College for Almost No One

Bryan Caplan, with whom I often disagree, is quite right about this:

From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

The disconnect between college curricula and the job market has a banal explanation: Educators teach what they know—and most have as little firsthand knowledge of the modern workplace as I do. Yet this merely complicates the puzzle. If schools aim to boost students’ future income by teaching job skills, why do they entrust students’ education to people so detached from the real world? Because, despite the chasm between what students learn and what workers do, academic success is a strong signal of worker productivity….

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them….

Lest I be misinterpreted, I emphatically affirm that education confers some marketable skills, namely literacy and numeracy. Nonetheless, I believe that signaling accounts for at least half of college’s financial reward, and probably more.

Most of the salary payoff for college comes from crossing the graduation finish line….

Indeed, in the average study, senior year of college brings more than twice the pay increase of freshman, sophomore, and junior years combined. Unless colleges delay job training until the very end, signaling is practically the only explanation. This in turn implies a mountain of wasted resources—time and money that would be better spent preparing students for the jobs they’re likely to do….

In 2003, the United States Department of Education gave about 18,000 Americans the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. The ignorance it revealed is mind-numbing. Fewer than a third of college graduates received a composite score of “proficient”—and about a fifth were at the “basic” or “below basic” level….

Of course, college students aren’t supposed to just download facts; they’re supposed to learn how to think in real life. How do they fare on this count? The most focused study of education’s effect on applied reasoning, conducted by Harvard’s David Perkins in the mid-1980s, assessed students’ oral responses to questions designed to measure informal reasoning, such as “Would a proposed law in Massachusetts requiring a five-cent deposit on bottles and cans significantly reduce litter?” The benefit of college seemed to be zero: Fourth-year students did no better than first-year students….

… When we look at countries around the world, a year of education appears to raise an individual’s income by 8 to 11 percent. By contrast, increasing education across a country’s population by an average of one year per person raises the national income by only 1 to 3 percent. In other words, education enriches individuals much more than it enriches nations.

How is this possible? Credential inflation: As the average level of education rises, you need more education to convince employers you’re worthy of any specific job….

As credentials proliferate, so do failed efforts to acquire them. Students can and do pay tuition, kill a year, and flunk their finals…. Simply put, the push for broader college education has steered too many students who aren’t cut out for academic success onto the college track.

The college-for-all mentality has fostered neglect of a realistic substitute: vocational education. [“The World Might Be Better Off without College for Everyone“, The Atlantic, January 2018]

Caplan has been preaching this gospel for years. But he’s not the only one.

Katherine Mangu-Ward, writing in The Atlantic almost eight years ago, observed that

the phrase “higher education bubble” is popping up everywhere in recent months. This is thanks (in small part) to President Obama, who announced in his first State of the Union address that “every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.” But Americans have been fetishizing college diplomas for a long time now — Obama just reinforced that message and brought even more cash to the table. College has become a minimum career requirement, a basic human right, and a minimum income guarantee in the eyes of the American public. [“President Obama Is Not Impressed with Your High-School Diploma. Neither Is Wal-Mart.“]

Mangu-Ward is exactly right when she says this:

If we’re going to push every 18-year-old in the country into some kind of higher education, most people will likely be better off in a programs that involves logistics and linoleum, rather than ivy and the Iliad.

Vocational training, in other words. Which has languished, even as public schools have been dumbed-down.

Don Lee, writing at about the same time as Mangu-Ward, underscores the over-education — more correctly, mis-educaton — of America’s young adults:

[G]overnment surveys indicate that the vast majority of job gains this year have gone to workers with only a high school education or less, casting some doubt on one of the nation’s most deeply held convictions: that a college education is the ticket to the American Dream.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that seven of the 10 employment sectors that will see the largest gains during the next decade won’t require much more than some on-the-job training. These include home health care aides, customer service representatives, and food preparers and servers. Meanwhile, well-paying white-collar jobs, such as computer programming, have become vulnerable to outsourcing to foreign countries.

“People with bachelor’s degrees will increasingly get not very highly satisfactory jobs,” said W. Norton Grubb, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Education. “In that sense, people are getting more schooling than jobs are available.”

He noted that in 1970, 77 percent of workers with bachelor’s degrees were employed in professional and managerial occupations. By 2000, that had fallen to 60 percent.

Of the nearly 1 million new jobs created since hiring turned up in January, about half have been temporary census jobs. Most of the rest are concentrated in industries such as retail, hospitality and temporary staffing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. [“Education Loses Its Luster“, reprinted in Akron Beacon Journal, June 21, 2010]

But that’s not news, either, this is from an anonymous piece that ran in The Atlantic almost ten years ago:

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college. [“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower”, June 2008]

In fact, when I entered college 60 years ago, I was among the 28 percent of high-school graduates then attending college. It was evident to me that about half of my college classmates didn’t belong in an institution of higher learning. Despite that, the college-enrollment rate among high-school graduates has since doubled.

