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With their stupendously wrongheaded study, "Should Everyone Go To College?", Stephanie Owan and Isabel Sawhill have touched off a spate of articles, almost certainly written by college graduates, questioning the utility of a college education. As Dylan Matthews at Ezra Klein's Wonkblog writes:

The Wall Street Journal opened their article, “Even in a weak job market, the old college try isn’t the answer for everyone.” The LA Times’ headline was, “College is a bad financial bet for some, study says.”

The study does say that, and is framed by its authors as casting doubt on the assumption that everyone should go to college.

The gist of the study is that the ROI (return on investment) for some majors (mostly in the arts and humanities) and for some colleges and universities is not great. As the Wall Street Journal puts it:
At the same time, recent research by Canadian economists cautions that a college degree is no guarantee of promising employment.

Ms. Sawhill, who along with senior research assistant Stephanie Owen brought together recent findings in the Brookings paper, pointed to factors that affect the value of a college education. Among them is the field of one’s major: Students in engineering or other sciences end up earning more than ones who major in the arts or education. The cost of tuition and the availability of financial aid are other considerations, with public institutions generally a better financial bargain than private ones.

The return on an investment in college education is estimated here by (A recent survey shows that private colleges are getting the message, with some schools stepping up financial assistance.)

Matthews makes a solid attempt to defend the virtues of higher education, basically pointing out that while some majors and some colleges might not be as good as others, college is still a good financial bet:
Let’s back up. What’s at issue in the Owen-Sawhill report is the “return on investment” (ROI) to college. That’s the amount of money one can expect to get, having gone to college, in excess of what they would have gotten had they not gone at all. Generally speaking, the annual ROI for college is enormous. Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney at the Hamilton Project calculate that it’s stayed at around 16 percent for the past few decades ...

And that’s not including financial aid. Once you factor the increase in that in recent decades into the equation, the ROI has actually grown. And compared to the return on stocks (around 6.8 percent), corporate bonds (2.9 percent), gold (2.3 percent), long-term government bonds (2.2 percent) and housing (0.4 percent), it’s really, really high[.]


This sort of back-and-forth is demonstrative of a strain of contemporary thought—as seductively specious as it is dangerous—viz. the idea that everything is quantifiable. In this case, it's education that we've distilled down to a set of dollar signs, as though the success or failure of one's education is measured in wealth created.

Ignored in Owen and Sawhill's report, and every response I've seen thus far (including Matthews's), are the potential social goods created by bad-ROI educations. Owen, Sawhill, and Matthew are acting as though we shouldn't factor in the art produced by poor art school graduates or poems produced by creative writing majors or ideas unpacked by philosophy students. They are pretending that one of the aims of higher education isn't better, clearer thinking.

Of course, I'm not claiming that college education is some kind of magic recipe for good citizens; indeed, it appears to be neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for good thought. But, when done right, a college education can be a revelatory experience—one that leaves a person better off than when he entered. And if that smacks of elitism, consider this gem from Matthews:

The most bracing part of the report is that it notes up to 200 schools with actually negative returns on investment for their degrees. The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and Judson University are at the bottom of the list, costing their graduates about $160,000 relative to if they hadn’t gone to college. ... Those schools really aren’t any good as investments, though they may well make for a fun four years, if you’re willing to spend $160,000 on that sort of thing.
No, perhaps those schools aren't any good as investments, but I'd be willing to bet they offer more than just a "fun four years." For Matthews, a Harvard grad, to sneer down on those poor fools whose pieces of paper aren't quite as valuable as his, is a far more discordant brand of elitism than any I could muster.

Matthews et al either ignore or actively denigrate unquantifiable ways of measuring the importance of higher education. Their emphasis on the monetary is, in and of itself, elitist; do we really buy the idea that the Goldmann Sachs executive's insane compensation is an accurate measure of her worth? Do we really buy the idea that the Goldmann Sachs janitor's compensation is somehow indicative of his? Lest you think I'm throwing up a straw-man, consider this: Matthews says not a word about the non-fiscal rationale for higher education. If we're willing to settle one normative question (should I go to college) solely on its fiscal implications, and pretend that the social goods don't count, then what is different about the Goldmann Sachs example?

That's not a rhetorical question—though it really should be.

Crossposted at Ich Bin Ein Oberliner

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