Is Higher Education Worth It?

18 05 2010

A small but noisy group of authors in the United States argue that going to college is overrated. These authors, most of whom are conservatives, say that many students who go to college today should not be there. Their ranks include Richard K. Vedder of Ohio University and  the political scientist Charles Murray, who once advanced controversial arguments about race, poverty, and the genetic determinants of intelligence.  They argue that the US is producing a generation of barristas with sociology degrees. This is an argument that has been heard since the 1970s, when a book called the Over-Educated American was published by Richard Freeman.

In today’s New York Times, David Leonhardt has published a very effective rejoinder to these critics: the hard data regarding the growing income differential between Americans who have a degree and those who don’t. This data shows that the differential has been growing since the late 1970s. (Richard Freeman’s timing could not have been worse and in event Freeman should have been more aware of the irony of an educated man writing a book to criticize education).

Leonhardt writes: “Relative to everyone else, college graduates have never done better than they are doing right now. In absolute terms, of course, they too have been hurt by the deep recession that began in late 2007. But they have suffered much less, on average, than workers with less education. They have been less likely to lose their jobs, and their paychecks have survived the downturn much better.”

What is true in the USA appears to be true in other industrialized countries. Let me quote an OECD report, Can The World Be Too Educated?:

“In all OECD countries, the average earnings premium associated with tertiary compared to upper secondary education is more than 25% and in some cases is more than 100%. Also, in those countries that have not expanded their third-level education, a failure to complete upper secondary education is associated with an 80% greater probability of being unemployed, compared to less than 50% in those countries that have increased tertiary education the most.”

We can argue about the relative merits of different sorts of postsecondary education. In fact, we need much more debate on this issue. However, the benefits of investing in some sort of higher education are an open and shut case. The real question is: why are so many political conservatives in the United States skeptical of higher education when the economic benefits of getting a degree are so obvious? I think that the real answer is connected to the cultural politics of the US and the fear that students who go to university may graduate as pro-gay, cosmopolitan, atheist feminists or something like that.

I have one other thought. US conservatives often attack the European way of doing things (e.g., socialized medicine). “French” is their all purpose term of abuse. However, Charles Murray, etc., seem to be arguing that the US should have a more European system of higher education. In Germany, only a relatively small proportion of young people go to university and the rest are funnelled into apprenticeship programs. The university curriculum is also pretty conservative with a heavy emphasis on rote memorization and tough subjects such as Latin. The US,which has a freer market approach to higher education, has thousands of colleges competing for the tuition dollars of students. The result is that even students with mediocre high school marks can get into some soft college program (e.g., cultural studies) and join a fraternity.

The University Dropout Rate

10 09 2009

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a story about dropout rates at U.S. universities. David Leonhardt provides some interesting statistics regarding the proportion of students admitted to university who actually graduate. At elite universities, the vast majority of students admitted will graduate with a degree within six years. However, at universities where the admission standards are lower, the dropout rate is far higher.  Leonhardt writes that while the U.S. “does a good job enrolling teenagers in college, but only half of students who enrol end up with a bachelor’s degree. Among rich countries, only Italy is worse”. He argues that the college dropout rate is a major reason why measurably inequality in the United States has soared in the last few decades and economic growth has slowed.

This article has generated a great deal of online debate, (also see here and here and here) with some people questioning Leonhardt’s rather bold assertions that the high college dropout rate is a _major_ cause of rising inequality and slowing growth. Clearly, a high dropout rate isn’t a good thing, but is it really what’s driving these broad economic trends? I’m inclined to be a bit sceptical of this part of his argument. Leonhardt appears to be using a bit of hyperbole in the interests of bringing our attention to what is an important issue.

As a professor at a Canadian university, this article raises several questions. (I was struck by the paucity of cross-national comparison data in this article, aside from the token reference to Italy at the start. I must say that this article displays the typical United States parochialism).  Anyway, I’m left wondering whether there is similar data for Canada that would allow us to estimate the dropout rate at Canadian institutions of higher education? (There is a definitional issue here, of course, since college has a different meaning in Canada). Which Canadian universities and provinces have the highest dropout rates?

The sources cited in this article include: Failure Factories, from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, and Crossing the Finish Line, a new book from Princeton University Press. You can watch an interview of the lead author of Crossing the Finish Line, William G. Bowen, by clicking here.


I’ve discovered some sources re the dropout rate in Canadian universities. The Maclean’s survey of Canadian universites contains data on retention rates. The Ontario Council of Universities provides information on both retention and graduation rates. In February 2008, the Ottawa Citizen carried a story about “first-year flameouts” and what universities are attempting to remedy the problem of low retention rates.