It’s long past time to burst the higher-education bubble. For one thing, it would mean fewer subsidies for the academic enemies of liberty.

Related posts:
School Vouchers and Teachers’ Unions
Whining about Teachers’ Pay: Another Lesson about the Evils of Public Education
I Used to Be Too Smart to Understand This
The Higher-Education Bubble
The Public-School Swindle
Is College for Everyone?
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
A Sideways Glance at Public “Education”
The Dumbing-Down of Public Schools

A Sideways Glance at Public “Education”

This post is based on a column that I wrote for my long-defunct weekly newspaper. The column ran in the March 30, 1977, issue of the paper.

The choice of a topic for this week’s sermon was difficult. I was torn between economists and educators.

Having been raised as a devout economist, I decided not to risk supernatural retribution by poaching on my brethren — this week. But I can’t resist repeating the old saying that a thousand economists laid end-to-end wouldn’t reach a conclusion.

I feel kindly toward teachers, mainly because it’s been almost 60 years since my last involuntary encounter with one. During the interval I have come to understand that the oft-maligned species pedagogus publicus Americanus is a victim of society. (“Society” is an abstraction and doesn’t have victims or do any of the things mentioned here. But this is my blog, so I’m free to blather on about “society” as if I were a demented left-wingnut.)

Through a complex historical process, educators have come to feel that their work is essential to the maintenance of society. Much of society seems to feel that same way, but the feeling is a conditioned reflex.

From the late 1800s through the 1950s, public schools augmented and reinforced the education that most children received in the home — an education not just in the three Rs, but also in how to get along with other human beings.

Many bad things got their start in the 1960s. Among the least harmful are bad hairstyles and terrible clothing. Among the most harmful — in addition to Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare “rights” — is the sharp rise in the numbers of working (outside-the-home) mothers. It was then, no doubt, that most parents came to think (to hope) that education is something that can be packaged and shrink-wrapped.

The fact of the matter is that schools can’t turn out well-mannered, well-spoken, literate human beings if the raw material they’re given to work with is defective. If Johnny can’t read, or if Johnny is a hoodlum, whose fault is it? The natural tendency of parents and school-board members is to blame educators, if not “society.” But that’s the easy way out — like firing the manager of a baseball team because he’s saddled with mediocre players.

Parents are supposed to be members of the education team, too. but how many of them think of themselves as such? (PTA meetings and parent-teacher conference have always struck me as rituals having nothing to do with teamwork.)

If lousy parents could be traded for audio-visual equipment, parents might take their jobs more seriously. Those who aren’t up to the job of parenthood could at least admit to their offspring that it isn’t an occupation that everyone should take up.

How can parents find the time to do a better job? Well, they’ll just have to get their priorities straight, won’t they?

Clearly, some parents don’t have enough time to be good parents because they’re working hard to put bread and Smart Balance® on the table. But they’re in the minority. Most parents are working hard to keep up with the Joneses, who are working hard to keep up with the Browns, who are working hard to keep up with the Smythes. It’s a real rat-race out there, but consider what that makes you if you’re racing to keep up with the other rats.

Anyway, if schools were no longer supported in the style to which they have become accustomed — that is, if the frills were cut off — parents would face lower tax bills. This would make it easier for those who are truly hard-pressed and want to spend more time with their children to do so. (The perceived need to keep up with the other rats is not a valid excuse for neglecting one’s children.)

But I have strayed a long distance from the subject at hand: teachers. There’s no doubt in my mind that teachers — and the teachers of teachers — must shoulder a lot of the blame for the generally abysmal state of “education” in America’s public schools. For one (big) thing, it seems that instead of imparting hard-won knowledge, teachers have become manipulators of “teaching techniques” acquired while satisfying the requirements of various and sundry “education” curricula. I could go on at great length about the failings of public “education” in the U.S. of A., but you can infer the essence of my complaints from the following list of recommended fixes:

Abolish teachers’ unions, which exist mainly to overpay and protect incompetence. (The latest case in point is illustrated here.) Instead, hire and keep (or fire) teachers based on demonstrated subject knowledge, not on mastery of pedagogical techniques.

Eliminate all purely administrative positions, except those that support teachers: secretaries and file clerks (or their computerized equivalents), for example. As with department chairmanships at many universities, the heads of school districts and principals of schools would be teachers who have drawn the short straw and must take up an administrative post for a limited term (no more than two years, say).

Require teachers to take standardized tests that reveal one’s IQ. No one may teach whose IQ is less than 120. That this requirement would eliminate from the ranks of teacherdom vast numbers of certain racial groups would be of no concern if — I say if — the aim of public education were to educate.

