"Of course there's a lot of knowledge in universities:  the freshmen bring a little in; the seniors don't take much away, so knowledge sort of accumulates. ....Abbott Lawrence Lowell.

Commentary of the Day - February 20, 2012: College - Is It Worth the Cost and Effort?   Guest commentary by Edward Carney.

If an  adolescent child asks the question, "Should I go to college?" there's little doubt that he or she will meet with a resounding chorus of affirmative responses.  It doesn’t much matter what adult answers the question, nor does it matter who the child is.  The common wisdom leaves no doubt: college is a necessary next step once one has completed high school.  And the common wisdom goes farther, specifying one reason for all situations: money.  Higher education, we are told, is a golden ticket to a middle class lifestyle.

It seems like an obvious conclusion to draw.  After all, of full-time, full-year workers, those with college degrees earn incomes that have been as much as 84% greater on average than those of individuals with a high school education or less.  (This gap declined to 60% at the height of the economic recession in 2009.)  But what seems obvious on the surface isn't always what's true.  Educators, of all people, should know this.

The statistical data regarding education and earnings is casually compelling, but does it really prove anything?  Much of American society, including college professors seem to think so.  A Georgetown University study from last summer looked into the economic value of specific college majors, and in getting to the specific question of their comparative worth it took about four short paragraphs to gloss over the general question of the value of college itself.  Citing the above 84 percent figure, they concluded that "Answering that big general question has been relatively easy."

I don't think that's right.  I think that what has been so easy has been assuming the answer, not deriving an actual conclusion from the data and a fair assessment of alternate interpretations of it.  I am always astonished to find that highly educated people and people actually working in academia utterly fail to recognize the fallacy of conflating correlation and causality.  At least, they often fail at that when it is convenient for them and the assumption of causality supports their conclusions.

If we give due consideration to the possibility of that mistake, then the big general question is not as easily settled as the Georgetown researchers would claim.  There may be no question as to whether better educated workers tend to make more money than their peers, but there is a question as to why.  It is not enough to observe the correlation and assert that income necessarily follows education; one must actually demonstrate that education is making people earn more than they would have earned if they had quit school after taking their high school diploma.

The Georgetown study, however, takes it for granted that each college major leads to a varying set of well-paying positions.  That is the language that it uses.  Majors are pointedly described as "leading to" the outcomes presented in the study, which rather transparently implies a fundamentally unfounded belief that the course of study is the direct cause of each instance of employment.

The study analyzes the employment outcomes for physics majors and determines that 19 percent of them go into computer occupations, 19 percent into management, 14 percent into engineering, and 9 percent into sales.  We may grant that many of these positions are related at least peripherally to a physics major's course of study, but it's quite hard to imagine that of the sales positions that constitute 9 percent of all jobs for persons with Bachelor's degrees in physics, every one of them draws directly on knowledge of that subject.  What's more, these are the only figures provided, but they leave 39 percent of surveyed positions unaccounted for, presumably because they do not fall into statistically large categories [Ed. note: Most of the majors surveyed had similar levels of bachelor's degree holders that were employed, but not categorized.]  If that is the case, how likely is it that every one of those small groupings of positions is related to physics and thus reasonably requires such a degree as a prerequisite for employment?

And what of unemployed workers?  If a statistically significant subset of that leftover 39 percent turned out to be unemployed, would the researchers say that studying physics led those students to unemployment?  But they don't have to make any such judgment, because in drawing their conclusions they only considered workers who were employed full time, on a permanent basis.  [Ed. note: A separate table in the report showed the unemployment rate for physics bachelor's degree holders at 6%.]  I can't see what purpose this serves other than to reiterate the presumptive nature of the study by suggesting that to be unemployed while possessing a college degree is an anomaly and can be removed from calculations as to the worth of that degree.

