A conundrum: going to college does not lead to gains in skill and knowledge for many students, and yet college appears to lead to a huge earnings boost on average for those who have gone. How can we explain that?
The main reason is that credential inflation has spread over the employment landscape like kudzu spreading over a field. Owing to decades of pushing college as the only path to success, we have so many graduates that employers often screen out anyone without a college degree — even for jobs that do not call for anything beyond basic trainability. We have reached the point where, as a New York Times headline proclaimed earlier this year, It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk.
Therefore, college appears to confer a big earnings premium not because all graduates become so productive, but rather because fewer and fewer good career paths remain open to people who don’t have college credentials. Increasingly, those who don’t have degrees are blocked from entry-level jobs they could easily learn, confining them to the shrinking segment of the labor market where credentials don’t matter.
Thus, the “college earnings premium” is mostly a mirage caused by our severe case of credentialitis.
In his 1997 book “How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning,” David Labaree excoriated the credentials mania that now grips the United States, which causes people to pursue college degrees not for learning, but because they’ve become necessary for access to the labor market. He wrote, “The result is a spiral of credential inflation, for as each level of education in turn gradually floods with a crowd of ambitious consumers, individuals have to keep seeking higher levels of credentials in order to move a step ahead of the pack. In such a system, nobody wins.”
You won’t find a reference to that book in the “Education Pays” report; Labaree’s insights don’t harmonize with the authors’ happy song.
In the attempt to keep college enrollments growing, “Education Pays” throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Besides the misleading claims about the college earnings premium, it also declares that college lowers your chances of becoming unemployed, raises your job satisfaction, gives you improved social mobility, lowers your chance of needing public assistance and confers a batch of health benefits, such as more inclination to exercise and not to smoke.
Overwhelmingly, those are mere correlations. An individual who is overweight and smokes shouldn’t go to college thinking that doing so will solve his or her problems. Tellingly, the authors overlook the fact that college causes some students to adopt bad behaviors they probably otherwise wouldn’t have due to stress and a tendency to work for short-term goals over long-term outcomes.
College is no panacea. It has high costs and, for many people, negligible benefits. Promoting it like a magic elixir is irresponsible.
This series was adapted from an article originally published by Forbes.
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