College Isn’t Required to Earn a Good Living

Two stories in last week’s ProJo have been jangling around in my head. Then Justin noted Deborah Gist’s “anger” over kids not wanting to go to college and, correctly, pointed out that college ain’t for everyone. I agree, especially when the value of a B.A. seems to be less and less while we pay more and more. The first story that caught my attention last week was that the RI Board of Governors for Higher Education raised tuition and fees by almost 10% at URI, RIC and CCRI, continuing a trend. Yet, Rhode Island isn’t alone, it’s a national problem. One cause of these increases is what’s called the “cookie monster” effect, says Ronald Ehrenberg, who directs the Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell University.

Colleges and universities like to grab as many resources as they can. We want to make ourselves as good as we can. We want the best facilities, students, resident halls and labs, so there’s this tremendous drive to be better, and that costs money….[For a long time] there’s been no check on this drive to get better, because the lines of students wanting to get into institutions keep getting longer.

As Andrew Gillen explains (PDF), colleges want more because spending more on students is looked upon favorably by such college “rating” organizations as U.S. News and World Report.

Schools generally cannot compete with each other by demonstrating that they provide a better education than others, because the outputs of school (learning and its consequences in a value added sense) are not measured. Since there are not generally accepted measures of outputs, and it is reasonable to think that high quality inputs will lead to high quality outputs, schools compete on inputs instead. Any input that is plausibly thought to affect learning (superstar faculty, world class laboratories, fancy dorms, etc.) becomes the focus of competition, and each school tries to have the best inputs. The result has variously been described as the Bowen Rule, the Ehrenberg Cookie Monster, or more generally the academic arms race, and it inevitably leads to an explosion in costs. Is it any wonder that when we measure schools based on inputs, which are costly, that costs continually rise?

They spend more, jack up tuitions and the portion of financial aid has to go up too. And the cycle continues. There are some solutions, as Richard Vedder explains (sub. req’d):

Reduce, do not increase, the federal student-loan programs that have raised both demand and prices. Give money directly to students, rather than to institutions, and restrict aid programs to those who are truly needy and perform well (40 percent of students do not graduate within six years; support should be cut off after four years of full-time undergraduate study). Substitute a system of good consumer information for most of the current accreditation process, which stifles competition. Make it easier for students to transfer between institutions, and favor lower-cost community colleges that are not as afflicted with the ailments described above. Develop non-university programs for certifying vocational competence — for example, tests similar to the CPA examination.

Which brings me to the second ProJo story from last week, which described a report by The Workforce Alliance that found that Rhode Island doesn’t train enough “middle-skill” workers.

In 2008, the report says, there were 225,350 middle-skill jobs in the state. Projections through 2016 say that 42 percent of job openings will be for middle-skill jobs, compared with 32 percent for high-skill jobs that require a four-year college degree and 26 percent for low-skill jobs requiring a high school degree or less.
The report urges the state to focus its work-force investments on middle-skill jobs.

Rising college tuition costs and a greater demand for jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree seem to point in a direction that comports with The Workforce Alliance’s recommendation. I’m not sure what “work-force investments” the state actually has at its disposal right now, but the recommendation is one that should be considered by individual Rhode Island workers (both current and prospective) regardless of what the state does. Robert Verbruggen (sub. req’d.) expounds on some of what Vedder wrote:

Of those who go to college, only 60 percent graduate within six years; at any given time, only about 60 percent of college graduates are employed in jobs that require degrees; and of these, many could have achieved equal or greater success in less time and for less money.

Yet, as the Workforce Alliance explains, there is a gap between actual jobs and the type of education we encourage. George Leef (sub. req’d.) explains:

There are insufficient alternatives to the traditional B.A. because our educational system is built upon the notion that the more time spent in classrooms, the better, and this makes it extremely hard for people to get a hearing for the case that college is often a poor choice. The consequence is that large numbers of Americans spend more time in postsecondary education than they need to and take many courses of no lasting benefit to them.

But, at some point, people need to educate themselves, Mike Rowe, host (and participant) of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs has made it his mission to spread the word about the nobility and value (personal and monetary) of hard work (h/t commenter EMT).

Rowe has also started his own website—Mike Rowe Works–to help promote his cause. “Work is not the enemy.”

Doesn’t it seem strange that we can have a shortage of skilled labor, a crumbling infrastructure, and rising unemployment? How did we get into this fix? Are we lazy? Our society has slowly redefined what it means to have a “good job.” The portrayals in Hollywood and the messages from Madison Avenue have been unmistakable. “Work less and be happy!” For the last thirty years we’ve been celebrating a different kind of work. We’ve aspired to other opportunities. We’ve stopped making things. We’ve convinced ourselves that “good jobs” are the result of a four year degree. That’s bunk. Not all knowledge comes from college. Skill is back in demand. Steel toed boots are back in fashion. And Work Is Not The Enemy.

Rowe’s website offers advice and links for people looking to get into blue-collar types of “dirty” jobs or the like. For instance, there’s a piece giving advice for new apprentices or one that explains how plumbers help us maintain civilization (and they make a pretty decent buck doing it) or how “brown” should come before “green.” We need to revitalize the notion that blue-collar or “middle-skill” work has value–personal, societal, monetary–even if it isn’t backed by a lambskin earned over a 4 (or more) year period at a college or university. That doesn’t mean we should dissuade people from striving for college, just that we should put all of the information in front of them.

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14 years ago

I agree. I mean, how many attorneys and business majors does the world need? Tell me how someone makes a living with their Masters in Fine Arts, or their degree in Philosophy.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
14 years ago

As above, here are a few examples. About 15 years ago< I knew a women who got a Phd from Harvard in astro physics, a field in which there is very low demand. After about a year she landed a job, teaching at Harvard with a salary in the low 20's. Her sister had a masters in English from Yale. That sister took a job as a "personal assistant" for a Hollywood celebrity, that paid about 50K. Another thought rising from the sporadic outpour of concern about the lack of mathematics majors. Outside of secondary enducation, that is a field with very low demand. So, few progress beyond a Bachelors. The same is true for marine biologists, very low demand; you had better love dolphins because you aren't going to eat very well. Not so many years ago a comon phrase among college graduates was "I'm working as -fill in the blank". That meant they were waiting tables while waiting for a job to open up in climatology or criminal profiling.

14 years ago

Rhode Island Unemployment Trends in Heat Map form:
here is a map of Rhode Island Unemployment in August 2009 (BLS data)
versus Rhode Island Unemployment Levels 1 year ago

14 years ago

And another culprit/problem in all of this is the employer. I’ve sat on hiring committees before where a bachelor’s degree was a requirement, but for no reason that I could understand. To me, experience is the most important thing. If you can do the job. If it’s an entry level job and we can teach/train you, great, just grab someone responsible and smart off the street. If it requires some sort of expertise, like being able to set up a Novell network and the applicant is someone who is Novell certified and/or been working with and setting up Novell networks for 5 years but without a bachelor’s degree, that should be fine. Who cares if that person took Geology and Literature courses. What difference does that make? Especially since now jobs don’t often fit the degree.
High school grads, get a job as an intern in a field you enjoy, get experience and contacts, maybe take some classes to fill in the blanks, but that should get you going.

14 years ago

Patrick, That’s another good point and one touched upon by VerBruggen: the current system allows employers to easily filter applicants. A B.A. now functions as nothing more than evidence of BASIC competence.

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