On the value of higher education

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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39 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    I kinda think that this is putting the cart before the horse.

    A college degree is a *SIGNAL*. Even the much-derided Philosophy degree (I got mine!) is a signal.

    It says: I am capable of sitting still for a few hours at a time. I am capable of writing full paragraphs. I am capable of taking direction. I am capable of being left to my own devices. I am capable of reading a book, digesting the information, and applying it.

    A guy without a degree? Who knows? For a while there, in the 90’s, there was a slew of kids who did HTML and C and C++ in their free time in their basements who got big jobs with big salaries right out of high school but they are *NOWHERE* near representative… the folks who are representative are the ones who can write a sentence that looks okay even after auto-correct gets a hold of it… and college, if it does nothing else, gives people the best high school education you can buy.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Jaybird says:

      Well yes, in many senses it really is (until we start getting into very technical fields). Which still means that it’s a valuable commodity and that rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated.

      Blogging has been a better education for education’s-sake for me than college was.Report

    • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

      Oy. Of course its a signal. College is also a chance for people to explore different ideas, meet many new people, be challenged in many ways, be exposed to new ideas, deeply study all sorts of concepts, skills and ideas. Come on, this is the lame way to call out signaling since there is far more to it. IT is a quite different field then, say, nursing or engineering isn’t it. Some of the non-specific skills people learn or practice in college, like studying, showing up on time, time management are pretty useful.Report

      • E.D. Kain in reply to greginak says:

        I don’t think the signalling or networking or social aspects of college are arguments *against* college at all. Quite the contrary.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

        Greg, when you read these essays talking about the value of a college education, they usually make caveats to point out that they aren’t talking about stuff like “hard sciences” or “engineering”.

        They’re talking about Art History majors. English Literature majors. Philosophy.

        The Humanities… you know, the courses that give you the time to meet many new people, be challenged in many ways (THE HOUR OF POWER!!!), and otherwise be exposed to new ideas.Report

        • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

          see Freddie’s post below. Signaling is one of those good perceptive points people correctly raise, then overuse as if it explains everything. Its just one of many good points.

          Compare and contrast signaling with the benefits of rigorous study.Report

  2. Cedar Riener says:

    Claims of some sort of unified system of higher education are even more ridiculous than claims that our K-12 system is unified and easily described in broad strokes. Harvard and Duke are entirely different animals than a rural community college. University of Michigan is a somewhat different experience than the small liberal arts college (1100 students) where I teach.
    But his claim that
    “Rather than being tutored in specific skills and fields, students are trained above all to publicly embrace official moral programming, regulations and ceremonies.”
    Almost makes me stop reading. I thought we academics were supposed to be trapped in our silos, ONLY teaching our specific fields and skills, instead of teaching the true general critical thinking skills and strength of character that really matters. Which one is it? This reads as if he didn’t actually go to college, but just read a whole lot of jeremiads.
    I don’t think college is perfect, and I don’t think it is the engine of upward mobility we imaging it to be (see Peter Sacks’ book “Tearing Down the Gates”). But a guy who writes:
    “Inside the workplace, careers are captive to maternalistic human resources departments that subject all employees to unending sensitivity seminars, team-building retreats and performance reviews. Outside the workplace, singles and couples struggle over the spoils of mutual manipulation and forced intimacy.”
    Seems more pleased with his own clever prose than actually trying to understand something.Report

  3. Freddie says:

    Jaybird mentions signaling effects, which people endlessly take as this damning argument against the college wage premium. However, as Tyler Cowen has taken great pains to point out, the major wage premium studies find a very large and growing college wage premium after correcting for selection bias.

    I can’t say it often enough: college graduates are employed at a far higher rate and earn far more than those with just high school diplomas. The media, particularly bloggers, have invented this “college isn’t worth it” narrative and flog it relentlessly, but it is simply incompatible with reality. As James Joyner put it, college graduates have an unemployment rate about half that of those with only high school diplomas and earn about half as much again as they do.

