The College Degree Isn’t the Problem; the High School Diploma is
Sen. Howard Stephenson, with whom I often disagree, made some waves when he declared that college might be a waste of time. On the surface, it seems like a silly argument. College graduates still earn more than non-graduates and many skilled job positions still require a degree. That said, the return on investment has been getting much longer and many skilled professional without degrees often have just as much earning potential. I think this opens up a broader discussion on the real value of a college degree and a high school diploma.
One of the biggest problems is the pace at which tuition has been increasing. Averaged out, it’s been increasing at a rate of 8% per year, much higher than the rate of inflation. At the same time, there don’t appear to be any good causes for this increase. There is ample competition for students, a wide variety of public and private institutions, and technological innovations that allow for cheaper methods of providing the same instruction.
Both Cornell University and Freakonomics lay the blame on old-fashioned bloat. In addition to steadily rising salaries with professors, the number of amenities and associated support staff has exploded. None of these actually increases the quality of the education, but it sure does balloon the costs to the tune of twice inflation. While it extends the break-even point on the investment, it doesn’t really benefit students in any other way.
A better question we should be asking is why so many jobs require college degrees. In the IT world, many positions require real-world experience or professional certifications from organizations like CompTIA, Microsoft, or RedHat. Often these job listings will say “bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience”. Given the option between spending 5 years earning money or 5 years paying money to be in the same place professionally, which would you choose? The IT market, though, is an anomaly. Many employers require both the degree and the experience. In reality, the experience is likely much more valuable.
A look at the wages for both high school and college graduates is very revealing on this issue. The US Department of Education shows that the real wages for a high school graduate has fallen about four times as much as for those with a bachelor’s degree. The conventional thinking is that this is an endorsement of a bachelor’s degree, but that reads the facts wrong: it’s a damning indictment of the worthlessness of a high school diploma. If the purpose of our K-12 system is to prepare kids for entry-level jobs, we have failed miserably.
I think the core problem is that our system is structurally built around the economy of the 60’s and 70’s, a time when a high school diploma meant a job in the local factory making a decent wage and, for the bright ones, a trip to college to go on to a specialized field. This model doesn’t work any more. The manufacturing sector replaced people with machines just as the agricultural sector had in the prior half-century. Those factories still play a huge role, but they require special training to operate the machines. The explosive growth of the retail and healthcare sectors heaps on the same requirements; nurses, accountants, and mid-level managers all require some kind of specialized training beyond what the public school system currently provides. The economy shifted, but the schools didn’t, at least not here.
Sweden takes an entirely different approach. For the last three years of what would be high school, students are placed in either a higher education prep track or a vocational track. This recognizes the importance of leaving a K-12 system with appreciable skills even for those who aren’t cut out for college. Many districts, however, have limited vocational systems that couldn’t possibly meet demand. They are also often stigmatized as being for the “dumb” kids, never mind that a good electrician can out-earn many with a 4-year degree. This lack of availability coupled with social stigma leads too many students into a college track that they may not enjoy or be cut out for.
And really, many districts have done a good job at trying to correct the college side of things. Concurrent enrollment programs have made great strides in preparing the college-bound. That said, it still comes at the expense of the rest of the students and is a bit of a punt to the local universities and colleges. In rural areas, it’s often not even an option as their is not a physical presence and broadband options are too weak to enable online classes.
Do I have any hard-and-fast solutions? No, not really. But I do have a growing sense that sooner or later, something’s gotta give. The track we’re on right now isn’t sustainable.