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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 12/13/2010

College maybe isn't for everyone?

By Jennifer Rubin

For years now, both liberals and conservatives have sung the praises of college education, urging increased access to college and spending billions in aid to increase the flow of students into colleges and universities. But is this a good idea?

It's heresy in some quarters to suggest that this is a gross error and misallocation of resources. But a new piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (h/t Ben Smith) by Richard Vedder takes on, what he calls, the "scam" of higher education. His main point is that we have a mismatch between the education we are offering young people and the actual needs of the job market. The basis of his argument is found in a startling statistic: "approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the [Bureau of Labor Standards] considers relatively low skilled--occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less."

So Vedder makes the case:

[T]he push to increase the number of college graduates seems horribly misguided from a strict economic/vocational perspective. It is precisely that perspective that is emphasized by those, starting with President Obama, who insist that we need to have more college graduates.... [A]ll of this supports the notion that credential inflation arises from a perceived need by individuals to demonstrate potential employment competence through a piece of paper, i.e. a college diploma. Employers are using education as a screening and signaling device, at a low cost directly to them (although not costless because of the taxes they pay to sustain much of this), but at a high cost to the prospective employees and to society as a whole.

This is a subject I've discussed before with the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Ed Whelan. I asked him this morning if he agrees with Vedder. Whelan responded via e-mail:

"The net effect is that many employers insist on a college degree for jobs that plainly don't require college-level skills and that many young people who would be far happier and more productive in the working world waste lots of time and lots and lots of money chasing after a paper diploma. The even bigger losers in this system are the young men and women, disproportionately minority, who went to crummy high schools that didn't prepare them for college and who can't get decent entry-level jobs. The big winners in this system are the colleges, which end up with a massively inflated demand for their services."

This strikes me as not only an economic issue, but a legal problem. Back in the day when I was an employment lawyer, I worked on many a "disparate impact" lawsuit in which a minority or female job applicant claimed that a seemingly neutral job qualification wasn't related to the demands of the job but had a disproportionately adverse effect on a group (e.g. women, Hispanics). Isn't that what's going on here? Whelan thinks so:

"We have this crazy system in which racial quotas have been invoked to prohibit employers from using criteria other than a college diploma in making hiring decisions. But the college-diploma requirement also has a racially disparate impact. So why has that requirement -- which is far less connected to job qualifications than skill certificates and other criteria that employers can't use -- been permitted?"

Far be it for me to suggest a whole new cottage industry for plaintiffs' lawyers suing big companies for insisting that college education is a prerequisite for employment, but it seems we should do some hard thinking about this. Whelan suggests that we work to develop "alternative certificates that demonstrate actual mastery of basic skills, and allow and encourage employers to rely on those certificates in making employment decisions." And he also suggests, in effect, starving the beast of higher education: "Subsidize college tuition only for those colleges that keep their tuition increases below the rate of inflation."

This is rich ground for education reformers. But we first have to give up the myth that a college education is for everyone.

By Jennifer Rubin  | December 13, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  education  
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Posted by: 54465446 | December 13, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Richard Veddar has also written about the destruction caused by the horrible 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Griggs vs. Duke Power. It must be overturned if we are to truly address this crisis. Griggs essentially placed employers in legal jeopardy if they tested job applicants. Their cynical lawyers advised them that it might be better to simply hire college graduates and play it safe.

Posted by: DavidThomson | December 13, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

If everyone stands on their tippy toes, no one has a better view of the parade.

Posted by: tyro3 | December 13, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

OK, then what do we do to help HS grads with technical certificates find gainful employment?

here in the rust belt we have a generation of young men who thought that just an HS diploma was necessary to obtain a decent job in a local factory. Those jobs have dwindled and now we have chronic unemployment and cities that look like ghost towns.

sure we can scale back the college component of post HS education, or even return to a stronger vocational model, but where do the welders and CNC machinists work?

Posted by: skipsailing28 | December 13, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

DavidThompson wrote:

Richard Veddar has also written about the destruction caused by the horrible 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Griggs vs. Duke Power. It must be overturned if we are to truly address this crisis. Griggs essentially placed employers in legal jeopardy if they tested job applicants. Their cynical lawyers advised them that it might be better to simply hire college graduates and play it safe.
As long as the employer can show that the test is reasonable related to the job qualifications, employers are free to test all they want. For instance if the qualification for the job is being able to lift 50 pounds, but the employer requires the applicant to write an essay, that would be prohibited under Griggs, but a test to see how much you can lift would be perfectly legal.

