The Importance of College: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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As long as employers insist that a degree is necessary, it will continue to be

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These days, getting a college degree is a pretty good idea. Indeed, if you're someone who can get into college, going is practically a no-brainer. Those who go to college make more money and have more opportunities than those who don't. This argument has been soundly and easily made a number of times, this week by New York Times columnist David Leonhardt and earlier today by my colleague Derek Thompson. But saying that college is important in practice is different from saying that it is important in theory.

First, let's quickly summarize why college is important right now. There's currently a big demand for college graduates. Since the demand outweighs the supply (see Leonhardt), college graduates obtain relatively higher wages. Even though college is expensive, the lifetime earning potential it provides results in its being worth the cost (see Thompson).

These arguments are completely correct, but they're also completely irrelevant if a broader question is asked: should college degrees be important in the economy today?

Demand Does Not Always Signify a Need

Imagine an economy where people understand an asset to have some value, but get carried away into believing that it is worth more than it actually should be. For example, maybe homes are that asset, so people begin flipping houses, buying second homes, and purchasing investment properties all to cash in on the beloved asset of the moment. As a result, they take on more and more mortgage debt, through ultra-cheap government-guaranteed financing. But before long, the exuberance over houses becomes more clearly irrational and the market comes crashing down. Of course, this describes the recent housing bubble.

Now replace that asset with education. Imagine if employers, no matter what business they're in, begin believing that college degrees are incredibly valuable. Careers that traditionally favored college degrees now consider them mandatory and some that never sought a degree suddenly begin seeking college grads. That leads young adults to see a college education as more and more vital, as they want to be competitive in the labor market. So as the asset's cost rises, they take on more and more student loan debt to ensure they get a degree, through ultra-cheap government-guaranteed financing.

Of course, the latter story has not yet come to an ugly end, like the housing bubble did. But some people believe there's an education bubble being inflated.

Wasted Education

There's an obvious rebuttal here: but college is different -- education really is very valuable! Maybe, but just like in any bubble scenario, when you begin stretching reason to justify an asset's value, this claim must be questioned.

Do police officers really need a four-year degree to do their job well? How about plumbers? Certainly, that course in Italian literature won't do either much good. Neither will that anthropology class. Heck, even basic high school writing and math skills will probably be more than they'll ever need on-the-job.

But let's push this analysis further. What about more academic-oriented careers? Don't Wall Street bankers need college-level math? Don't journalists need an immersion in college-level writing? Even here, college probably isn't necessary. Few on Wall Street ever use math deeper than what they learned in high school algebra. And if you have adequate high school writing instruction, then news writing style is easily adopted on-the-job as a journalist.

To be sure, there are some trades where a college-level education is necessary. Engineering comes to mind. Some graduate-level degrees are also likely necessary, in careers like law and medicine. But most college majors have little applicability in the workforce.

College: A Very, Very Expensive Shortcut for Lazy Hiring

So why is there demand for education if it's so unnecessary? Because make no mistake: employers do want smart employees. You don't want to hire someone to whom you have to explain something three times before he or she gets it. Or worse, you don't want to hire someone who will never be able to grasp that thing, due to inferior reasoning ability. As a result, a college degree has become a proxy for determining whether a job applicant has a minimum level of intelligence necessary to perform a job. But with many private college educations exceeding $120,000 these days, that's a pretty expensive means for identifying adequate intelligence.

Unfortunately, this may describe all a college degree has become. There was a time when a high school degree served this purpose. But when high school standards declined and college became more popular, some applicants stood out above others as being more educated and potentially smarter than those with only a high school diploma. If the trend keeps up, however, a time will come when a college degree isn't enough either: masters degrees will be commonly sought, as the value of college degrees fall to be worth as little high school degrees are today, since so many applicants will have them. If this trend keeps up forever, perhaps we'll one day have locksmiths with PhD's.

At some point, we have to ask when the madness will stop. As college gets deemed more and more essential, it also gets more and more expensive. At this time, it still appears to a sensible investment, but that doesn't mean it is necessarily worthwhile in the broader sense. If the same person could be performing the same job without that degree, then it was a waste of tens of thousands of dollars, or in some cases even over a hundred thousand dollars. And that doesn't even consider the four years wasted, when a person could be developing on-the-job skills, instead of absorbing academic knowledge that he or she will never use.

Note/Update: A few readers have suggested that the situation would be better if employers didn't face potential lawsuits for conducting aptitude tests. Without that option, they instead must rely on college as a gauge of ability. Conducting aptitude tests would certainly be better than forcing people to waste the time and money of college if it's unnecessary.

Image Credit: kevindooley/flickr

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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