The more educated there are, the less education there is: Part 2

Last time we showed that as the percentage of people who attend college increased, it necessarily meant that the difficulty of courses offered by colleges decreased, thus the value of a “college education” lessened. On average, anyway.

That is, it might still be the case that superior colleges will not falter—as long as matriculation at these institutes does not depend on any characteristic besides ability; as soon as they veer from strict meritocracy, the value of education even at superior colleges lessens. Next time we’ll see that there is a third reason why even good schools will degrade.

Now, even though what is learned at college becomes less difficult, still something is learned. The questions becomes: is it worth it? After all, even bad colleges—for example those excessively committed to sports or that primarily offer degrees in “business”—students usually come out knowing more than when they came in. But is going to college, even at a below average school, worth the cost? At the Center for Student Opportunity, “an online clearinghouse of college programs and admissions information serving first-generation and historically underserved [sic, but interesting spelling!] student populations”, claims “College graduates earn over 70 percent more on average than those with only a high school diploma—that’s an average of $1 million more over a lifetime.”

That statistic is widely reported and believed. It is, at best, misleading. To see why, let’s go back in time sixty or seventy years. Then, many in the upper class and few or none in the middle or lower classes went to college. College graduates usually, but obviously not always, went on to high-profile or well-paying careers. Those Who Care looked at these people and said, “These high-profile people all went to college. People who go to college do better. Therefore, going to college increases people’s earning potential. More people should go to college.”

Earn more money today!

Alas, this is old error of confusing correlation with causation. Because even the upper class members who went to college and failed to master its subjects also went on to good jobs—because they were in the upper class. Their fathers, brothers, and others had jobs waiting for them. If there were no such thing as college, they still would have had good, well-paying careers. After all, they were upper class. We must also remember that their course of study was purposely non-practical. “Can there be anything more ridiculous than that a father should waste his money, and his son’s time, in setting him to learn the Roman language, when at the same time he designs him for a trade…?” asked John Locke. So why go to college? Knowledge was thought (and is) good in itself, useful to answer the eternal question What is the best way to live?

Those Who Care would have been better served by saying, “Just because somebody is upper class should not mean they can automatically go to college.” This is the busybody argument, because it is none of their business who goes to college if they are not paying for it. If a school lets somebody in on grounds other than merit, it is their mess to clean up. No. What Those Who Care should have said is, “Make it so Those That Are Smartest can attend college so that they can become the wisest among us.” But that smacks of elitism, which is anathema to Those.

Eventually, Those Who Care had their way and a larger percentage of people did go to college (through more colleges being created and not by increasing enrollment at extant colleges). More importantly, it began to look like those that attended college did earn more money than those who did not. What happened was a version of the self-fulling prophecy and bad math.

Bad math first. Suppose upper class members go to college and, because they are upper class, they earn good money on average, even if they only at college to discover, as John Mortimer’s father told him, “the Latin word for parsley.” Others will earn good money by taking difficult course work that is valuable, like electrical engineering, etc. That’s one group.

Contrast these with the group of non-upper class people who go to college and get degrees in hotel management, human resources, business, women’s studies, English literature, or other non-difficult subjects. They will not make as much money. They will also, on average, have debt and will have forgone four years of income.

The average lifetime of all college graduates is thus a misleading number because it does not take into account the quality of the school or the subject studied or the class of the people. That “$1 million” is heavily skewed by the first group of people. What should be compared are those who study non-difficult subjects and those who never attend college. Do that, and the value of college fades away.

Charles Murray has written about this extensively (here, here, here, and others), and proves that a college degree isn’t the guaranteed road to riches most hope it is. A very large percentage of college graduates will not earn as much as those who learn a useful trade: Crawford’s recently popular Shop Class as Soulcraft expounds on this subject at length. The quotation that always appears is, “Do you know what a plumber makes?”

Now self-fulfilling prophecy. Some companies—I mentioned Jamba Juice a while back—require a “degree” for even the most entry of entry-level positions. These companies are indifferent to the material studied behind the “degree”. Because their employees have a “degree”, human “resource” apparatchiks will assign a salary using a formula that pays them more than non-degreed people. Not much more, but more. The reason they pay them more is because these people have a “degree” and certainly not because these people are skilled (as far as I know, no college yet offers a degree in fast food mall beverage management). The result is that the company has hired somebody they still have to train and must pay more. It also, initially, makes it appear that college graduates earn more. But this seeming advantage doesn’t last. Jamba Juice will still have to call in the plumbers to fix their sinks.

Thus, college is not always worth it, particularly to those who do not study difficult subjects. Of course, college still might be valuable morally. We’ll save that for another time.


