Is College Worth It?

March 16, 2011

Richard Posner and Gary Becker have posted paired pieces on their shared blog that address the question of whether a college education is worth it.  Their jumping off point is a recent column by Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning Princeton economist, who argued recently that “the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.”  Krugman believes that on-going changes in the structure of the economy are “hollowing out” the middle class; he argues that there simply aren’t enough jobs requiring a college education for everyone.  We should be focusing on changing the structure of economy and society as much as devoting energy to getting everyone into college.

Posner’s contribution — he has first at-bats on the shared blog this week — is entitled “What Is a College Degree Really Worth?”  Posner notes that Krugman is arguing that the market is ‘getting it wrong.’  If the market believed a college education isn’t worth it, the value of a college education would be falling; but it isn’t.  Posner (an economist and lawyer/judge) chides Krugman for disbelieving the market.  Posner also goes on to argue that Krugman may have too narrow a view of the worth of a college education:

“He may think that what a college education does is impart knowledge that the graduate needs either for his career or for the next stage in his education, such as law school or medical school. But it may be that the greater value of college lies elsewhere: in providing association with people of above-average intelligence, in imbuing young people with general work skills (discipline, working under supervision, following directions, being evaluated, basic writing and speaking skills, some foreign language proficiency), in fostering ambition, and in providing information to future employers about job applicants that enables better matching of workers with jobs. It is plausible that these noninformational benefits of a college education are valuable across a vast range of jobs and will enable the holders of those jobs to obtain good middle-class incomes.”

I’m with Posner on this matter: I believe that the most important benefits of a college education are to instill what we once called intellectual and moral virtues — that these are much more important than acquisition of knowledge or particular skills.  While I believe these virtues will be valued in and through the market, I also believe they have worth that will not be well measured by the market but rather in terms of life-fulfillment.

Becker’s contribution is entitled “Are Too Many Young People Going to College?” a question that others have recently addressed, too.  Becker disagrees with Krugman about the value of a college education: he believes we should be trying to increase the percentage that enroll and graduate.  He notes that this is becoming a male-centered problem, with about 60% of college degrees now being awarded to women.  He also urges renewed emphasis on the quality of preparation through K-12 education, and makes the following striking observation:

“Part of the American problem results from the high dropout rates from high school, including in the dropout rate students who only get a High School Equivalency Degree (GED). These dropout rates have remained stable at about 25% of all high school students, a depressing figure relative to those in other developed countries, where dropout rates are usually below 10%. The students who are dropping out do not get good jobs since the evidence is overwhelming that the pay of dropouts is very low, and their unemployment rates are very high. Not much support in these data for any “hollowing out” of job opportunities alluded to by Krugman. Especially disturbing is that African-Americans and other minorities are vastly over represented among those dropping out of high school.”



About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to Is College Worth It?

  1. Pingback: Character, the true goal | The Observatory

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