How Many Is Too Many?

Are there really too many people going to college? Possibly as a result of the economy, and possibly as a result of Charles Murray’s most recent book (the premise of which is that only “10 to 15 percent of the nation’s youth” are even minimally prepared for college), there’s a discussion going around about who needs college. NPR did the latest run though this discussion yesterday. Called “Who Needs College, And Who Shouldn’t Go?” this Talk of the Nation piece asked listeners if college paid off. Apparently most people don’t seem to think so. As one guest on the program, Marty Nemko, contributing editor for career issues at U.S. News and World Report, explained:

Unfortunately, most of the students we’re talking about in terms of sending too many to college are students who are not going to be able to get a degree in engineering from a brand name school. They are more likely to get into a third-tier school and major in sociology, American studies, et cetera, which is not exactly the fast path. And – but isn’t it a sad statement that somebody who went to a brand name school and the main justification for it is the connections rather than the education? All of that money, all that opportunity cost of time that these best and brightest kids who are going to these brand name colleges are – they’re getting so little value added in terms of what they grow as a human being, as a thinker, as a public speaker, et cetera.

The problem with this is that the “did college pay off” question is based on the premise that it’s college that we should be questioning. As most people who went to college understand, the most important lessons that one learns in college are life lessons, which are economically difficult to measure.

The trouble with this, to which the NPR piece alludes, is that a professional job requires a college degree, but it’s very rare that one can find an entry-level job that enables someone to rapidly pay off large student debt.

But this “is college worth it” discussion only occurs in the United States. In most other developed nations “is college worth it” is a matter only of time, not of student debt. Looking that this issue more critically, it seems that it might be the price of colleges in America that is the problem, not the number of students who attend them.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer