Trying to Do More With Less

“Americans Need More Work and Less College” screams a headline at Forbes. Too many high school students are going to college, complains Jay Schalin of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. This is preventing them from working and being contributing members of society, or something:

As the Occupy Wall Street protests have exposed, the United States already has vast numbers of underemployed, indebted young people who have college degrees, but few marketable skills. If we want to correct this problem we need to make the period after high school more focused on work and not an unnecessary extension of adolescence.

Sigh. No, it’s not that they don’t have marketable skills; it’s that they just don’t have jobs.

Realistically America probably needs both more work and more college. But Schalin’s thinking seems to go that if people don’t go to college they won’t be assuming those college debts and will be earning their own money. This is not only financially responsible; it also helps them contribute to Social Security:

For young people especially, rethinking the push to attend college offers real value. Roughly 60 percent of those who begin college either drop out permanently or end up in jobs for which no degree is required, and therefore receive little return on their investment. At least some of these students would have preferred going to work, but were deterred from doing so by parent or peer pressure. Making work an acceptable first option for young adults would end this waste – and reduce the crushing debt burden many bear when starting their adult lives.

No, they were deterred from doing so because there aren’t good jobs available for recent high school graduates. It’s true that students can forgo the cost of college by getting a job after high school, but what Schalin doesn’t mention is that most of the jobs available for high school graduates are pretty crappy. In 2006 the average college graduate earned $52,000 a year. The average person with only a high school diploma, in contrast, earned about $29,000 a year. In addition, last year evidence indicated that economic downturns were worse on those without a college education. Those with only a high school education were about twice as likely to be unemployed than those who had graduated from college.

That’s why people go to college, to learn things so they can be smarter and get better jobs.

The low graduation rate numbers are certainly interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “rethinking the push to attend college.” It may mean rethinking how we pay for college. Evidence indicates that most people drop out of college because it’s too expensive, not because they’re unprepared and don’t belong there.

We certainly need more work. (Hey, there’s a jobs bill designed precisely to provide more work for Americans, that might be an interesting thing to look into.) But more work doesn’t mean less college. Indeed, several economic measures indicate we’re going to need more college graduates in the future.

So sure, more jobs are necessary. But graduating more people from college might be a good way to promote higher employment; educated people are not only more likely to get jobs; they’re also the sort of people who create jobs for others.

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