    Incidentally, the much derided philosophy major in fact produces graduates who earn above the median income for college graduates. Certainly there is some selection bias there; elite universities produce more philosophy majors than less competitive ones. But the idea that philosophy majors (or English majors, humanities majors, or a whole host of other derided “impractical” majors) produce disadvantaged graduates is, again, inconsistent with reality.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

      I don’t think that the problem with signalling is the signalling, per se.

      I believe it’s more of a meta-issue of the signalling no longer signalling what it used to signal when everyone realizes that a college degree (even in Philosophy) is a signal.

      If you know what I mean.Report

      • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

        If I recall, philosophy majors do pretty well employment-wise, at least relative to other humanities majors.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

          Hells yeah, we do.

          (Though I wonder if this was true prior to the tech boom. Seriously, the tech boom was a *GODSEND*.)Report

          • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

            Hmm… when did the tech boom start, officially? I graduated with a b.a. in philosophy in ’98, and the data I was thinking of was from back then. I went to grad school, though, so I avoided having to even think about getting a job.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

              I have no idea about “officially” but I’d probably say that as good a marker as any is when the first $999 computer became available. That’d be around 1997, I think.

              That seems a little late to me, though…Report

  4. BlaiseP says:

    Higher education teaches us how to learn. As Jaybird observes, it’s not the degree itself, it’s the fact that you have one. I’m watching as C goes back to college, mostly doing online courses at this point for a degree in Computer Science. Some students simply cannot jump through the most trivial of hoops: her team assignments feature a certain percentage of duds and lazy borstards who won’t get their work in on time.

    Just how different is the workplace from college anymore? It seems a growing percentage of college students are already employed. These students have returned to pursue degrees later in life. I dropped out of college to join the military and didn’t return for eight years. By then, I was ready for the intellectual rigor of higher education. When I dropped out the first time, all I could see was a horrible vision of myself as a recapitulation of my father.

    The UK has the notion of taking a year off after sixth form. This might be a good idea for here in the USA. Freshman year of college can be a trial, terrible stressful, if my own experience and that of my children was any guide to the matter.Report

    • greginak in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Two of my friend has similar experiences. When they first went to college they , while both smart and curious, were immature and bombed out. A few years later they went back, completed and moved on. One is getting his PhD i think.Report

    • Anderson in reply to BlaiseP says:

      On top of the UK having students take a year off, I know Israel has a policy that asks young men and women to give a year of service, be that military or whatnot, before university. I’ve heard that students tend to come to school much more mature and appreciative of the opportunity. But, then again, that is purely anecdotal and I have no hard evidence that the year of service yields better outcomes. Not to mention that Israel is naturally a more militaristic society, and Americans would scream bloody murder if they were asked to sacrifice a year for public service…Alas, though definitely an interesting idea.Report

  5. Obviously this debate is linked to the economy and people wishing they didn’t need a degree to gain an edge over other job applicants. It’s a worthy conversation but I believe it will disappear if the jobless rate gets back into single digits and stays there for a while.

    What I would find to be a much more interesting conversation would be the value of a Master’s Degree verses a Bachelor’s Degree. Liberal arts academics have consistently raised the bar every few decades as a way of creating more barriers to the top of their field. There’s a finite amount of jobs up there and it’s easier to tell a graduate that the reason he can’t have one of them s because he is under-educated or under-published rather than simply tell him he was sold a bill of goods but college admissions officers.Report

  6. Brandon Berg says:

    In this world the economic value of a college degree is not in dispute

    The private economic value is not in dispute. The anti-college argument (the good version, anyway) is that there’s an element of rent-seeking in earning a degree. The degree gives you an advantage over people who don’t have it, so it’s something that people are rationally willing to expend considerable resources to get. But if it doesn’t actually make you more productive, the social economic value is negative. You’re just transferring money from other people to you, and expending resources in order to do so.

