By Richard Vedder
Today's Chronicle of Higher Education, interviewing Charlie Reed, Chancellor of the California State University System, says that his system may have to have 40,000 fewer enrollees this year because of budget cuts --a big number, even for Cal State (I believe 8 or 9 percent of total enrollment). Is this disaster or opportunity for California? It is at least debatable.
Charlie is a realist, and a great leader. When I saw him a couple of weeks ago in Washington (both testifying before Congress), I said to him "life will go on," and he grinned and agreed wholeheartedly. There is a fundamental conflict from what Charles Murray, myself, and many veteran professors think, and what the Obama Administration and other well meaning groups (the sainted Lumina Foundation comes immediately to mind) believe is the optimal degree of college participation. To Obama-Lumina, and, no doubt, most university presidents, bigger is better, more is good. Everyone should go to college. College provides opportunities, college graduates are more productive and promote economic growth, full access promotes equality, etc., etc., etc.
Yet this is a romantic view of life that bears little resemblance to reality. A huge percentage of Americans (more than one-fourth) do not graduate from high school in a timely manner. More than 40 percent of those who enter college do not graduate. A growing proportion of those graduating are taking jobs that do not really require college skills. Those not going to college now, on average, have lower cognitive skills, less motivation, less already accumulated human capital, than those who do. Pushing those currently not attending college into universities is setting up millions of Americans to fail --either out of school (probably with big debts), or successfully graduated with the prospects of taking relatively menial jobs.
The last point does not get enough emphasis. I had a tree cut down last fall by two guys --one with less than a high school education, the second an honors history graduate of my university. The less formally educated guy was just as adept at cutting down the tree, assessing risks of various cutting strategies, etc. An awful lot of the human capital of the United States comes on the job. Was a college degree really needed for the tens of thousands of mail carriers in the United States that possess one? I am not against their having the degree, but I am against governmental funding of it, giving the scarcity of national resources and the fact we have vastly over committed ourselves in terms of public policies.
I also worry that the quality of college education is declining, as less qualified students, along with professors afraid of their own shadow who insist on giving everyone high grades, mean that today's students know less and work less (an average of a total of well under 30 hours a week for full-time students), etc. It is interesting that the National Survey of Adult Literacy from 1992 to 2003 saw a bigger decline in literacy amongst college educated adults than any other group, and that total national literacy per capita stayed constant --despite large increases in educational attainment. I think we are doing less with more, generating lower efficiency, thwarting goals of equality of opportunity, and deceiving a generation of young Americans. So I, for one, am happy Cal State is reducing enrollments.