Pay teachers according to the market value of their degrees and specialties. (Degrees like B.Ed., M.Ed, and Ed.D. would be deemed worthless.) Thus, for example, teachers of math and science would earn more than teachers of art, history, and English. The latter would protest loudly, and their cries of “unfair” would rend the air. But let them seek employment elsewhere, if they can find it. The objective of such a policy wouldn’t be to penalize anyone, of course, but to play fair with the taxpaying public, and to attract highly-qualified teachers of technical and scientific subjects.

Finally, political correctness and its associated sins would be purged. Evolution, ecology, and other controversial subjects would be taught in a balanced way; that is, the uncertainties would be fully exposed to view. Likewise, there would be no more preaching about the supposed sins of white males of European origin, and a lot less “celebration” of various groups whose contributions to Western civilization have been minimal, when not negative.


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Related posts:
School Vouchers and Teachers’ Unions
Whining about Teachers’ Pay: Another Lesson about the Evils of Public Education
I Used to Be Too Smart to Understand This
Those “Dedicated” Public “Educators”
The Public-School Swindle

Let’s Make a Deal

Let's make a deal

The last deal negates all of the concessions made in the other deals — for those of us who will choose to live in Free States.

Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty

If there is a professional class that is almost solidly aligned against liberty it is the teachers and administrators who control the ideas that are pumped into the minds of students from kindergarten through graduate school. How are they aligned against liberty? Most of them are leftists, which means that they are statists who are dedicated to the suppression of liberty in favor of current left-wing orthodoxies. These almost always include the coddling of criminals, unrequited love for America’s enemies, redistribution of income and jobs toward less-productive (and non-productive) persons, restrictions on speech, and the destruction of civil society’s bulwarks: religion, marriage, and family.

In any event, spending on education in the United States amounted to $1.1 trillion in 2010,* about 8 percent of GDP.  Most of that $1.1 trillion — $900 billion, in fact — was spent on public elementary and secondary schools and public colleges and universities.* In other words, your tax dollars support the leftists who teach your children and grandchildren to bow at the altar of the state, to placate the enemies of liberty at home and abroad, and to tear down the traditions that have bound people in mutual trust and respect.

So gulled are Americans by the education lobby that voters routinely approve bond issues and elect legislators who promise to spend more on brick-and-mortar, high-tech monuments to educators’ egos. As a result, per-student spending** by public-school systems (K-12) — in constant dollars — was 2.5 times higher in 2010 than in 1970; in public colleges and universities, it was 1.6 times higher. Has education improved that much in 40 years? To ask the question is to answer it.

Key beneficiaries of the rise in per-student spending are education majors. In addition to commanding salaries above what they could earn if the private sector, given their less-than scintillating mental acuity (e.g., table 4 here), they have a lot of time off, good health insurance plans, and generous retirement packages. For all of that, they are sheltered from accountability by union contracts and the education groupies who serve on boards of education — for the prestige, for the connections, and often as a stepping stone to higher office.

But the education majors who populate teaching and administrative jobs in K-12 schools have not been the only beneficiaries of the “demand” for greater per-student spending. Given the ability of most educators and administrators to move between public and private institutions — especially at the university level — the rising “demand” for public education has fueled a kind of educational arms race that has pushed a large segment of the professoriate into the upper reaches of the nation’s income distribution.

And what do tax-paying Americans get for their money? A strong left-wing bias, which is inculcated at universities and spreads throughout public schools (and a lot of private schools). This has been going on, in earnest, since the end of World War II. And, yet, the populace is roughly divided between hard-headed conservatives and squishy-minded “liberals.” The persistence of the divide speaks well for the dominance of nature over nurture. But it does not change the fact that American taxpayers have been subsidizing the enemies of liberty who dominate the so-called education system in this country.
* Estimates from Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract 2012, Table 220. School Expenditures, by Type of Control and Level of Instruction in Constant (2009 to 2010) Dollars.

** Derived from spending estimates given in Table 220 and estimates of number of students given in Table 219. School Enrollment, With Projections.

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Related reading: Matthew Vadum, “You Subsidize Leftist Anarchy,” American Thinker, February 19, 2014

Related posts:
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy
What Is the Point of Academic Freedom?
How to Deal with Left-Wing Academic Blather
It’s Not Anti-Intellectualism, Stupid
The Case Against Campus Speech Codes
Lefty Profs
Apropos Academic Freedom and Western Values
Diagnosing the Left
Why So Few Free-Market Economists?
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy, Revisited
Academic Bias
The Higher Education Bubble
Undermining the Free Society
Intellectuals and Capitalism
The Left
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Affirmative Action for Conservatives and Libertarians?
The Public-School Swindle
Is College for Everyone?
Where’s the (Intellectual) Beef?
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy