This statistic, and others like it, form the keystone of the argument for college. But it is misleading for two big reasons. First, the pool of college graduates is brighter, more motivated, and better connected than the pool of those who didn't go to college or dropped out. You could have locked many college graduates in a closet for four years and they'd earn above-average wages. And if they weren't at college, they would have been learning in the real world, for example, on-the-job, self-selected learning, and in exploring, including travel.
Second, the million-dollar statistic is retrospective. Today, a far higher percentage of Americans have college degrees at the same time as college costs have skyrocketed, and employers are part-timing, temping, offshoring, and automating jobs that used to be done by college graduates. Today and especially tomorrow, a degree, especially one in the arts, humanities, or social sciences from a non-elite college, may well yield employment no better than could have been obtained with a mere high school diploma. Indeed, 60 percent of the increase in college graduates from 1992 to 2008 work in such jobs. And that assumes you graduate. Only 57% of college entrants complete their degree, even after six years! And what about graduate school? Don't get me started. If you're in the mood, read, for example, this. Or this.
THE CRISIS IN COLLEGE, INC.
Higher education, College, Inc., like all businesses, wants money. So here are some things it too often does, each of which shortchanges students and explains the shoddy student outcomes above:
• From Harvard to Hawaii, most large research universities' main sources of profit are research grants and other government and corporate payments, so that's where they invest as much money as possible.
• Such institutions typically spend frugally in educating students, a cost line-item. So, for example, they heavily use lecture hall-sized classes and online courses, taught too often by professors hired and promoted mainly on how much research they crank out, not on how much their undergraduates grow. Indeed, to my knowledge, few universities promote professors, even in part, on how much their students grow.
It's remarkable how easily we accept universities' self-serving assertion that professors who focus on research make better teachers than those whose main focus is teaching.
And for small classes, universities often use part-time, low-wage graduate students or adjuncts, which allows them to avoid paying benefits. That is in hypocritical contradiction to the rhetoric spewed in their courses about the importance of treating workers well.
• Colleges know that their customer base is not very price-sensitive: Many parents want to avoid appearing cheap with their children's college education, and the public perceives that if you charge more, you get more. So colleges can get away with raising prices well beyond the inflation rate. Or more subtle, many colleges convert discounts (which they prefer to call "grants") into loans, which, of course, must be paid back, with interest.