  1. Luis Dias

    There’s the missing fact that more and more, humans are being substituted by computers and machines to perform the most basic of things.

    More and more, people will make things that are only doable by human beings. Mostly, they will require more knowledge than average. Perhaps college has some correlation with this phenomenon.

    As you say, we’ll still need plumbers. But will we? I can imagine this conversation a hundred years ago, “We’ll still need a lot of farmers”.

    Do we?

  2. Peter

    ‘hotel management, human resources, business, women’s studies, English literature, or other non-valuable subjects’
    Did you mean non-difficult subjects?

  3. JJD

    Here are two reasons why from an H.R. perspective a job candidate with a “degree” of practically any kind is preferable to one who has none.

    1. A recent college or university graduate is older and presumably more mature than a recent high school graduate, and so more desirable as a potential employee, regardless of what was studied or how good the academic standing. Blatant age-based discrimination can get an employer in trouble, but demanding extra job qualifications cannot.

    2. Someone who has completed a college or university degree of any kind at any institution has demonstrated a certain level of willingness and ability to submit to regimentation and to do work imposed by authority figures. As any post-secondary graduate knows, an “earned” degree testifies to a certain level of perseverence and immunity to bullshit and institutional rigamarole.

    For both of the reasons cited above, a degree of almost any kind, regardless of difficulty or practical applicability, would be an indicator useful for separating job candidates who are more likely to fit in and actually work from those who are more likely to turn out to be unemployable dopes and slobs. That is why the mall food court employer wants candidates to have a degree. From the point of view of a politician or academic board member, this may also be why many “institutions of higher learning” don’t see quality or substance as a necessary component of their “product”.

  4. Scumop

    Sometimes it works backwards. I ran into someone with a PhD in biology (I forget the specialty). She was working in her chosen field making $9 per hour. A very sad state of affairs, but science degrees are undervalued in too many places.

    It is certainly true that credentialism is a disease of our time. Requiring a mall food court employee to have a degree? That shows the cluelessness of the people doing the hiring. Acquiring and training employees costs time and money – too much to throw away on people who will leave at the first sniff of a more appropriate opportunity. The high school grad, or even dropout, will be much more likely to stay.

  5. OMS

    “…Others will earn good money by taking difficult course work that is valuable, like electrical engineering, etc. That’s one group.
    Contrast these with the group of non-upper class people who go to college and get degrees in hotel management, human resources, business, women’s studies, English literature, or other non-valuable subjects.”

    From what I’ve seen in a number of companies, the electrical engineers often make the worst managers/businessmen, and it’s left to the HR and business majors to clean up the mess. So, I can’t comment on the relative difficulty or demand of your two groups, but the second group is not just doing easy, useless work.

    “…a degree of almost any kind, regardless of difficulty or practical applicability, would be an indicator useful for separating job candidates who are more likely to fit in and actually work from those who are more likely to turn out to be unemployable dopes and slobs.”

    Agreed. Ability at one’s task is a separate issue from an ability to fit in at the workplace.

  6. Doug M

    I have a few things to say, and not enough time to now to get to them. If I have more time, I will flesh this out.

    The BA is a barrier to entry. A diploma shows that you have the skills to take on most office jobs. If you want a job where you can work indoors, with a low risk of injury, college will help you get there.

    Hotel management is a legitimate graduate level program teaching people a vocation. Why don’t journalism schools, and design schools, architecture schools, and law schools get the same amount of grief?

    The Wall Street Journal puts out a piece about once a year on the value of a business degree. The business graduate makes more immediately after graduation, but foregoes 2 years of salary. 5 years after graduation, the ability and not education will determine salary. WSJ comes to the conclusion that sheepskin is not worth the cost for most graduates.

    The Ph.D. has negative value. Most Ph.D.s make less after graduation, than their undergraduate classmate are making.

    I am prejudiced against the BA in business. It says to me that the person has no curiosity.

  7. Briggs


    I meant both: non-difficult in material and non-valuable in terms of money, but it should read “non-difficult” there (I’ll fix it). Not, of course, non-valuable in terms on morals and so forth. On average, folks with those “degrees” earn less than those earning degrees in difficult subjects, but like Scumop points out, there are always exceptions. Murray also looks at this in terms of income over a lifetime, where, say, physics graduates will probably out-earn business graduates—on average. Most business graduates do not go on to become CEOs, nor even to Vice Presidencies, nor to very high positions at all.

    I should also stress that I mean undergraduate studies. What happens at graduate schools is a different matter.


    1. I agree that the extra aging is a necessity for certain jobs. Since admitting that that is now the bad kind of discrimination, companies usually phrase this in terms of “years of experience”.