    This is pretty clearly not the full story with most STEM programs, which do teach skills needed to perform certain jobs. But many other programs don’t teach skills which are obviously applicable to the sorts of jobs typically held by the people who earn those degrees. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t improve productivity, but it’s certainly a question worth asking.

    The earnings chart strikes me as being potentially rather damning. A low-skill job is pretty much by definition a job for which there is no clear reason to expect education to enhance productivity. And yet the college premium for low-skill jobs is not much less than the college premium for medium-skill, managerial, or professional jobs. Someone arguing that the college wage premium is mostly skill-based has a lot of explaining to do.

    The answer to the question, “Should I get a bachelor’s degree?” is “Yes, if you can.” The answer to the question, “Are we subsidizing college too much, or not enough?” is not so clear.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      Right – I get this. I don’t think the article in question did a very good job at presenting this stuff, but I do mention in my response that I understand (and I actually even agree) with the problems created by barriers to entry, rent-seeking, etc. in higher education. I just don’t think the answer to those problems is less higher ed, but rather more access to more kinds of education – more vocational education, more community college, etc.Report

    • Charles in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      I’d say to take a look at the graph again. The gains are less for lower skilled jobs. However, I’d argue that a good education should produce gains even in some lower skilled jobs or at least allow one to advance faster and thus increase one’s compensation more quickly that someone without the same level of education.

      I would also posit that productivity is not the only metric to be concerned about. Creativity and idea incubation are two examples of things that are hard to measure but it is clear that universities and colleges play a major role in these things and people who have attended an institution of higher learning reap many of these benefits without having finishing their degrees (see the tech boom). Given this there must be some value in attending university which is what I hope and what I’ve seen in my personal and professional life.

      Personally I think that creating more educational opportunities (e.g. more robust technical schooling, strong community college systems linked into public flagship research universities, and more access to liberal arts colleges) is the way to go. The world is becoming more complex, as are the jobs, as a result the question shouldn’t be “should I get a degree” but “what degree should I get to meet my goals.”

      One last thing: We (all american states) have been consistently de investing in higher education. Is this the correct course? I won’t say but that is what we’re facing and frankly I think that is the more important question communally.Report

        • Charles in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          This is a bit misleading, especially living in WA state myself. Using per-capita metrics for higher education spending one would have to assume that the structure and composition of higher ed in the state remained unchanged from 1980 to 2008. This is not the case. For example, many of the community and technical colleges in WA state were not even part of higher education spending until 1991 (See the WA State Community and Technical College Act of 1991).

          Further, colleges and universities educate more students today then in 1980. Using the University of California system as an example one can see that in 1993 there were around 93 thousand FTE (Full-Time Equivalents) and in 2011 there are 137 thousand. This makes state spending per FTE the best metric for tracking state support to educating students. For example in 1990 the University of Washington provided around $14,000 per FTE (Full time student) while in 2008 this was under $12,000 and today it is near $6000 (UW 2011 budget letter; see page 3).Report

          • Brandon Berg in reply to Charles says:

            I linked to that chart more for the national average than for the Washington State numbers. That said, there was no major discontinuity in the Washington line at 1991, so it seems unlikely that that was a major factor.

            “Further, colleges and universities educate more students today then in 1980.”

            And the population is greater, so the per-capita numbers translate to correspondingly greater totals. But let’s suppose that the percentage of the population currently enrolled in college has increased. This may or may not be the case; the percentage of the population aged 16-24 has fallen from 17% to a bit under 13%, but enrollment rates are up.

            How can this be considered disinvesting in higher education? “Yeah, but we’re sending more students to college!” is not a particularly powerful rebuttal to the thesis that we are not in fact disinvesting in higher education.Report

            • More to the point, what evidence is your belief that we are in fact disinvesting in education based on?Report

              • Sorry; missed the UW link. First, this appears to be the *proposed* budget. Cuts are proposed, often as political theater, much more frequently than they are actually made.

                In fact, here’s the current version of the governor’s proposed budget (table 3). I’m not seeing any major cuts to the UW line item or to higher education generally.

                Also, I vaguely remember hearing something a while back about the state government considering taking funding away from UW to give to other schools, so keep in mind that funding cuts to one particular institution, even if they were real, would not necessarily be indicative of even a statewide trend, much less a national one.Report

              • Charles in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                The information I was referring to has nothing to do with the purposed budget for this year. I was merely linking to the information on pervious years. Also, higher education spending was cut in the budgets your were referring to (table 4 of your link). Also, UW budgets have been cut again this year and you can search any seattle paper to find that information.

                Further, I get my impressions from the numerous white papers I’ve read on the subject. As a noted above there is an easy way to see how government’s are spending money on educating college students (spending per FTE). You can see this white paper (SHEEO report on higher ed) that show on average spending per FTE has decreased around 7 % this decade (Fig. 6 pg 26).

                However, upon looking at more sources I will concede that the case for a trend since the 80’s is less robust and varies too much state to state.Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Charles says:

                Huh. The governor’s budget claims $6 billion biennial funding for UW, but UW claims funding on the order of $320 million per year. I’m not sure why the discrepancy.

                That said, if UW’s numbers (which sound more plausible) are correct, there was about a 20% cut in total funding in 2009, from $400M to $320M. I’ll give you that, but obviously you can’t infer a long-term, nationwide trend from cuts in funding to a single university during the worst recession in 80 years. States can’t run huge deficits the way the federal government can, so there have to be cutbacks when the economy slows down. Historically, this has been more than made up for when the economy picks up again.

                Also, per-FTE funding is misleading because the denominator includes both in-state (subsidized) and out-of-state (unsubsidized) students. Since the trend at UW at least has been towards a higher percentage of nonresident students, changes in the FTE do not necessarily reflect changes in the subsidy each in-state student receives.

                The SHEEHO report shows no discernible long-term trend in inflation-adjusted per-FTE funding, despite a 50% incresae in enrollment.

                Again, the fact that schools have chosen to use their increased funding to offer enrollment to more students, rather than to offer greater subsidies to fewer students, is not evidence of disinvestment.

                Colleges are getting more money and using it to educate more students. How is this disinvestment?Report

              • Charles in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                The 6 billion includes research funds and running the UW medical system. These things include funds that can be used for nothing else. The State supports the teaching mission of the university and that money is separate. Politicians use the 6 billion dollar figure so people don’t really know how much the teaching budget has been slashed. As money cannot be transferred from the medical system and research grants the state is misleading you not the university.

                The trends prior to 2008 are still clear in the UW letter . For example from 1990 to 2002 the funding per FTE dropped $2,000. This had nothing to do with the economy as we have come to see in post 2007/8 budgets. Regardless the UW was merely an example.

                The SHEEHO report does show that from 1980 to 2008 state support on average has oscillated but remained flat ($6739 in 1980 and $6520 in 2007) while enrollments have increased. Enrollments at public universities are not merely a function of finances. The state has an interest in schools continuing to increase enrollments with increases in population at least. As you pointed out earlier populations have increased and I don’t think Universities are getting the go ahead to keep class sizes flat given the political realities of state funded education.

                However, you raise a valid point that if states won’t pay for class size increases then maybe we shouldn’t educate more students. Yet, having seen some of what goes on in state appropriation battles I think it is overly simplistic to say that schools are getting more money to educate more students. It seems as if they are educating more students with not quite enough new money.Report

  7. Mike Schilling says:

    Poulos’s second point is warmed over “The Organization Man”, the main difference being that Willam H. Whyte wasn’t a hack.Report

  8. Jon Rowe says:

    No question a bachelor’s degree has a great deal of utility for those who get them — though how much is correlation, how much is causation is debatable (i.e., does a bachelor’s make someone more economically productive or is it a proxy for a higher IQ and ability to dot i’s and cross t’s — that is follow through on professional goals, understanding some really smart folks don’t do this well; and smart flaky folks might not make for good workers). I’m really not sure on the correlation-causation issue.

