Matthew Yglesias and David Adesnik both buy into the myth that universal college education is desirable. But it is indeed a myth, and it’s high time we admitted it. There’s simply no basis whatsoever for thinking everyone should get a college education.
It’s true that the returns to higher education have risen substantially over the last few decades. As a result, we should expect a larger fraction of the public to attend college. But a larger fraction does not translate into 100%. Like it or not, some people are just not college material; they would be better served by vocational or on-the-job training (or by a better high school education than our public schools provide).
Moreover, the attempt to provide universal higher education has the pernicious effect of reducing the value of higher education. Radley Balko explains part of the story: as the supply of people with college degrees rises, the wages of people with college degrees will tend to fall (or, more accurately, not rise as quickly as they otherwise would, since other factors like technological progress tend to drive wages up). But the wage effect is not necessarily a bad thing – competition is good, even (especially!) among people with desirable skills. My point, at which Radley also hints, is that the incentives created by policies designed to universalize higher education systematically drive down the quality of education.
Why? Three reasons. First, the policies in question typically provide education at far below its real cost. The low prices do enable some strong and motivated students, who would not have been able to afford an education otherwise, to attend college after all. That’s the upside. But the downside is that low prices also encourage numerous weak or unmotivated students to attend college as well. In my classes, I’ve seen both varieties – and while the strong and motivated students are always a joy and a pleasure to teach, I’m afraid the weak or unmotivated students are much more common. And while instructors do try to inspire their students to better things – transforming a weak student into a strong one, persuading an unmotivated student to try harder – there’s only so much you can do. Efforts at inspiration have rapidly diminishing returns.
Second, and relatedly, the existence of a large class of weak or unmotivated students changes the incentives of educators. Ideally, we would continue to maintain high standards. The students who rose to the challenge would pass; the rest would eventually drop out. But maintaining such high standards would mean failing a much larger percentage of students than is politically feasible. Graduation rates would be unacceptably low for the amount of money being spent. Legislators need a means of measuring the productivity of their higher education funding, and they measure it by “throughput” – the number of graduates produced. In order for a publicly funded school to maintain high enough throughput when a large fraction of students are too weak or unmotivated to pass, the obvious solution is to lower standards. And that’s exactly what happens. The mechanisms by which it happens are multifarious: students seek out the classes and majors that are easiest to pass; departments attract students by lowering the number or difficulty of courses required for their majors; individual professors weaken their course requirements in order to get better student evaluations; etc.
As I noted above, the upside to the whole story is the motivated students who really want and value a higher education. But in some ways, they are victims of the process just described. The standards get lowered for everyone, not just the weak students. If the most common grade is an A, as is the case at my university and probably many others, the best students get no particular reward from working harder, except maybe (in the case of the truly exceptional) the pure joy of learning. I’ve seen many smart students who slide by, never really being pushed to their potential, because they know they can get good grades with minimal effort.
Third, the existence of (near) universal higher education has an undesirable effect on the quality of high school education. Students know, because they are told by their counselors, that a C average is sufficient to get them into a state university. For many, that’s good enough, so they never bother to get better than C’s. They can party and have fun during their teen years, and then get down to the business of learning when they hit college. As a result, (1) they waste many of their most productive learning years, when their minds are most capable of absorbing new knowledge, (2) many reach college and find they can’t cut it – even at the lower standards described above – and drop out, and (3) they inflate the fraction of students in the colleges’ weak and unmotivated class, thereby contributing to the process I’ve just discussed.
The cumulative effect of all these factors is the progressive dumbing-down of higher education. It would be nice if everyone could be instilled with the desire and ability to learn, but that’s not possible, and pretending it is just inflates costs while diminishing the quality of education.