• September 20, 2014

Do Americans Expect Too Much From a College Degree?

Do Americans Expect Too Much From a College Degree? 1

Social Science Research Council

Josipa Roksa and Richard Arum track the same Class of 2009 students they studied in their 2011 book, "Academically Adrift," in a new work that examines that cohort’s success—or lack of it—after college. 


In times like these, data points get wielded like cudgels.

Student-loan debt tops $1-trillion. As many as half of recent graduates are out of work, earn trifling wages, or have jobs that don’t require college degrees. Clearly, such numbers suggest, college isn’t worthwhile.

At the same time, remedies for what ails the economy often invoke higher education as a solution. Policy makers and foundations want more people to earn postsecondary degrees because they increase wages. Politicians press colleges to align programs with the needs of industry.

Together these sentiments show how deeply intertwined higher education and the economy have grown.

More on 'Aspiring Adults Adrift'

As colleges have sold themselves as economic-development vehicles, and their degrees as tickets to the middle class, the ethos of the marketplace has become their master, overshadowing their civic and intellectual purposes.

The tight embrace of higher education and the economy has an obvious downside: When times get tough, colleges take a beating. Predictably, tales emerge of recent graduates with expensive and worthless degrees failing to make their way into adulthood. They come from many of the same colleges, we are told, that are the envy of the world.

As college costs increase, so do expectations about payoff and questions about value. How should colleges be judged, if not by the financial success of their students? Is it higher education’s job to fix the economy?

Tale of 2 Grads

These questions suffuse Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, the new book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The authors track and interview many of the same students from their 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which documented 2009 graduates’ meager gains in learning during college. As they graduate and try to find jobs and a foothold in the adult world, many of them struggle, the authors find.

Mr. Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Ms. Roksa, an associate professor in the same disciplines at the University of Virginia, did not restrict themselves to economic measures in forming their conclusions. They analyzed their subjects’ civic engagement, living situations, and relationships, and connected many of those measures to how much the students learned during college.

Video: Lack of Rigor in College Often Means Trouble Later for Students, Say Authors

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A chapter dedicated to economic metrics, like employment status and income, provides some of the most striking data, including a finding that students who performed poorly on a test of critical-thinking skills were more likely than those who scored well to have lost their jobs.

The book also includes stories about the students themselves, distilled from interviews with 80 graduates. Two of the narratives show how economic metrics often fail to account for the quirks of personality and fate that can determine the trajectories of individual lives, and how colleges are both essential actors and bit players in that journey.

"Nathan" kicks off the book. He is a business-administration major, a field whose graduates tend to get high-paying jobs fairly quickly. Nathan wasn’t so lucky. Two years after graduating, he still lived with his parents and was making deliveries for a national pharmacy chain, earning less than $20,000 a year. He found his job on Craigslist, not through any resources from his college.

His sputtering progress after college was foreshadowed by his choices during it, Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa write. Nathan coasted, focusing more on socializing than on academics. He studied mostly with his friends, doing so alone for just five hours a week. When asked to name a significant academic experience, he at first couldn’t think of one. Still, Nathan graduated with a 3.9 grade-point average.

"Beth," a first-generation college student, offers a contrast. She majored in what is described as a rigorous health-related program. Like business, such majors tend to quickly result in jobs that pay well.

Beth took advantage of what college had to offer. She reported working hard, dedicating more than 20 hours each week to studying alone, while also gaining practical experience in a hospital. Beth was engaged, both in and outside class. Unprompted, she described a course in the history of Islamic civilization as academically stimulating and said her membership on the rowing team was demanding and eye-opening. Her gain on a standardized test of critical-thinking skills was nearly double the average.

In other words, Beth did everything right. Four months after graduation, however, she found herself living at home, rejected for more than 50 jobs.

After interviewing several times for a job for which she lacked clinical experience, she made a direct appeal. "I think I finally got to a point where I just straight-out said, ‘You know what, I just need someone to give me a chance to prove myself and that I can be a valuable employee to your department,’ " she told the researchers. She got the job.

"Beth’s story exemplifies many aspects of the constructive role that four-year colleges and universities can play in the lives of young adults," Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa write. Why, they wonder, aren’t there more stories like hers?

Part of the problem, they argue, is that colleges like Nathan’s make it too easy to be lazy and still get a nearly perfect GPA. But how much of Nathan’s failure to be engaged was his own doing? If his professors had given him more C’s, would that have woken him up, or would he have greeted those marks with a shrug?

It’s also not clear exactly how much Beth’s college contributed to her success. She praises her "solid upbringing" for teaching her the value of discipline and hard work. How much of her success was due to her attitude and persistence—traits ingrained before she arrived in college? And it wasn’t really her skills or degree that got her hired; it was her ability to persuade her future boss she deserved a shot. Who should get credit for her gumption?

Jobless and in Debt

For now, our main way of evaluating the knowledge and skills that graduates developed in college is to look at their wages and employment rates. When focused on narrow windows of time, such measures can make for inhospitable terrain for higher education.

