Money for Nothing?

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The Wall Street Journal recently ran a review of The Lowering of Higher Education in America, a controversial new book by retired Rutgers sociology professor Jackson Toby. According to the review Toby argues in his new book that:

Students have been misled about the value of their degrees. Yes, a bachelor of arts degree commands a wage premium, but less because of a graduate’s acquired knowledge than because of the signal that his degree sends to employers about the abilities that got him into college and about a variety of soft skills, such as reliability and problem-solving capacity. Graduates in undemanding majors—in the humanities, for example, or most of the social sciences—are unlikely to earn what their more studious counterparts in, say, engineering can. They are thus disproportionately likely to be saddled with debt and prone to default, Mr. Toby argues. He claims that this pattern amounts to the kind of unsound lending that led to our recent credit crisis—one that he darkly suggests may soon be repeated in higher education. He believes that today’s “promiscuous” system of college grants and loans—which, at the federal level, is based largely on financial need—ought to be retooled to focus on academic merit.

It appears that Toby’s book is from the “too many dumb people go to college” school of higher education thinking. So be it, but does he have a point? Well, he might. His solution sounds a little questionable, at least in part because merit-based financial aid tends go to students who have the resources to have gone to college without it, but what it really comes down to is this: require good grades and test scores from people who want to take advantage of federal student loans.

While there’s probably a more efficient way to address this problem (maybe the loans are the problem, not the students who have them), kudus to Toby for thinking of academic quality in terms of the money made available for higher education and how easy, or hard, it is to obtain.

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