Why aren’t more people going to college?

Brad DeLong writes:

Altonji, Bharadwaj, and Lange do not know.

The whole post is interesting, but from this I can only conclude that Altonji, Bharadwaj, and Lange have never taught Introduction to Composition to a large group of freshman in a public university in the United States.  Anyone who has taught such a class — or for that matter talked to anyone who has — will have some inkling why more people are not going to college.  Herein lie the roots of growing inequality — on the bottom side at least — and don’t let anyone induce you to take your eye off the ball by playing switcheroo and bringing up the (separate) topic of the growing wealth of the top one percent.


Wouldn't the economist's answer be: A university education is not convincingly worth the time/effort/money to a large number of potential attendees.

I absolutely agree that there is a huge premium for skilled labor. From my own experience (even though I went to a world leading university in my field) I would accuse universities of being remarkably poor at producing skilled labor. My decade or so of interviewing people for technical positions just reinforces this belief.

I believe university education is hampered by a bias against an educational program that appears to be to "vocational" in nature. Almost as though universities still see themselves as some sort of gateway to gentility. Graduates have a much greater depth of knowledge in general subjects (the three R's) but laughably little practical experience. Post-BS education finally seems to address some of that, but at the expense of 2 years more tuition, and opportunity cost.

Coming from rather humble beginnings, I know why I went to school. To get a job that paid a premium for what I was able to offer. I was very disappointed with what I received in return for a massive amount of student load debt. I worked (luckily in my field) to put myself through school, and found it much more valuable (and they paid me to learn!)

I can only remember one advisor in all my years at school who considered the practical goals of my education. I was in the Physics program at the time. One day he called me in and gave me this sage advice: "I don't think you are cut out for academia [where most opportunities in theoretical physics would be], maybe you should consider computer science." That conversation was the trigger that got me thinking critically about what the hell I was doing at school, what I wanted to achieve, and how in the hell I was going to get there. It was almost worth the tuition.

One of the commenters mentions expanding student loans. From what I've seen other forms of financial
aid have become more difficult to get since I went to college, which has resulted in increased reliance
on loans, which combined with increased college costs leads to a large debt burden on people just
getting started. This leads to a perceived need to pursue only subjects which will lead to an
immediate payoff(engineering, investment banking), and there are only so many people who can handle
those occupations. The desire/need for job-based education also causes students to go to vo-tech schools,
which have become increasing viable and cost-effective (my daughter is seriously considering one).

I wholeheartedly agree with Marks beginning statement.

Two years ago I had a interviewer for a job make the comment that "college weeds people out." It was his response to discovering I didn't have a college degree. Interestingly they offered me the job - I didn't take it. My boyfriend has a dual degree in chemistry and english. He is an accountant.

Its the assumption that people will go to college after high school. But high schools and colleges do an incredibly poor job of preparing the individual for what they will spend the rest of their life doing: working.

(also in information technology - but I figured it out without spending a premium on college)

"Anyone who has taught such a class -- or for that matter talked to anyone who has -- will have some inkling why more people are not going to college."

I'm sorry -- what is your answer as to why more people are not going to college? Apparently it has something to do with freshman composition?

"I'm sorry -- what is your answer as to why more people are not going to college? Apparently it has something to do with freshman composition?"

He probably means that most high school graduates lack the basic skills, including writing skills, to succeed in college.

Indeed, the problem is not that too few attend college, but that too few are prepared to take advantage of college.

We must invest more in young children.

I think the average person cannot justify the cost of a college education when sitting in a freshman English course, where most college freshman cannot justify waking up to go to such a course over the opportunity cost of sleeping an extra hour that day. A vast majority of people learn in US high schools that they do not need to learn anything, and can still graduate and get the job they want.

Colleges are already overpopulated. Anyone graduate from college and try to obtain a job in the finance or engineering industries lately? Its as hard as getting into a top 50 US college. When a significant number of college graduates cannot find jobs they want, how can we say more people should be going to college. The people who are not going may be more insightful than Altonji, Bharadwaj, and Lange.

MY apologies for my last post. I hate it when I make a post on education and it is full of typos and basic error like "in" instead of "on".

I blame my public school education instead of myself for my mistakes. I am a victim. :x

Anyone graduate from college and try to obtain a job in the finance or engineering industries lately? Its as hard as getting into a top 50 US college.

I thought jobs are plentiful for engineering graduates.

It's not that hard to get into a top 50 college. The ones in the 40-50 range accept 80% of their applicants or so. So if you apply to a few you're pretty much set.


Yes, I graduated from an engineering program recently (about a year ago) and tried to obtain a job and...it was laughably easy, especially for the amount of effort I put into it. Now I have an awesome job that pays me lots of money. None of my other engineer friends had any difficulty whatsoever finding jobs as far as I'm aware. Were you just completely pulling that out of your ass? Maybe my experience is exceptional, but I would have to see some numbers to think so.

I teach intro economics at a large public university... same as teaching composition. I bend over backwards to "go easy" in the intro classes and still nearly a third get D's and F's. Some don't have the skills, but more are just profoundly unprepared for college with respect to perspective, setting goals, being held accountable. In short they are immature. I don't believe the average public high school student is held accountable, has a chance of actually failing a course.

Why do they go to college? Good question. I think because that's what their buddies from high school planned to do, their parents encouraged, and because it seems like a good way to "get a good job." I would strongly encourage an average high school student to go to community college and work... to grow up a bit, see what's out there, investigate vocational programs etc.

I've never taught freshman comp. I have taught freshman music theory and ear training, classes almost exclusively taken by music majors. It's strange to look around the class in the second week, knowing that at least a quarter of them don't honestly belong here and more than half of them are unlikely to be sitting in the follow-up sophomore class. Keep in mind, all these kids are here because they have been successful musicians at the high school level; many are on scholarships.

But between lack of money, and trouble in my class, and trouble in the rest of the meatgrinder of freshman classes, and relationship issues, and wondering how the hell they are going to make a living when they graduate, and the issues of becoming an independent adult, I can count on half of them being gone in a year.

Hillary Clinton's fans - hardworking white Americans, white Americans without a college degree - if they are not old (i.e., before a large portion of the population was going to college), are laboring at low wages today because they didn't labor in high school, or never had the aptitude to begin with. The return to brawn is down. There's a return to skill - if you can obtain it, but not everyone has the gumption, aptitude, or opportunity.

Large universities are run shabbily and demand way too much bullshit from the student. In my one year at university, I was able to take two courses that were both interesting and in the field I wanted to study - the rest were requirements that bored most everyone to tears. The only thing keeping most students in these institutions for four years is the partying and the fear of something different from what they've had as a life for the last 12-16 years.

University should be entirely vocational, period. These people are adults - they can make their choices.

Just for the record, George Mason, Tyler's university, limits its freshman composition classes to 19 students. I have no doubt that part of the motivation is to game the US News rankings (which counts the number of classes with registration below 20), but still it does mean that one doesn't, there, teach "Introduction to Composition to a large group" at any one time.


Aren't the Belgian schools government-run? If so, then it's not obvious why being government-run is what holds the American schools back. It must be how they're run or something else.

Anecdotally, I teach philosophy at an ivy league school and have done a few intensive freshmen seminars. There is no noticeable difference between the American and non-American students, except that so far the very best students (in my classes, at least) have been American. That might have to do with the value of being a native English speaker for doing philosophy, but the foreign students are such excellent speakers of English that I doubt that's the case.

Next piece of advice: Hedging your bets is a remedy against the extreme downsides of ignorance. Wouldn't it be better to not be ignorant?

College is in one sense a failure and in another sense a necessity.

To address John Doe's comment, one of college's functions is to get you that piece of paper. In my opinion, this is how company's externalize the cost of recruiting and evaluating candidates to the taxpayer, the student and the family. Call me a cynic, but I do not get warm fuzzies when industry leaders decry the state of education. Thought they may be right, I don't think they are taking time to express humanistic concerns (even when they truly believe they are.)

The other function of college is that of supplying an education. In my opinion, the needs of the economy are changing too fast (especially in certain fields) for the university departments to keep up with the skills needed on the ground. Many people in the IT field don't need degrees, and degrees wouldn't help them if they got it. Many professors nowadays have never even set foot outside academia. Why again do we think they should have a handle on the skills needed for a non-academic post? That's not a slam. It is what it is. They have essentially specialized in the career of academia. I see that as a fact, and you must draw your own conclusions from it.

So, why do I think college attendance can be viewed as a failure? The future is uncertain. How realistic is it to invest four years specializing in something that may not be needed and you may not like? If on the other hand you could know beforehand that you would be successful at a passion, you are better off building general skills and spending a lot of time determining your passion, rather than specializing too early. Invest in things that have lasting value and a high probability of utility. To go to college in a field you don't know you will love aren't gifted at, and maybe even become a professor in, means you haven't figured yourself out yet. College does an abysmal job as "simulator of the workday." So, college will help you get the job, but you may be miserable in it. Beware, the reverse is also true. To attempt to become a professor without a boat full of credentials would be another kind of failure. Again, you must know what you want and how to get it. Tough on a high school kid. But biding time doesn't help.

