Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Examining the National Purposes of Higher Education

By Richard Vedder

The title on this blog is the title of a conference that took place, I believe yesterday, at the University of Virginia, put on by several groups (e.g., Lumina Foundation, Association of Governing Boards). If Doug Lederman's report in INSIDE HIGHER ED is accurate (and I find it always is), the single most important message to the assembled group of educational leaders was: we need more people to go to college. Employers are clamoring for more college educated kids, or so we read.

I hate to be the skunk at this higher education love fest (actually I wasn't invited --surprise, surprise), but the evidence I read is deepening my conviction that in some respects we are overinvested in higher education --too many kids are going to school. Several retired academics --Jackson Toby and Harry Stilles come immediately to mind --have been saying that for years. We push the need for increased enrollments at the same time we face very high attrition rates among existing enrollees, although I am the first to admit that data limitations make those rates somewhat suspect, especially as they relate to community colleges.

Thomas Ruchti and I have been exploring this issue a bit. We have asked the question: what has happened to educational attainment to workers in very low skilled occupations that clearly do not require a college degree for any reason relating to their productivity as workers --dishwashers, maids, etc.?

We are still in the process of gathering the data, but we see a steady rise in the proportion of lower skilled workers with some college, often with degrees. Now, I have nothing against highly educated persons doing lower skilled work if they so choose (my wife, who has a Ph.D., once worked, albeit for a short time, in a department store as a salesperson). But I do object to diverting significant public (taxpayer) resources to fund such things when the taxpayers themselves have better use of the money or where there are alternative better public uses for the funds.

The game is this: "we are moving to a more knowledge based economy, so nearly everyone should go to college," or so says the Educational Establishment. Then, the legislators appropriate more money. Then colleges take that money --and use it on virtually everything but expanding access. The University of Virginia, where the conference was held, has vastly more resources than a generation ago, including a multi-billion dollar endowment -- but precious few more students. It makes headlines when Yale announces it is going to expand enrollment by 15 percent, but not when Apple announces it is going to expand iPod or iPhone production by similar amounts. Supply expansion in business is ordinary, normal, the way things are done. In higher education, it is big news.

So in the name of access, the colleges are appealing for more money. They are deceptively using a dubious argument (given the attrition rates and growing number of vastly overqualified workers) to get funds which will then be diverted for other purposes --bait and switch. Shame.

1 comment:

Russ said...

As usual, excellent observations. Having worked in both academia and the professional world, my $0.02.

1. As noted repeatedly, decisions such as Griggs v. Duke Power have made it easy for employers to require a B.A., just as a winnowing device and to avoid litigation.

The awful result: large numbers of young people in college, just to get a degree, to apply for a job. As noted before, a lot of corporate jobs, frankly, do not require college-level skills.

My guess is, if the Griggs decision was reversed, 20% of students would leave college, since a degree would no longer be required.

2. College staff -- most of whom are part of the business of Public Education Monopoly unions -- could care less about students. In consultant-speak, their job is getting a paycheck -- not education. Otherwise, the national level of college graduation (within six years) would be higher than 56.4%.

3. If academia truly sought "truth," the points made in (1) and (2) would be examined.

They are not. So much for "truth."