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A Misleading Portrayal of Higher Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

A recent Pew Research Center study found that 57% of Americans surveyed felt that higher education does not provide a comparable value for the cost. In addition, 75% of those surveyed believed that, for a majority of Americans, college is simply unaffordable. While some of this sentiment is certainly understandable given the current economic state of the country, the facts generally do not support this perception. The 2010 U.S. Census revealed that college graduates, on average, earn $19,550 (38%) more annually than those with only a high school diploma. Higher education (and education in general, for that matter) is under attack from all sides – politicians, average citizens, the news media, and even, sometimes, from academics themselves, all of whom seem to have  issues with the value of a college education. This negative opinion of higher education is largely fueled by the mass media (Claussen, 2011), but the mass media is taking some of its information from sources within academia such as Richard Vedder and Jackson Toby, for example (Donoghue, 2010). Here is an example of Vedder’s take on the value of higher education from Inside Academia.tv:

Vedder, one of the most outspoken critics of the current university system and author of "The Great College-Degree Scam" in the Dec. 9, 2010 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, claimed that the number of people earning college degrees has far outpaced the number of high-paying, white collar jobs available. He further suggested that the university system needs to be substantially changed; including a complete termination of government subsidization or more extremely, that perhaps the university system should be done away with altogether. However, other sources, such as the June 2010 report “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018” by Georgetown University researchers Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl, argue otherwise. These researchers found that there is a vast impending shortage of college-educated individuals, which will lead to an economic crisis by 2018 because there will not be enough qualified employees to fill rising need. This chart, taken from the report, projects the balance of educational attainment needed for the American workforce in 2018:


(P.14)

The research findings indicate that a majority of jobs available (62%) by the year 2018 will require some college education. Keep in mind that this is a projection based on data analysis and current trends – largely the same type of data that Vedder and his researchers at The Center for College Affordability & Productivity considered to draw conclusions that there are far too many college graduates saturating the job market.

So what is the truth, and why is public opinion so strongly set that the value of a university education is largely an exaggeration? The truth is that hard work and perseverance can make a difference in helping people escape from the circumstances of their birth, and college is one vehicle for pursuing that work. What critics of higher education are often neglecting in their analysis is the fact that there is a substantial benefit to be derived from attending college, not only for first generation college students, but also for their children (Engle, 2007). Second generation college students receive significant benefits from their college educated parents; better early literacy skills, nutrition, economic freedom to pursue diverse interests, greater opportunities for travel, exposure to different cultures, and increased academic support at home. In short, they are better prepared for college, can attend better schools, be more successful in them, and, thus, can achieve a higher standard of living than their parents.

In contrast to this point, Vedder, citing “some obscure but highly useful BLS data for 1992,” found that,

"approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled—occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less. Only a minority of the increment in our nation’s stock of college graduates is filling jobs historically considered as requiring a bachelor’s degree or more.” (The Great College Degree Scam, Dec. 9, 2010)

An article published by Bureau of Labor Statistics economist Daniel Hecker for the Monthly Labor Review Online (July, 1992) indicated that the data Vedder referred to indicate that approximately 20% of college graduates accepted positions that did not traditionally require a college degree. While that is probably disappointing to those individuals, it still indicates that 80% accepted jobs which were appropriate to their level of education. The article further reported that employers prefer college graduates for most managerial, professional, sales, and technical positions, often actively recruiting them for positions that have not traditionally required any higher education.

In support of this idea, further data from Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl’s study examined the 2018 projections of the types of jobs available to people with different levels of education:

(Executive Summary, P. 3)

According to these authors, not only will there be more jobs available for college educated individuals by 2018, but those jobs will be in many white collar areas, such as healthcare, STEM, education, community service, and managerial positions. This is a sharp contrast to the projected jobs available for those without any college education. Given the different conclusions about the future of American employment, it is difficult to see where the truth lies in this debate.

In all likelihood, the truth lies somewhere between the projections of both sides. Things are seldom as grim as people make them out to be, but it is the media’s job to report the most dramatic information in order to make the news more interesting. I think this is the biggest danger of the role which the mass media seems to be playing in the debate about the value of higher education. The loudest voices tend to get the most attention, meaning that the public gets no mediation of the information that filters through to them. This lack of critical interpretive ability, more than anything else, is a reason to think that college education is important for more, rather than fewer people. Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers believed that education is intended to create an informed citizenry who can think for themselves and intelligently consider both sides of an argument.

Some of the debate surrounding this issue paints it as a struggle between deciding if college education is a right or a privilege. Given the democratizing power of technology and lower costs of online learning, perhaps prioritizing free higher education is not as daunting a proposition as many believe it would be. And it is, in all likelihood, an investment that would pay substantial dividends, as have previous initiatives to make society more equal, such as the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements.