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New Yorker Writer John Cassidy Questions A Firmly Held Conviction About College

September 22, 2015

I just finished reading John Cassidy’s thought provoking essay in the September 7, 2015 New Yorker titled “College Calculus: What is the REAL Value of Higher Education”, In this piece Cassidy examines the real numbers behind the conviction held by all Americans that getting a better education is essential if one wants to get ahead. What Cassidy finds is that since 2000 there are fewer and fewer jobs that command high compensation and require a college degree. This means that as more and more students earn post-secondary degrees it is making the college degree a filtering device for all forms of employment… from baristas to convenience store clerks. Citing a study by economist Kenneth Arrow on this issue Cassidy writes:

If almost everybody has a college degree, getting one doesn’t differentiate you from the pack. To get the job you want, you might have to go to a fancy (and expensive) college, or get a higher degree. Education turns into an arms race, which primarily benefits the arms manufacturers—in this case, colleges and universities.

In recent years, more jobs have come to demand a college degree as an entry requirement, even though the demands of the jobs haven’t changed much. Some nursing positions are on the list, along with jobs for executive secretaries, salespeople, and distribution managers. According to one study, just twenty per cent of executive assistants and insurance-claims clerks have college degrees but more than forty-five per cent of the job openings in the field require one. “This suggests that employers may be relying on a B.A. as a broad recruitment filter that may or may not correspond to specific capabilities needed to do the job,” the study concluded.

Earlier in the essay Cassidy contrasts John Dewey’s purpose for college, to “...make people better citizens, with enlarged moral imaginations“, with today’s view of the need for college, which the White House web site cites as “…a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.” After undercutting the idea that preparing for a specific job is possible given the rapid changes in technology in today’s world and the likely obsolescence of any specific skills a student develops, Cassidy concludes his essay with this:

Being more realistic about the role that college degrees play would help families and politicians make better choices. It could also help us appreciate the actual merits of a traditional broad-based education, often called a liberal-arts education, rather than trying to reduce everything to an economic cost-benefit analysis. “To be clear, the idea is not that there will be a big financial payoff to a liberal arts degree,” Cappelli writes. “It is that there is no guarantee of a payoff from very practical, work-based degrees either, yet that is all those degrees promise. For liberal arts, the claim is different and seems more accurate, that it will enrich your life and provide lessons that extend beyond any individual job. There are centuries of experience providing support for that notion.”

In the end, Dewey’s thinking is on point… but even Bernie Sanders is selling the notion of education as a means to economic pay-off. Alas, it will be a long time before education as a means of enrichment will be the basis for investing more in schooling.

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