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College Isn’t Always Worth It

Walter Russell Mead

Across the Anglosphere, the elite conventional wisdom holds that a college degree is the only ticket to a middle-class career. But a new study suggests that for some students, at least in the UK, the the much-hyped ‘higher-education premium’ may be inflated or nonexistent. The Sunday Times reports:

Men who studied at any of 23 of the lowest-performing British universities went on to earn less than those who did not enter further education, research has revealed.

The findings will fuel debate about the cost to the taxpayer of universities with the worst employment records, because a large proportion of graduates do not repay their student loans.

There are of course differences between the UK and U.S. higher education systems, and (to our knowledge) no identical study has been conducted here. But the economist Allison Schrager has crunched comparable numbers on American students and found that, “for every degree short of a graduate degree, there’s a decent chance that a good high school graduate will out-earn you.” In other words, it’s not unlikely that marginal students in marginal programs—in the U.S. as well as the UK—would do better to avoid student loans, avoid the opportunity cost, and seek technical or vocational training. The idea that everybody needs four or even two years of academic instruction after high school is madness. When so many students leave high school with something much less than an adequate proficiency in key subjects, it makes much more sense to fix the fundamentals of the system than to tack on more and more years at the end.

Academics and professionals who loved school and did well in it have a hard time understanding that not everybody wants, needs or enjoys drawn-out academic instruction—and that these people can and do make worthwhile contributions to the common good. An education system that made more room for vocational programs in areas like carpentry, plumbing, med tech, and practical nursing would waste less time trying to pound round pegs into square holes.

When the Lord God made the human race, He gave different skills and talents to different people—and He doesn’t think a Harvard PhD economist or a UC Berkeley physicist is a better example of His handiwork than a good automobile mechanic who never finished high school. The hotel maid who puts in an honest day’s work and spends her time and talent raising her kids and taking care of people around her is probably much closer to living a full and rich human life than the a high-flying deal maker at an investment bank or the star litigator at a prestigious law firm.

Everybody who really wants a college education should have a shot at it, and one of the glories of the American system is that people in their 30s and 40s and even later in life can go back to school and get a degree when and if that makes sense for them. So creating more opportunities for vocational programs is not about denying access to traditional bachelor’s degrees. But we need to do a better job of meeting the practical needs of the sizable percentage of the population that doesn’t benefit very much from sitting in classrooms year after year, and giving them the chance to acquire the skills they will need to make a decent living doing honest work at a job they enjoy.

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