College Alternatives

An article by Ramesh Ponnuru in Time makes the case that too many people are going to college. Joining the ranks of other college limiters Ponnuru explains that just because college graduates earn, on average, more than those who don’t attend college is not necessarily a good enough reason to expand college access:

Our high college drop-out rate — 40% of kids who enroll in college don’t get a degree within six years — may be a sign that we’re trying to push too many people who aren’t suited for college to enroll. It has been estimated that, in 2007, most people in their 20s who had college degrees were not in jobs that required them: another sign that we are pushing kids into college who will not get much out of it but debt.

While this argument is not rock-solid—the fact that students don’t graduate in six years is more reflective of the cost of college than students being academically unprepared—Ponnuru goes on to point out that some alternatives to college are promising.

The trouble with the “too many students go to college” argument is that at now obtaining a professional job without a bachelor’s degree is near impossible. Many people have jobs that don’t really require college degrees. But a college degree is often necessary to get hired. How many people who work at Time, even in support positions, didn’t go to college?
But there might be a way around it:

Certification tests could be developed so that in many occupations employers could get more useful knowledge about a job applicant than whether he has a degree. Career and technical education could be expanded at a fraction of the cost of college subsidies. Occupational licensure rules could be relaxed to create opportunities for people without formal education.

Certification, career and technical education, and occupational licensure explain a lot of why community colleges (and proprietary schools) exist today. The U.S. might be able to save a lot of money by linking some forms of higher education directly to the skills demanded by employers. Maybe it’s not that too many people are going to college; maybe people just study the wrong things.

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