The case for college for all

I considered making this a one sentence post. Read this David Leonhardt article for the New York Times entitled College for the Masses.

Its a must read. So if you have limited time, read the Leonhardt article rather than what follows.

Leonhardt makes the best case I have read for why the goal of education policy should be preparing all students to earn a four-year degree. Not that everyone will be interested in pursuing that option or that the economy needs everyone to have a four year degree. Both are obviously not true. But that those who do decide to pursue a four year degree or more on average do better than those who don’t and that the option should be available to all, not just those who grow up in affluence.

In the article Leonhardt takes on many of myths/inaccuracies that have led many elected officials––including both President Obama and Governor Snyder––and other thought leaders to, as Leonhardt phrases it, “arguing that higher education is overrated.” Importantly, he adds parenthetically “at least when it comes to other people’s children”.

That, of course, is the point. Nearly all elites and thought leaders are preparing their own kids to earn a four year degree. The reason they are doing so is they, better than most, understand that a university education provides important benefits beyond earning a living and when it comes to earning a living those with a four year degree or more are best prepared for an economy, driven by globalization and technology, that is increasingly knowledge based.

Leonhardt writes:

All of these questions depend on whether a large number of at-risk students are really capable of completing a four-year degree. As it happens, two separate — and ambitious — recent academic studies have looked at precisely this issue. … And the two studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions: Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students.

Roughly half of the students in Georgia who had cleared the bar went on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with only 17 percent of those who missed the cutoff, according to one of the studies, by Joshua S. Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board. The benefits were concentrated among lower-income students, both studies found, and among men, one of them found.

Strikingly, the students who initially enrolled in a four-year college were also about as likely to have earned a two-year degree as the other group was. That is, those who started on the more ambitious track were able to downshift, but most of those who started in community colleges struggled to make the leap to four-year colleges. …  Perhaps most important, the data show that the students just above the admissions cutoff earned substantially more by their late 20s than students just below it — 22 percent more on average, according to the Florida study, which was done by Seth D. Zimmerman.

Leonhardt continues:

Yet the new research is a reminder that the country also underinvests in enrolling students in four-year colleges — and making sure they graduate. Millions of people with the ability to earn a bachelor’s degree are not doing so, and many would benefit greatly from it.

The unemployment rate among college graduates ages 25 to 34 is just 2 percent, even with the many stories you hear about out-of-work college graduates. They’re not generally working in menial jobs, either. The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else is near a record high. It’s large enough, over a lifetime, to cover many times over the almost $20,000 in student debt that an average graduate has, notes the education researcher Sandy Baum. College graduates are also healthier, happier, more likely to remain married, more likely to be engaged parents and more likely to vote, research has found.

Leonhard understands the college completion rate is too low and those who do not earn a degree are often left with “the grim combination of debt and no degree”. (For more on the completion challenge see my previous post.) But that doesn’t mean that there is a better alternative. As Leonhardt writes:

Many community colleges have even higher dropout rates than four-year colleges. And most people with no college education are struggling mightily in the 21st-century economy. … the United States is in no danger of turning everyone into four-year college graduates. Only about a third of young adults today receive a bachelor’s degree. The new research confirms that many more teenagers have the ability to do so — and would benefit from it.

“It’s genuinely destructive to give people the message that we’re overinvesting in college, that we’re in a college-debt bubble, that you’ll end up as an unemployed ethnomusicologist with $200,000 in debt working at Starbucks,” Mr. Autor, the M.I.T. economist, said. “That’s not a message you would want to give to anyone you know who has kids.”

Exactly! For the economy and for all of our children we need to be investing more in higher education and we need to design schooling that gives every child the foundation to successfully pursue a four year degree after high school if that is their choice.



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