My mentor from college, a retired colonel and one of the most brilliant men I know, taught me about the main reasons why societies fail. One such reason was creating a problem and failing to recognize it as such. To illustrate the point, he told the story of the Easter Islanders who cut down tree after tree to make huts, boats, and many other things that greatly benefited their community. The day soon came, however, when there were no more trees left on the island. They had cut them all down, but no one had given a thought to this eventuality, for they were too concerned with things in the here and now.
Such is the case with higher education. The issue of which I write is two-fold: 1) We are making the college or university experience too easy to gain entry to, and too easy to graduate from, and 2) we do this without sufficient concern for the fact that there are a decreasing number of jobs that justify having gone to college in the first place. It is simple supply and demand economics. There is more supply – in this case the college graduate – than there is demand – in this case the job market. Supply is up, demand is down.
A recent paper by Professor Richard Vedder points out that college graduates are filling positions that, historically, have never before required a college degree. They may have once required some sort of technical degree, as in the case of the rise in college grads becoming dental technicians, but in many cases this is not evident. Prof. Vedder points out that in 1970, less than 1% of all taxi drivers in the U.S. held a college degree, whereas now the figure is at 15%. If you hop in a cab in Times Square, there is a 1-in-7 chance that your driver is in possession of a full four-year degree.
As well, a recent article in the Daily Beast echoes this sentiment, pointing out that the economy simply cannot keep up with the rash of new college graduates, validating the claims made by Prof. Vedder. It is a truth that is mathematically backed up, yet politically inconvenient, as it conflicts with the sensibilities of the “College-for-All” crusade. You see, there has been a push in recent years to open wide the gates of academia in order to hand out… err.. “award” as many college degrees as possible. The reasoning behind this push is that more college degrees must equate to a more highly educated, and therefore a more intelligent, capable, and productive workforce–a workforce that is able not only to compete in the global job market, but indeed to take the reins. All of this rests on the presupposition that these college degrees are being earned, that they are being bought through the fires of academic trial and tribulation.
Sadly, this too often is not the case.
Policy makers and college administrators alike are so eager to boost graduation rates that they appear sometimes ready to remove whatever obstacles stand in their way, all in the name of progress. Cast aside are the concerns of the potential employers who are increasingly vocal about recent graduates (here, here, here, here, here, and here –- just to present a few).
It does not have to be this way.
This “College-for-All” sentiment is but a reflection of the political environment by which it is surrounded. Just as so many believe that the answer to how education can be improved in the U.S. is to increase funding thereto, so too most believe that the best way to put the U.S. back at the head of the pack in terms of global education and productivity is to increase the number of graduates. The truth needs to be stated clearly: neither of these precepts is true. It is this line of thinking that has led our country into so many of the pitfalls from which we are still groping for a way out.
The number of college graduates means nothing if they are not undertaking meaningful work. One college graduate who is well-prepared to contribute to the workforce is far greater than ten who are not. This problem of which I earlier wrote, that there are too many graduates hitting the job market and not enough jobs to satisfy their employment needs, will only get worse. The economic effects of this–which would require a separate essay–carry with them profound ramifications that certainly will not please anyone if they come to pass.
We seem to have lost whatever gift of foresight we once had. This is our chance to exercise some wisdom. Let us focus on increasing the quality of graduates, rather than the quantity.