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The Revolution of Rising Expectations

In the economic-development literature of a generation or so ago, it was common to speak of “the revolution of rising expectations,” resulting from the fact that poor persons in less developed countries were aware of the automobiles, Internet access (to put it in today’s context), washing machines, and other gadgets of modern society, and wanting and expecting to have them. The disconnect between economic reality and wants was the cause of many problems, it was argued.

A somewhat analogous happening is occurring in American higher education today, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa demonstrate in chapter three of their seminal Academically Adrift. Students believe much of the advice (propaganda?) they are fed in high school about how college graduates do well economically, and to them it means that if they obtain a bachelor’s degree, they will have a ticket for a middle-class life. Then, they decide to borrow on this future Nirvana by taking out student loans which are used less to pay tuition than to lead the good life in college. In other words, the loans are beer money for students, financing their fun in college. Other researchers (e.g., my colleague Charlene Kalenkoski and her co-author, Sabrina Pabilonia) have reached similar conclusions regarding funds earned from student employment. Students don’t work jobs while in college primarily to pay for school–they work to drink, to party, to have fun.

It boils down to this—college students:

  • work very little on academic studies on average, with those from low-income groups and African-Americans working even less than the low overall average;
  • learn little about how to think critically or write well while in school;
  • party more than they study, leading, on average, relatively hedonistic lifestyles;
  • receive high grades for what little they do;
  • interact comparatively infrequently with their professors outside of class;
  • often incur good-sized debts;
  • increasingly take post-graduation jobs that do not meet their expectations and do tasks historically performed by high-school graduates (like trimming trees, driving trucks or taxis, waiting tables, etc.);
  • paying more and more money over time to do the things described above, attended to by a faculty increasingly more interested in trivial research rather than their undergraduate student audience.

To be sure, not all students fit the characterization above. Graduates of elite schools continue usually to get good jobs, work a little harder in college, and learn somewhat more, for example. And there are some students within non-elite schools who do fine work and will lead good, fulfilling, and probably rather remunerative lives (I have several of them working for me part-time).

But the pattern described above is common, making that it is clear that public policy is terribly bad when it comes to higher education. It is no wonder that every time I run regressions looking at the relationship between public higher-education spending and economic growth, I get negative results—the more you spend, the lower the rate of growth. We are over-invested in higher education, we are mis-invested, and we are increasingly doing less with more, rather than more with less. Something has to give—the only questions are what, how, and when.

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