So, while the value of the education at college is going down (for some fields), the emphasis on the credential may be increasing, especially for certain groups like H1-B's (and professors!). I think long-term the credentialling thing will attenuate too as alternatives arise and temporal effects like xenophobia diminish. Companies will begin to realize that the world is uncertain, and no amount of credentialling will erase all the uncertainty.

For my next installment, I'll rail against the posts who seem to be saying that if the overall student population were to get bad enough, the universities would be right to become empty ghost towns ;)

The university system needs a revolution. It needs to accept that teaching may be localized, but that the internet library is now universally available.

(Universities should not "hold on" with General Education requirements designed to keep butts in chairs (actually designed to apportion butts between departments))

Kids should have the option of using the new tech, and challenging every exam through to their Bachelor's degree.

Youtube the lectures.

"This leaves one obvious conclusion, namely that the system of K-12 schools in the US that are run by the government is the problem, not lack of funding nor IQ.

Sounds like it is time to bring universal K-12 tuition vouchers to the US, just like Belgium has. We should probably sell off our public schools while we're at it. Why keep them since by definition we believe they are horribly run?"

The public, government-run education system of the 40s, 50s, 60s, and yes, 70s produced some of the brightest of the brightest. I fail to see what merits there are in a privatized education system changes other than higher salaries (and you contend that throwing more money at the problem will fix nothing, so I'm particularly puzzled by your stance).

If you think the curricula in public schools are crap, push for change (like I certainly will when I have a child in the educational system). Rail against the "intelligent design" movement.

Johnny still can't read [or write]!


Your dream word processor would have to be good enough to spot "typical" errors such as misuse of to, too, or two, and other things like that. Not to mention "then" vs "than", which sadly makes it into books from time to time too. This despite the fact that book publishers are supposed to have "grammar nazis" that routinely flag obvious mistakes like that in addition to far more esoteric stuff that mere mortals would laugh at for hair splitting.

Effect and affect (as verbs) would likely be quite tricky for a program to "grammar check".

Finally, one gem I spotted in an online discussion was the poster who was unhappy at the sad state of are public schools.

IMO, it's a class game. I'm not usually one for conspiracies, but degree-snobbery has become the new acceptable prejudice. Having a degree no longer holds the same message of "You were smart enough and learned enough to be trusted with more responsibility." It now means "You or your parents had enough money or could take on a large debt. Welcome to our club. Now go build me a Power Point deck."

Floccina said:
"In 10 years will the ability to write a coherent sentence be important?"

Language does change continuously over time. But, if we presume that coherent thought is useful, then coherent sentences will be required. Language is, after all, our means of processing and communicating concepts and thus achieving learning and knowledge. Loss of precision in language must have terrible long-term consequences.

The current popularity of college education is a result of making education into commerce, constantly pumping it and pushing it into popular culture. To the target audience of consumption oriented students, it is a resort. They have a kind of love-hate relationship with it.

Posted by: Bob Calder at May 11, 2008 10:06:22 PM

The current popularity of college education is a result also of the disappearance of manufacturing jobs that used to absorb a large number of high school graduates for whom those jobs meant secure, decent-paying work until retirement. Now, those students often must choose between low-paying service jobs and going to college in the (in many cases, vain) hope that a college degree will be the ticket to a secure, decent-paying job.

Dave S.: "half the kids are below average. Below 100 IQ. The Army has decided that it really cannot make an artilleryman of someone with an IQ below 92, and that's their cut-off. Still 35% below that. So no matter how much education some folks sit through, they won't get to a place where they can do high-intellect-demand jobs."

Thanks for stating succinctly what I was about to write a long post about. Implications:

The law of comparative advantage means US companies cannot make money creating products and services based on low-skilled work.

Only a certain percentage of people can succeed at high-skilled (knowledge/cognitive) work.

Those people's lack of knowledge skills does not make them less meritorious.

But in a "meritocracy" defined by certain cognitive skills, they are rewarded as less meritorious.

Should we, as a society, address this inevitable modern syllogism via government transfers?

It's worked in Europe. Much more equality, less poverty, and no difference in long-term prosperity growth. (*No difference.* Look at long-term GDP-per-capita growth over multiple lengthy periods. Over some periods we're ahead, over other periods they're ahead. Small differences. Net difference near zero.)

Yeah, it's not fair and some people will cheat and skate. No duh. But overall, everyone's better off (except the very rich, and arguably they are as well, because the world they live in is happier and less strife-ridden).

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