Promoters of higher education have long emphasized its role in meeting civic needs. The Puritans who established Harvard were concerned about a shortage of clergy; during the Progressive Era, John Dewey insisted that a proper education would make people better citizens, with enlarged moral imaginations. Recently, as wage stagnation and rising inequality have emerged as serious problems, the economic arguments for higher education have come to the fore. “Earning a post-secondary degree or credential is no longer just a pathway to opportunity for a talented few,” the White House Web site states. “Rather, it is a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.” Commentators and academic economists have claimed that college doesn’t merely help individuals get higher-paying jobs; it raises wages throughout the economy and helps ameliorate rising inequality. In an influential 2008 book, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz argued that technological progress has dramatically increased the demand for skilled workers, and that, in recent decades, the American educational system has failed to meet the challenge by supplying enough graduates who can carry out the tasks that a high-tech economy requires. “Not so long ago, the American economy grew rapidly and wages grew in tandem, with education playing a large, positive role in both,” they wrote in a subsequent paper. “The challenge now is to revitalize education-based mobility.”
The “message from the media, from the business community, and even from many parts of the government has been that a college degree is more important than ever in order to have a good career,” Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at Wharton, notes in his informative and refreshingly skeptical new book, “Will College Pay Off?” (PublicAffairs). “As a result, families feel even more pressure to send their kids to college. This is at a time when more families find those costs to be a serious burden.” During recent decades, tuition and other charges have risen sharply—many colleges charge more than fifty thousand dollars a year in tuition and fees. Even if you factor in the expansion of financial aid, Cappelli reports, “students in the United States pay about four times more than their peers in countries elsewhere.”
Despite the increasing costs—and the claims about a shortage of college graduates—the number of people attending and graduating from four-year educational institutions keeps going up. In the 2000-01 academic year, American colleges awarded almost 1.3 million bachelor’s degrees. A decade later, the figure had jumped nearly forty per cent, to more than 1.7 million. About seventy per cent of all high-school graduates now go on to college, and half of all Americans between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four have a college degree. That’s a big change. In 1980, only one in six Americans twenty-five and older were college graduates. Fifty years ago, it was fewer than one in ten. To cater to all the new students, colleges keep expanding and adding courses, many of them vocationally inclined. At Kansas State, undergraduates can major in Bakery Science and Management or Wildlife and Outdoor Enterprise Management. They can minor in Unmanned Aircraft Systems or Pet Food Science. Oklahoma State offers a degree in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering and Technology. At Utica College, you can major in Economic Crime Detection.
In the fast-growing for-profit college sector, which now accounts for more than ten per cent of all students, vocational degrees are the norm. DeVry University—which last year taught more than sixty thousand students, at more than seventy-five campuses—offers majors in everything from multimedia design and development to health-care administration. On its Web site, DeVry boasts, “In 2013, 90% of DeVry University associate and bachelor’s degree grads actively seeking employment had careers in their field within six months of graduation.” That sounds impressive—until you notice that the figure includes those graduates who had jobs in their field before graduation. (Many DeVry students are working adults who attend college part-time to further their careers.) Nor is the phrase “in their field” clearly defined. “Would you be okay rolling the dice on a degree in communications based on information like that?” Cappelli writes. He notes that research by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers found that, in the same year, just 6.5 per cent of graduates with communications degrees were offered jobs in the field. It may be unfair to single out DeVry, which is one of the more reputable for-profit education providers. But the example illustrates Cappelli’s larger point: many of the claims that are made about higher education don’t stand up to scrutiny.