Posted by: Frazil | December 13, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse


They leave the rust belt for starters, just like their ancestors left another place to go there.

Posted by: 54465446 | December 13, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

It is insanity that even administrative assistant positions require a college degree in many instances. We need a system that rewards knowledge and abilities rather than credentials. This de facto requirement that people must have a BA to enter the working world is a massive tax. If someone wants to give the middle class a real tax break they would start by a market-based overhaul of both health care and education.

Posted by: grabowcp | December 13, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Rubin's idea that there should be a law forbidding the "unnecessary" use of college degree to avoid discrimination is ridiculous. The problem is that the employers are basically not allowed to use anything else, except for the credit score and criminal record.

From a conservative/libertarian point of view, the employers should be allowed to use anything at all. I understand that asking people further info about their life may lead to gender or racial discrimination. Those instances should be prosecuted, of course. But if you make employers' hiring decisions **more** difficult, would make them hesitant about hiring at a time when job growth is already a real issue.

Posted by: Mhym | December 13, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

"As long as the employer can show that the test is reasonable related to the job qualifications, employers are free to test all they want."

That's not the real world. The burden of proof is on the employer and they could be forced to spend an incredible amount of time and money in a court room to prove their innocence. The jury may also conclude they violated the law and award the claimant(s) a large sum of money. Experts in employment law advised their clients to simply avoid the whole nasty process---and instead generally hire only college graduates for their halfway serious jobs.

The EEOC charges a so-called minority client nothing for its services. The lawyers representing the government have virtually unlimited funds at their disposal. Private sector entities must pay their own legal bills!

Posted by: DavidThomson | December 13, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

and many have left. Cleveland is now one half the size it was in its heyday. There are the fewest number of students enrolled in cleveland schools this year since the turn of the 20th century.

My town is about half full and people simply drive away every day. Yes, there are factories sprouting up down south and no doubt the migration is headed that way. But we still have the problem.

Frzil's analysis seems a bit simplistic in light of the Ricci case.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | December 13, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

The federal employment law and reg regime is a great example of why we need limited everything when it comes to the gub. Anything that is not precisely limited will expand to maximally harvest the available food.

Posted by: megapotamus | December 13, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

There is a worse corollary: the increased requirement that you not only have a college degree, but that your major is related to the job function, and/or that you have a graduate degree in the area of specialization.

The Dems obsession with college tuition is mostly about cultivating the youth vote.

On another note, one of the first things Mayor Bloomberg did to NYC schools was to elimate two highly successful vo-tech programs (that I knew about) in automotive repair in the Bronx. The decision was not swayed even when all the high end car dealers in Manhattan testified to the enormous benefit of having a steady stream of such well trained high school graduates to repair and maintain cars.

America has had thirty years to learn from Germany, and all we get is more lawyers and bond traders while college dropouts like Bill Gates proves the whole system is counter-productive.

I tell every young person frustrated by college they should become plumbers.

Posted by: K2K2 | December 13, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Blog chatter lately has been about statistics that marriage and social stability are better in the college educated than the high school diploma-only crowd. Wehner at your Contentions, Jen, just went over it again today. The worry is that the middle class, the backbone of society, is divorcing and falling apart.

Now you're telling me that the college educated don't necessarily hold degree-requisite jobs. Doesn't that mean the college educated just became the middle class (instead of the elite)? I may hold a Bachelors, but if I work as an Admin Asst, then I'm middle class. No argument.

So, even though college is overrated (and too expensive for what it can offer in the job market), the good news is that society isn't quite as far in the toilet as we feared. I may be working a low wage job, but odds are I'm still married and co-parenting.

Posted by: kafbst | December 13, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

The college bubble is as pernicious as the late housing bubble. Both were fueled by easy credit and the notion that participation should be expanded to almost everyone. Just as people were put in houses who couldn't afford them, students who can't benefit from a real college education have been guided to universities whose tuitions have risen as fast as housing prices just a few years ago.

Due to the vast numbers of unqualified, unmotivated students, academic standards have been reduced in many instances to below those of a good high school. The teachers only pretend to teach and the students don't even pretend to learn. The students go deep into debt to acquire a meaningless piece of paper, while learning little of any economic value to potential employers.

Universities, awash in federal money, build Taj Mahal student centers, athletic facilities and such to attract more customers. But the customers will soon enough realize that they are the chumps, that there are no "bigger fools" to overpay for what they haven't learned, and that there are no "college" status jobs for them. Eventually, probably pretty soon, the entire bubble will burst.

Posted by: eoniii | December 13, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

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