting progressively more expensive. Even as volumes have increased, prices have escalated. Over the past 30 years, college tuition has tripled in real inflation-adjusted terms.

In 2007 the US spent 3.1% of GDP on higher education, twice the OECD average. (Canada was the runner-up at 2.6%. The EU averaged 1.3%. Note that these figures do not include lost wages from students not working.) But leading on college spending does not mean we are at the top of the league tables for education overall. We spent just 3.7% of GDP on grade and high school.

It is my belief that we devote entirely too much of our resources to higher education. Put another way, I think that substantially fewer of us should be going to college.

That sounds like a terrible thing to say, particularly from a person who got to go to an uber-elite Ivy League school. But this is not about elitism. The top 100 colleges and their graduates will always have the same place in society whether or not there are 1600 other schools or 4000 of them.

The problem is that for what might be called the normally above average high school grad, college has become a wasteful bidding war.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, an 18-year-old who is at the 75% percentile of talent and ability, which is to say that in some abstract sense the teenager is more able than 3 out of 4 people. In 1940 this person could graduate high school and happily enter the workforce without stigma or student loans. Today, with more than half of young people attending college, not going would signal to the world that the poor kid was well below average. So he or she goes to college, takes on considerable debt, and delays working for several years.

There is the argument in favor of college that it trains students for a career. To a certain extent, that is true, but as a whole our institutions of higher learning do a poor and inefficient job of this. Truly vocational training in such fields as accounting, nursing, or engineering is more exception than rule. And even when it does exist, it is questionable if this form of career training is cost effective relative to potential alternatives such as learning on-the-job, a vocational high school, or a more specialized and shorter post-secondary program.

Further, it needs to be pointed out, the higher professions such as law, medicine, and even business management all require graduate degrees. And those professional graduate schools generally expect that their incoming students will have learned little of practical use as undergrads.

Are our new high school graduates ready to start working rather than go to college? That is a good question. Most high schools today measure their success by how well they get their students into college, not by how well they are prepared for the real world.

We need better high schools. It is even possible that we need to spend more on them. Relative to the nearly implausible resources devoted to higher education in the US, secondary education is on a starvation diet.

This disparity may partly be due to the way the two types of education are paid for. Grade and high schools are generally public, paid for by local governments out of local taxes. Higher education is generally paid for by the student, with substantial subsidies from government. Naturally, individuals are more willing to spend on their own educations than communities are willing to spend on their neighbor’s kids.

In most of those other OECD countries, the ones that spend far less on higher education, the government pays for college too. And in those places far fewer young people go to college, hence the savings. As I do not think that our politicians are likely to reduce the number of college students, I do not think that having the government pick up the tab here would work.

But do we need to subsidize it so much? Politicians who proudly tout their efforts to expand student loan programs and point to the success of increased college enrollment remind me of when basically the same bunch pushed for expansions of Fannie and Freddie and pointed to the higher percentages of Americans who owned their homes. And how did that work out?

[Photo – Kit]

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