Education as an Investment.

The median survival rate for metastatic breast cancer is three years from time of diagnosis. However, as any recently-diagnosed patient—or their desperate SO—will tell you, statistics are agglomerations of individual cases. They don’t tell you YOUR fate. It’s the same with college degrees. On average, over a lifetime people with college degrees earn a lot more than do people without college degrees. That doesn’t mean that all college graduates earn more than all non-graduates. That also doesn’t mean that the extra income earned is worth the cost of getting the degree.[1] Peter Cappelli, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, elaborates on a theme he first sketched out in a WSJ Op-Ed in November 2013.[2] Cappelli’s deeply-researched book addresses a raft of issues of the day.

The “Great Recession” is but the latest shock to the American economy (and the “American Dream” come to that). It led students to focus on career-oriented majors as defined by Labor Department projections, rather than a broad liberal arts education; their parents usually resolutely back them up in this choice. This has been very distressing to broad liberal arts educators and to the skinny ones as well. Cappelli warns that many of these majors are so knowledge-specific and so likely to be drowned in new graduates that students are actually doing themselves long-term harm. For example, 30 percent of recent engineering graduates couldn’t get jobs in engineering. Capelli argues that liberal arts degrees often are actually a better preparation for adapting to unexpected developments than are the loud-mouthed “career” majors.

American students (and their families in equal measure) pay about four times as much for a college degree as do students in other Western industrial countries. A lot of this is financed through debt, rather than from savings. Senator Bernie Sanders has floated the idea of a free college education at America’s public colleges. Both those who graduate and those who fail to graduate can find themselves burdened by a lot of debt. Naturally, consumers have become enraged at the sellers. Conservatives have argued that the expansion of financial aid and borrowing by students has just allowed colleges to raise their tuition. Critics rightly point out that the administrative component of college staffs have grown 50 percent faster than have instructional staff. As presented to the public this fact conjures visions of Rolex-adorned Assistant Vice Deans for Something-or-Other. In fact, most of the growth is in support staff dealing with the reality that Johnny can’t read, claims he will go to pieces under the pressure of college, and only came here to play baseball anyway.[3]

One of the reasons that college educated people do better than the others is employer-bias in hiring. Currently, at least 40 percent of graduates end up in jobs that don’t require a degree. Employers still preferred them to people without degrees. (Nearly 60 percent of parking lot attendants have some college.[4]) What happened to the other job applicants? They got shoved farther down the income ladder, displacing teen-agers just trying to get some work experience and pocket money. This displacement may be part of the explanation for the mounting drive for a higher minimum wage.

Above all, there is an evident mismatch between American education and the economy.

[1] Peter Cappelli, Will College Pay Off? A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You will Ever Make (PublicAffairs, 2015).

[2] See “Major Uncertainty,” November 2013.

[3] See the Cardale Jones Twitter mishagosh for an extreme example of the latter.

[4] They can’t all be living hand-to-mouth while they write the Great American Novel.

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