Admittedly, adjusting for unemployment may not make a major difference since in 2001 the unemployment rate for Bachelor’s degree holders was 2.2 percent while the rate for high school graduates was 4.2 percent.   Yet it’s entirely possible that this difference is just a function of less educated workers remaining the majority of the workforce, and it seems highly likely that the percentage of unemployed college graduates will rise as the overall numbers increase.  (The most recent unemployment data from January 2012 show an unemployment rate of 4.2% for holders of bachelor's degrees compared to an unemployment rate of 8.4% for those holding only a high school diploma.)

Regardless, the 4.2% unemployment rate for those with a bachelor's degree is nothing to thumb one’s nose at, since so many college students take their education as a virtual guarantee of employment.  With college education becoming increasingly and outrageously expensive, the question of whether the investment is worthwhile isn't settled just by reference to the salaries that one theoretically might earn if he lands a job.  Of equal and perhaps greater importance is how likely a person is simply to be employed at a living wage upon completing a degree program.

Such questions are unabashedly ignored because the answers are assumed before they’re asked.  Those assumptions are indicative of bias in favor of status quo perceptions of higher education, as well as of middle-class bias.  The data points to what incomes persons with degrees tend to earn, but that doesn’t prove that college is a means of social mobility unless it can be conclusively demonstrated that the same people would have earned significantly lower salaries had they not gone to college.

The alternative explanation remains that people from middle class or wealthy backgrounds have greater access to education, but also greater access to other resources that tend to lead to gainful employment, including investment capital, transportation, and social connections amongst career professionals.  We tend to assume that if a person goes to Harvard he has increased chances of becoming a billionaire, but what real evidence is there for that?  Harvard faculty and defenders of the status quo can assert that the university has generated five percent of the world’s billionaires, but I can just as easily assert that five percent of the people who had both the talent and the financial means to become billionaires happened to go to Harvard.

At base, either claim is a bald assumption.  But I would argue that the burden of proof belongs squarely on those who insist that college is the primary cause of financial success.  After all, despite the prevalence of that assumption, the mechanisms of such a cause have never been explained.  Do the best institutions of higher learning routinely teach people how to turn pocket change into millions of dollars in assets?  Is that something that we should expect of them, or want?  Would it not be better to expect our universities to teach people how to think, argue persuasively, and differentiate correlation and causality?

The constant declarations that children should go to college because it's in their economic interest grate on me for other very particular reasons.  Perhaps most objectionable is the fact that we have fostered an entrenched cultural notion that education is something that's worth being pursued as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

Thus, children are given to the belief that it doesn't matter whether they're interested in learning, whether they will work hard or provide anything of value to the institution.  Neither does it seem to matter much to employers whether recent graduates actually learned anything, just so long as they are recent graduates.  It's not about the education, after all; it's about the money.  And it's so much easier to make cheerful assumptions about what graduates earn than about what they know.

© 2012, Edward Carney.
Edward Carney is a freelance writer who lives in Buffalo, NY.  He holds a degree in philosophy from New York University, and he publishes the Breaking Point Blog.

The Irascible Professor comments: Mr. Carney makes some interesting points.  I agree with him that the value of a college education has been over-hyped as the only remedy for the loss of opportunities for those without a college degree.  I also agree with Edward that it would be very interesting to adjust the statistics on the value of a college education for economic background.  I'm not sure that any such study has been done in recent years.

The IP is reminded of Benjamin Franklin's oft-repeated quote that the only two things that are certain in life are death and taxes.  Prospective college students need to be warned that a college degree is not a guarantee of economic success, particularly in tough economic times.  It's a relatively good bet, but it is not a sure thing.  There are plenty of college graduates out there who are driving taxis to make ends meet.  Like almost everything else in life, going to college involves some significant risks.  Not the least of which, because of the steep rise in the cost of a college education, could be ending up in intolerable debt for the rest of one's life.  (The banksters went to great lengths to ensure that money owed on college loans could not be discharged in bankruptcy.)

Prospective college students and their parents need to be advised carefully of the risks as well as the potential benefits of a college education.  They need to weigh the cost, and the four or more years of lost income against the potential benefits; and, they also need to consider the alternatives such as a community college vocational program.

Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2012 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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