The College “Solution”

Going to college might be a good way to protect people from times of economic turbulence. So argued authors of a study released last week by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. The report indicated that people with college degrees fared better than those without them in the latest recession. “College has proved to be the best umbrella in this historic economic storm and the best preparation for the economy that is emerging in recovery, ” the report explained.

Well, maybe not. George Leef over at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy writes that this take on college is a little shallow. As he explains:

Much of this hefty study is devoted to the labor market changes following the economic recession that began in 2007. The statistics undoubtedly show that layoffs hit people (especially men) who did not have college degrees much harder than it hit people who had college degrees. But does that lead to the conclusion that having a degree helps you “weather the storm?”

It does not. The authors correctly observe that job losses due to the recession were concentrated in construction and manufacturing. Most of the labor force in these sectors did not have college degrees. Thus, we have a correlation – most of the workers in the worst-hit sectors happened to be non-college people – but we don’t have causation. They did not lose their jobs because they didn’t have college degrees. Many lost their jobs because a combination of low interest rates and federal policies promoting home ownership artificially expanded their industries. Moreover, the study shows that some of the construction and manufacturing workers who held college degrees lost their jobs. Their education didn’t protect them when demand for construction work and manufactured goods plunged.

It’s undoubtedly true that people with college degrees are in general better off in times of economic trouble (and even, in the aggregate, when times are good). This is a class issue. People who go to college earn more money and have better jobs than those who don’t.

But it’s strange to suggest, as the Georgetown report seems to do, that more college is therefore the solution to economic problems. As the authors put it:

In jobs at every skill level and in many different occupations, the better-educated applicant has the edge. For workers, the findings point the way to acquiring the skills that the market needs and values. For students and their parents who are contemplating whether higher education is a good value, these findings make clear that the answer is a resounding yes.

Perhaps as a matter of personal choice, yes. As a matter of public policy, however, this seems very risky.

When the economy recovers, there will surely be more jobs available in construction. There will always be jobs in construction, a type of work that’s highly dependent on the economy’s boom and bust cycles. But whether the economy is good or bad those jobs will still not require college degrees. Not at all.

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