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Bill Tierney

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Twelve Inconvenient Truths—III

*This post is the third in a series on Richard Vedder’s Twelve Inconvenient Truths About Higher Education.

I have predicted that this charge would grow and it is:

College Degrees Don’t Guarantee Success

Vedder tells us that we have 17 million college graduates who are working in jobs that require less than a college degree. By example, we learn that we have 16,000 parking lot attendants with bachelor’s degrees. Therefore, he concludes we need fewer people going to college to get a degree.

Not so fast.

Let’s assume his numbers are correct. How many of those parking lot attendants are numerical mistakes? A student who is getting a Ph.D. is working as a parking lot attendant, for example, because she wants to earn some money in a job where she can read. A student takes the job as casual employment en route to joining the Peace Corps. Let’s assume, however, that at least half of those 16,000 are working as parking lot attendants because they could not find any other work. Does that mean that we have too many people getting a credential?

What then should I tell a low-income 12th grade student of average intelligence (who also happens to be Latino)? Vedder’s message would be, “Get thee to the parking lot!” But we know a whole bunch of other stuff, too. We know that students with bachelor’s degrees earn a lot more money over their careers than students with a high school degree. We know that unemployment for students with only high school degrees is much higher than for students with college degrees.

We also know that other jobs are going for the asking. In California, we have to import workers from China and India for STEM fields because we do not have enough students graduating who are proficient in those areas.

Vedder’s point here is silly if it were not so serious. Is there a mismatch between what students study and what jobs we need? Yes. Should we have a closer link between what is learned in college and what sorts of skills are needed in the workforce? Yes. But to make those points does not mean that we need fewer college graduates; we need a more synthetic relationship between what is learned in college and what is needed in the workforce. And I don’t just mean instrumental activities. We need bright creative people to fill jobs if we want the country to remain competitive. To suggest that we need fewer college graduates because we have too many parking cars is a daffy conclusion that puts the country at risk.

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