Oh No! U.S. Falls Behind in Sheepskin Race!


Forget college! This is pure snow. It's everywhere! Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is?

America is, once again, at risk. That's because the kids just won't buckle down to their studies, earn their degrees and set themselves to the task of driving the nation's GDP ever-higher with the sheer force of their state college Art History majors. At least, that's what David Wessell and Stephanie Banchero tell us over at the Wall Street Journal, and to prove the point, they've pulled together a bunch of data and examples that don't necessarily go together.

The key point Wessell and Banchero make is this:

Throughout American history, almost every generation has had substantially more education than that of its parents.

That is no longer true.

When baby boomers born in 1955 reached age 30, they had about two years more schooling than their parents, according to Harvard University economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, who have calculated the average years of schooling for native-born Americans back to 1876.

In contrast, when Americans born in 1980 turned 30 in 2010, they averaged about eight months more schooling than their parents.

This is bad, they say, because "[t]hose with only a high-school diploma had an 8% unemployment rate in March, roughly double that of college graduates, who had a 4.2% unemployment rate." The high school dropout rates, they point out, "remain stubbonly high." Well, yes — stubbornly high, but moving in the right direction, from 72% graduation in 2001 to 75.5% in 2009. Of more concern is the questionable value of those diplomas, but "more kids graduate from still-shitty high schools" would be an entirely different article.

Then the authors bemoan apparently stalled interest in four-year college degrees.

Among Americans who turned 25 in the 1970s, only 5% had less education than the parent of the same sex, according to an analysis by Michael Hout and Alexander Janus, sociologists at the University of California, Berkeley. Among those who turned 25 in the 2000s, 18% of men and 13% of women had fewer years of school than their parents.

But they say that 1970s college-attendance rates were pumped up by men seeking to decline Uncle Sam's invitation to tour Southeast Asia on the taxpayers' dime. They also concede "growing skepticism among some Americans about whether a college degree actually translates into a well-paying job." There is, the article admits, a wide difference between the average $120,000 per year earned by the possessor of a bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering, and the $29,000 pulled in with a degree in counseling psychology.

This isn't new ground. Seven years ago, the New York Times ran a piece on the supposed "return on education" that found that "up to a point, an additional year of schooling is likely to raise an individual's earnings about 10 percent" but "[t]he payoff, of course, varies by individual. Another year of education will not have the same benefit for everyone. And school resources matter as well. According to studies by Professor Krueger and others, class size, teacher quality and school size can make a difference in the outcome. They have found that the effect of better schools is most pronounced for disadvantaged students."

And while it's easy to get competitive juices flowing by pointing out that other countries are crowding their young (and not-so-young) into higher eduction, there's little discussion of the often low value of college degrees both here and abroad.

So, match the value of a Liberal Arts degree from Pretty Crappy State College against the lost time and cost of tuition and …

…you might well make the same decision as Mary Brown. "I wanted a college that taught me how to do the work, but didn't make me pay to take a lot of other classes in subjects that are irrelevant to my career," she told the WSJ. So she got a massage therapy certificate, paid off all but $5,000 of her student debt and landed a $20-per-hour job in the midst of a lousy economy.

Or you could follow the example of Alex Gavic, a 21-year-old featured by Wessell and Banchero who bypassed college to snow board full-time in Park City, Utah. He landscapes during the summer for money. Not to be unkind to Gavic, who strikes me as what we used to call a "lifestyle refugee" when I lived in the outdoor-mecca of Flagstaff, but he seems a living example of what economist Richard Vedder told John Stossel in these pages last year: "People that go to college are different kind of people … (more) disciplined … smarter. They did better in high school."

If you forced Gavic into college at gunpoint — at least, at this point in his life — he's not going to end up with that job-baiting petroleum engineer degree.

In Reason, Vedder went on to tell Stossel:

"There are 80,000 bartenders in the United States with bachelor's degrees," Vedder said. He says that 17 percent of baggage porters and bellhops have a college degree, 15 percent of taxi and limo drivers. It's hard to pay off student loans with jobs like those.

There's little doubt that fewer people should be dropping out of high school, and that more people should have access to high schools that are worth a damn. Beyond that, though, an expensive sheepskin of variable quality isn't necessarily the passport to everybody's idea of a good life.