    2. This is the common argument, but I don’t buy it. Graduating college now is like graduating high school used to be fifty years ago (always on average; there are obvious exceptions). It seems to me that if companies only wanted employees capable of withstanding “bullshit”, they can do it more effectively than requiring somebody go to college. The natural study is to hire employees both degreed and non and monitor the differences in their employment, given that they are all doing similar work. Then we can know the answer empirically.

    Because more and more are going to college, holding a “degree” means less and less. Like we said last time, if we imagine all people go to college (thanks, say, to increased taxes), the knowledge that somebody has a “degree” means very little.


    No, clearly the second group is not doing useless work. I in no way wanted to imply that. I only mean that the work is less valuable in terms of money.

  8. Briggs

    Doug M,

    Thank you. I agree wholeheartedly. Trade schools teach valuable (in terms of money) and useful subjects. So why not go to a trade school instead of a college? Hotel management surely doesn’t require four years of theory (the “science” of bed making?). Practice, yes. Familiarity, certainly. Apprenticeship, absolutely. But is that the point of college? Learning a trade?

    Many programs now taught at colleges should be shifted to trade schools, or colleges, jealous of the money, can form trade branches within their ivied walls.

    Law schools, architecture schools and the like are usually post-graduate. They are another matter. (But—and I ask this looking at the new buildings going up around me— what they hell are they teaching them in architecture school?)

  9. Katie

    A paper that speaks directly to this topic is: Griggs v. Duke Power: Implications for College Credentialing by Bryan O’Keefe and Richard Vedder. Available here: (8th from the top).

    The paper concludes: “The long-term policy and legal challenge might be to remove higher education from this vocational credentialing role, allowing employers to test job candidates so long as the tests are fair and do not intentionally discriminate and return the Ivory Tower to its core missions, which have been lost in the incessant zeal for college degrees over the last thirty-five years” (pg 20).

  10. jae

    IMHO: Regardless of the field of study, I think that there are many subtle but important benefits of more education. These are often much more important than extra money (I agree that many people are sacrificing money for education, but I think it’s worth it). For one thing, more years of education produces better citizens by making people less parochial and more tolerant. Even the biggest party-slob frat-rat comes out of college with a broader perspective than those who learn a trade (in general). More years of education also help people understand better where the information they will need can be found (damn few learn many of the details they need for any of their future jobs). A degree also confers self respect and pride, which has enormous effects on intitiative and drive for some people. Like high school, much of the education process occurs outside the classroom and is absorbed by “osmosis.” There are many reasons why education of any kind is an end in itself and should not be conflated with money.

  11. Doug M

    If you have a thing about university architecture, I have a book for you “Architecture of the Absurd.” When the architecht confuses himself for an artist, you are in trouble. University buildings and Government buildings tend to be the worst.

  12. Ari


    It’s funny that you use engineering as a “higher earning” field, because I’ve always thought of engineering in the same light as pharmacy: medium-high wage often coupled with less growth potential. I am of the opinion that we see so many engineers in MBA schools because they realize that without that extra “training” they are less likely to move up the ladder.

    Credentialism, I spit on thee. I got snubbed by so many HR flunkies because my degree wasn’t exactly what they wanted. Instead of looking for people with ability, they just wanted a title. Humbug, I say.

  13. I look forward to the discussion of the “moral value” of colleges, since it occurs to me that college campus are bastions and incubation centers of immorality.

  14. JH

    And I look forward to discovery of a vaccine against laziness, mediocrity, immaturity, ignorance and focus-less. I imagine that such vaccine should be given during early childhood (preferably by parents or guardians), and that a re-vaccination probably would be needed before graduating from high school.

  15. Briggs

    If you haven’t read the article that Ari linked, it is a must.

    Some selected quotes:

    Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later…

    [E]ven those who do manage to graduate too rarely end up in careers that require a college education…

    [E]even those high-school students who are fully qualified to attend college are increasingly unlikely to derive enough benefit to justify the often six-figure cost and four to six years (or more) it takes to graduate…Colleges trumpet the statistic that, over their lifetimes, college graduates earn more than nongraduates, but that’s terribly misleading. You could lock the collegebound in a closet for four years, and they’d still go on to earn more than the pool of non-collegebound — they’re brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections

    Colleges are quick to argue that a college education is more about enlightenment than employment. That may be the biggest deception of all…

    Ernest L. Boyer, the late president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, used to say that winning the campus teaching award was the kiss of death when it came to tenure…

    Unbelievably, according to the Spellings Report, which was released in 2006 by a federal commission that examined the future of American higher education, things are getting even worse: “Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined. … According to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, for instance, the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade. … Employers report repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplaces.”

