What about non-college-bound students?

TIME magazine has a series of articles on the college  education industry, including the evolution of the once-humble college dorm room. In an opinion piece, Ramesh Ponnuru argues that we’re too focused on college education for all.

He admits that such talk ” may even sound philistine,” but he notes that 40 percent of college freshmen fail to graduate, even after 6 years. This he says, “may be a sign that we’re trying to push too many people who aren’t suited for college to enroll.”

In addition, there’s a lot of debt being incurred, with little measurable gain: “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.” [Don’t forget opportunity costs–money forgone from the  time spent in college.]

What about the well-known fact that college graduates earn more on average than those without a degree? Going to college may be the cause, simply because employers use the achievement of a college degree as an approximate measure of a job-candidate’s ability to set and achieve a long-term goal. But that demonstration could in theory be provided through some sort of industry-derived certification, such as what the CPA serves for accountants.

In addition, we may be forgetting the first rule of social science, which is that causation is correlation. “People who go to college are, on average, smarter than people who don’t.” And that smartness, as much as anything, may explain the pay gap, separate from any effect of actually earning a degree.

So what to do about the high school students who are not equipped for or interested in going to college? We should work at ways  of making high school education more meaningful, so that more students who enter college are actually prepared. As for the those who might do better without college, they will benefit from other reforms.

“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.”

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