Unemployment among workers under 25 is high by historical standards, and the pay for those who do have jobs is often low, which suggests that colleges have reason to fear efforts like the Obama administration’s to rate them, in part, by the wages of their graduates.

Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa found that 53 percent of the graduates they studied earned less than $30,000 a year in part-time or full-time jobs, or had no work at all. But the authors think measures like those proposed by the president can be too narrow or misleading as a way to judge colleges; some graduates, for example, might hold low-paying jobs that benefit society. "The wages don’t look good, but it doesn’t mean they’re not producing or civically engaged," Ms. Roksa said in an interview.

Still, they think colleges do bear some responsibility for helping students find a career path. "The habits students leave college with are shaped by the four years colleges spend interacting with them," said Mr. Arum.

Finding that path often takes a while because many recent graduates settle in new cities and need time to figure out their skills and interests, says Heidi S. Shierholz, a labor-market economist. That’s partly why unemployment among young workers is consistently higher than for the work force in general, she says in a recent paper for the Economic Policy Institute. Since 1989, during good times and bad, the unemployment rate for workers under 25, a pool that includes both high-school and college graduates, has been more than double the overall rate, she found.

Higher education isn’t where the problem is, she says. "There’s nothing universities can do about the broader weakness in the labor market," Ms. Shierholz said in an interview. "We have low aggregate demand for goods and services, and businesses are reluctant to hire. That’s what’s going on. Full stop."

She favors policy remedies, like increasing deficit spending on infrastructure needs, to stimulate economic demand. "There are lots of things to do," she says, "but none involve the behavior of universities."

The rise in total debt incurred by students has also increased pressure on colleges to demonstrate the bottom-line payoff of the degrees they offer. Student-loan debt from private and public sources topped $1-trillion in 2011.

That is an eye-popping number, but it reflects, in large part, the growing number of people attending college.

Worries about individuals saddled with debt may be hyped, Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos argue in a June paper for the Brookings Institution. "The monthly payment burden faced by student-loan borrowers has stayed about the same or even lessened over the past two decades," they write. While those findings sparked controversy, they echo data released last year by the U.S. Department of Education in its report, "Degrees of Debt."

Colleges to the Rescue

The conviction that American universities serve an explicitly economic purpose dates in many ways to the founding of our public higher-education system. The Morrill Act of 1862 assigned the nation’s public universities the duty of teaching people practical skills that help them do their jobs.

Structural shifts in the labor market over the past three decades have thrust higher education even more deeply into the core of the economy, says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

After the recession of the early 1980s, high-paying manufacturing jobs started disappearing amid advances in technology, tougher foreign competition, and declining union power. Those jobs were often replaced by ones in finance, health care, and computing, many of which require college.

"We needed more skill in the work force," Mr. Carnevale says. Postsecondary institutions were the most logical vehicle to develop that skill. "We turned to colleges and said, ‘You have a new mission.’ "

Many faculty members chafe at the primacy that this mission has assumed. "Higher education really is a work-force-development system," Mr. Carnevale says. "It doesn’t like to see itself that way."

Another turning point came about a decade ago, David H. Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes in Science. An "explosive rise" in the wage differential between high-school and college graduates took place from the 1980s through the early 2000s, followed by a plateau in 2005. Growth in college completion, Mr. Autor argues, led to this leveling off, reflecting laws of supply and demand.

Between 2004 and 2012, the supply of new college graduates rose more than in previous decades. Demand, as signaled by wages, stagnated. "As this influx of supply took hold," he writes, "the college wage premium halted its enduring rise."

The wage premium may be shifting. Debt incurred for graduate programs is growing rapidly. Graduate school, particularly for master’s degrees, is increasingly seen as necessary to gain purchase on the middle class.

"We’ve made graduate school part of our find-a-job strategy," says Ben Miller, a senior policy analyst who studies student-loan debt for the New America Foundation, "and that’s a problem."

We have also made a college education, particularly a bachelor’s degree, part of our create-a-job-strategy, says Mark S. Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research. "Governors and state legislators look at this as their biggest human-capital investment," he says. Higher education also remains one of the biggest investments made by individuals and families because of the steady drumbeat of studies touting a degree’s payoff. "We’ve been trained and taught," he says, that "a bachelor’s degree is the best investment you’re ever going to make."

Mr. Schneider’s analyses of first-year earnings of graduates, by major, in six states preceded the Obama administration’s proposals to rate colleges. People must choose to pay tuition to specific institutions and enroll in certain programs, and they need the kind of information he publishes, he says, because it will help them make those investments wisely.

Otherwise, the value of a degree is described in big aggregate numbers that can mask important distinctions in the results that individual colleges produce and how well they prepare their students. When the larger economy struggles, those differences are felt acutely. In such times, the lofty economic expectations attached to higher education may prove hard to shake.

"Colleges," Mr. Schneider says, "may be really sorry they went down this road."

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