    Emphasis mine. I’m actually shocked, honestly, that he used the word “brighter.” It’s rare to find somebody, especially in a publication such as this, admit that some students are smarter than others.

  16. Joy

    The same arguments rage over here. I’m pleased to see that the Conservatives have, in their manifesto, a plan to place more emphasis on vocational colleges and old style apprenticeships. I’m hoping they’ll bring back something like grammar schools. That IS a vain hope.
    The first year, after ours, did the new GCSE’s. The year nearly got straight A’s across the board. We felt cheated to say the least. The year was not particularly a bright year. The courses now are set up so that it’s impossible to fail. A-Levels now seem more similar to the old A-S levels. I always remember though that the A-Level was considered a big jump from O-Level and that degree level was a specialisation but level of mental ability was not much more. Not that I’m under-estimating the effort, dedication and hard work it takes to achieve a pHD, for example. The level of difficulty in today’s system is nothing like what it was in the early nineties even. Nowadays students are getting six A-Levels. This never would have been possible without the dumbing-down of the subjects and modular nature of the courses. Multiple choice, for example, was considered a CSE (very basic certificate of education) thing. A grade 1 at CSE was equivalent of a C at O-level. Typing, for example, could only be a CSE subject as it wasn’t even hard enough to be given the O-Level stamp. Anything below a C was a fail. Now, at GCSE they study “general science” not the separate physics, chemistry, biology etc. The system didn’t need changing. It does now.

    Listening to our election results, things will change. The British people have had enough. (The greens were nowhere incidentally).

  17. Karen

    When I first read this I didn’t comment because I basically agreed, but I noted that one of the arguments skirts over a common claim.

    “These high-profile people all went to college. People who go to college do better. Therefore, going to college increases people’s earning potential. More people should go to college.”

    Your response naturally points out that if me people go to college then the earning potential must go down for each new undergraduate.

    This is true if we assume that there is a fixed number of high paying jobs that any society can sustain. However if we assume that the qualification increases the person’s earning potential then the number of high paying job ought to increase in line with the number of graduates. This ought to be measurable.

    Think about the economic effect of new inventions. When railways arrived they didn’t just transport around material produce at the pre-existing level. They stimulated more production and trade because they reduced the price of transport and opened new markets. It’s not a stretch to suppose that adding to the pool of graduates has similar potential.

    The argument is used by advocates of a state grant in the UK (eg the NUS). [It might be a helpful digression if I point out that until approx 1990 the UK government used to give a means tested grant to every student which paid for both tuition and living expenses. Children of the wealthy would get a lower grant. However as the numbers attending grew the individual grant shrank]. The NUS argues that creating graduates is a social good because it increases the wealth of a country – note: not just the individual. Therefore the state should fund graduates because (a) most will eventually be higher tax payers (b) the country as a whole is wealthier.

    My view is that it might be demonstrated that some qualifications must increase earning potential but not all. I’m thinking here that MBA’s seem to offer a valuable qualification. However, I doubt that most degrees do increase earning potential.

    We also have to factor in also that in a market there must be a limit on any skill set. The first railways were profitable but by the turn of the century only duplicate lines were being built meaning that there is a diminishing return. So too we cannot increase demand for media studies experts just because we train more.

    So I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

    I’m going to leave it there. It’s worth recording the claim even if I doubt it.

  18. Karen

    typo in the third para “me” should read “more”

  19. Karen

    Another point of interest is the distinction between college and vocational training.

    In the UK up till the 1960s many people who didn’t go to college were instead apprenticed out where they were learn a trade such as electrical engineering. Often this would involve college night classes as well as daily on the job skills transfer. A successful apprentice would usually obtain an immediate pay rise upon completion.

    In addition the government open up a series of colleges called polytechnics. These were intended to be more practical (or less theoretical) and in general had lower entrance requirements. Further education colleges also existed to assist the less able.

    Unfortunately several things have happened since then.

    First the number of apprentices has shrunk dramatically. Second, the polytechnics frequently went beyond their original remit and added on subjects like social sciences. Third the egalitarian impulse declared that it was unfair to differentiate between qualifications earned at a university and elsewhere. The result of all this is that polytechnics (and further education establishments) were allowed to rebrand themselves as universities (“Metropolitan” in the title is a good clue) and offer degrees.

    The reason I bring this up is because the “social engineers”, in the main, were college staff. This flattening of qualifications and watering down of content is led by those in the academy who think that they are doing some good.

    You don’t need to convince the public – you need to convince your peers.

    The argument is unfortunately further complicated by the fact that identity politics gets dragged in. Black applicants not being admitted is “evidence of racism”; black students getting low grades is “evidence of racism”; black students dropping out is “evidence of racism” etc etc.

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