    I’m more concerned with young folks getting student loans. You really have to ask how much a particular degree worth. If you get accepted to Harvard, or any Ivy League, it might be worth a 6-figure student loan. But many private schools that are NOT Harvard charge something comparable for degrees and majors that won’t pay off.

    For those who don’t get accepted to an IVY or get someone else to foot the bill, a safer route is two years at a community college and two years at a state school. Pay as little as you can for the best bachelor’s degree. Someone should make a blue book value matrix on the cost of a degree that factors in its prestige, as well as a major. A hard science degree from the same school is more valuable than a political science degree. American University and Georgetown are comparable in costs (??); but a degree from Georgetown is (probably) far more valuable.Report

    • Jon,

      Good points. the sad/tragic thing is that student loans have become a very acceptable part of getting a degree. When I was in school they seemed to be more like a last resort than a given. Now, with a daughter about to start college, everything we read implies that loans are almost considered the norm. We’re determined to not let that happen.Report

      • RTod in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

        I’m not sure I understand either of your points about student loans, Mike & Jon. Why are loans themselves an issue? Are you arguing that if you have $100,000 on burning a hole in your pocket when you’re 18 it’s well worth it, but if you don’t you shouldn’t bother? Why is college any different than a car or a house, or anything else you might not be able to afford up front? (My friends that do investing for a living are always telling me that when you compare what the average retirement portfolio returns vs. interest rates on most student loans, they don’t know why you wouldn’t take the loan even if you had the cash.)

        Additionally, you might argue that education itself is over-priced, but statistically speaking the answer to the question “do you get anything worth for what you pay for” seems self evident:


        The difference in average pay between high school only and bachelor’s degree is over $20,000 a year – for a master’s it’s well over $30,000 a year. (And those don’t even take into consideration that you might get a professional degree and make even more on average.) If you assume you work for only 30 years and retire at a comparatively young 55, that’s a whole lot of return on your investment. Added to this is the odds of you being unemployed right now as a college graduate is twice what it would be if you hadn’t gone.Report

        • RTod,

          I think the answer is to work your way through collge and pay as you go. The reason people take out loans is because they think college has to be finished in four years. If you stretch it out to 6 or 7 years for a BA and lower your sights on a state school it’s completely do-able.Report

          • To do this, you have to be able to find a job (that doesn’t require a degree) where you can make the kind of extra money to plop four to five digits in annual tuition. That’s easier said than done, these days.Report

          • RTod in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

            But I still don’t see the logic. If, statistically speaking borrowing $100k at low interest yields, statistically speaking, over $20,000 a year in income why is it a bad idea to do so, other than personal preference? And then why is paying for a house with a home loan instead of saving for a house ok?

            I paid my way through for a variety of personal reasons, but I can’t see that me having gotten a loan and taken less time to get it done would have been a “society-is-wrong” bad thing.Report

            • Will Truman in reply to RTod says:

              I would also add that while some can handle it, I’ve seen college careers ruined by people trying to do both at once. When you do that, you serve two masters. And while college is important, work is always more urgent.Report

            • The problem is that when you borrow for a home the bank knows you can pay the loan with your current job. With a school loan there is no guarantee you will have a job waiting for you that enables you to pay it back.

              Also, paying back a school loan after college means you have to immediately worry about income. No low-paying internships to get your foot in the door somewhere. It changes your priorities.Report

            • Jon Rowe in reply to RTod says:

              The fact that they aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy is part of the concern I have. With other areas of life, people get loans they should not, all the time. For those in over their heads they can discharge them in bankruptcy; but I understand the interest rates on dischargeable debt isn’t nearly as good.Report