October 2008

Universal college education is often held up by politicians and pundits as a heady ideal of social progress. Economists insistently point out the “wage premium” for college graduates and infer that a main route to greater social and economic equality is an increase in college enrollment. Barack Obama, probably America’s next president, has put forth a plan for meaty tax credits  “for Americans who need a hand with tuition and fees,” because, as he says, “I do not accept an America where you can’t achieve your potential because you can’t afford it.” But does this really make sense? Do you really need a four-year college degree to “achieve your potential”? Is more college for more people really such a guaranteed ticket to greater opportunity and equality?

In this month’s Cato Unbound, the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray, who knows something about ruffling feathers, argues that the BA degree isn’t all its cracked up to be, and urges us to adopt a system that stops pushing everyone to get a BA, whether they really need one or not, and starts offering a wide array of certification exams that signal competence without requiring years of college and thousands in debt. Lined up to reply are economist Pedro Carneiro of the University College, London, an expert in “human capital”; economist Bryan Caplanof George Mason University, who suspects that value of higher education is more about signaling than the cultivation of skill; and education policy expert Kevin Carey of Education Sector.

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Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray draws from his new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, to argue against America’s obsession with the four-year BA degree. Murray argues that the BA “wreaks harm on a majority of young people, is grotesquely inefficient as a source of information for employers, and is implicated in the emergence of a class-riven America.” Murray contends that vocational training and a new regime of certification testing would provide a superior alternative to a college degree for many high school grads.

Response Essays

  • Economist Pedro Carneiro of University College London — an authority on the relationship between education, human capital, and wages — agrees with much of Murray’s argument, but questions its relevance. Some people may be making a mistake in pursuing a BA, but it’s not a very big mistake, Carneiro says. “For most of those enrolling in college, a BA has a good expected return, but there is some risk,” and not notably more risk than with other investments. The real worry, Carneiro argues, is that stagnation in college enrollments “may cause problems for [economic] growth in the years to come.”

  • George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan agrees with Charles Murray’s claims that not everyone is suited to college, that four years is too long, and that few career-relevant skills are learned there. But then what explains the wage premium for college grads? Caplan notes that Murray flirts with a “signaling” model but argues he needs to take it more seriously. But then why haven’t certification test already caught on, Caplan wonders. Why don’t employers already cut out the college middle man and directly hire top high school grads? “An unfortunate implication of the signaling model is that cutting the BA down to size will be a lot harder than Murray thinks. As far as employers are concerned, the BA works.”

  • Kevin Carey, research and policy manager for Education Sector, argues that the “mass production of bachelor’s degrees” in the 20th century gave the United States one of the world’s best-educated labor forces, and all signs point to the stunning success of mass higher education. Carey says that Murray “does not come close” to showing that the “BA is the work of the devil.” If an alternative system of certification testing made sense, Carey argues, we would expect to see it already, but we don’t because “employers value the bachelor’s degree.” The flexibility of the American system, which allows students to get a good general education without committing to narrow vocational training, is one of its strengths. And so many drop out of college, Cary maintains, not because they are unprepared or unable to benefit, but because the academic environment and teaching are often discouragingly low. “The bachelor’s degree represents the best of American opportunity,” Carey writes. “We need to make it better, not tear it down.”

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