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With the Debt-Free College Act, Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has joined a chorus of politicians in support of easing the path to higher education.
Nationally, Sen. Bernie Sanders called for tuition-free college and student debt reform during his 2016 presidential campaign. Locally, Gov. David Ige has been a vocal supporter of the Early College and Hawaii Promise programs.
These policies represent a common belief: A college degree is more important than ever for the aspiring white-collar worker.
Thus, some parents engineer a child’s life to prepare them for college admission through carefully chosen extracurriculars, test preparation and even volunteerism. A few parents are even willing to pay bribes to ensure admission to selective schools.
As a university teacher and a proponent of education, I support efforts to reduce the burden of student debt. However, I remain skeptical of the push to enroll more students in college.
What if increased attendance drives up costs? This is likely, as the cost of higher education increased with demand in the past.
In the first half of the 20th century, college was the province of the elite, but was relatively inexpensive. Mass education took off after World War II, as the number of women in higher education increased and soldiers used their GI Bill benefits. As more people enrolled, costs increased.
This greater cost could be justified in a vacuum, but the second-order effect of graduating more students is to cheapen the value of a degree.
Educational attainment is a relative, not an absolute, good.
It is used to distribute social goods such as jobs or prestige. But as more students obtain the same degree of education, the value of that degree diminishes. Eventually, it could become meaningless.
In their book, “Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System,” Thomas F. Green, D. P. Ericson and R. H. Seidman describe this as the law of zero correlation, which helps explain the increased demand for graduate education in the workforce.
Sometimes, even a graduate degree is not enough. For example, Samuel Skeist earned a master’s degree in second language studies at the University of Hawaii. Despite working nearly full-time during school, he graduated more than $100,000 in debt.
Jobs in Honolulu were plentiful, but wages were poor, and there were few opportunities for career advancement. Additional licensure was required to teach in public schools.
Skeist realized that if he stayed in Hawaii, he had no hope of paying down his loans and buying a home. He opted to teach in Saudi Arabia. There, Skeist earns enough to pay down debt while saving for an eventual down payment on a residence.
His degree is worth much more abroad. In three years, he’s had five promotions, each with a salary bump. Now, he oversees 12 English language training programs for the Saudi Air Force.
“It’s ironic to leave America, the land of opportunity, only to find that opportunity in the middle of a desert,” he says.
For those who stay in Hawaii, the joke about graduating from college and ending up at Starbucks is no joke. It suggests that a bachelor’s degree no longer has the signaling value it once did, in part because so many people have them.
This is not to discount the intrinsic value of education. It’s not just workforce training. The liberal arts are the foundation of democracy, and the maintenance of our cultural heritage depends in part on universities.
Beyond safeguarding the liberal arts, universities perform invaluable research. This should be celebrated, and we should strive to place our most gifted students in a position where their gifts can benefit society.
Still, we cannot blindly assume that sending a higher percentage of students to college will benefit them or society. Other paths, such as trade schools and vocational training, may be more appropriate. Despite many job opportunities, students are often discouraged from these paths by parents and college counselors.
“If students are exposed to the trades in school, they can make better decisions about their future.” — Robert Silva
Robert Silva earned a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian Studies and Ethnobotany at UH. He couldn’t find a job in the field, so he taught geometry at Damien High School.
Silva then enrolled in the automotive technology program at Honolulu Community College. Toyota hired him upon graduation. His first-year salary tripled his teaching salary. He stayed with Toyota for more than a decade.
Now, Silva teaches automotive technology at HCC. He believes the Department of Education should encourage students to consider careers as carpenters, welders, electricians, plumbers and mechanics.
“Until people stop driving, we’ll need mechanics,” he says. “If students are exposed to the trades in school, they can make better decisions about their future.”
Advocates for higher education often point to the lifetime earnings of college graduates. Undoubtedly, people with bachelor’s degrees earn more than those with high school degrees. And people with graduate and professional degrees earn even more.
However, these advocates mistake correlation for causation. I offer an alternative explanation: College admissions act like a sorting mechanism.
On paper, schools select for a combination of talent and hard work. In practice, wealth and social connections also influence college admissions.
Thus, it is unsurprising that graduates earn more. The current sorting model benefits those already privileged, either by nature or nurture.
Hiring managers reinforce that privilege.
Imagine you are put in a position to make a white-collar hire. You receive 25 resumes. Visualize a resume: education is almost always listed first. As you scan it, you make assumptions about a candidate. Many resumes are discarded immediately, but some rise to the top of the pile. Why? Education is a key factor.
The degree of education and the school one attends are shorthand for wealth and ability. Based on this imperfect information, employers sort people.
Consider undergraduate degrees from Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Careful selection allows elite schools to achieve quality control. This is, in part, why we grant jobs and prestige to graduates of these elite institutions.
If we think of higher education’s function as a sorting mechanism, we see that increasing the number of students might not improve outcomes. It may lead to worse outcomes and higher costs, especially for students stuck in second-class schools.
In addition, if almost everyone has a bachelor’s degree, employers will require advanced education. Students will be coerced onto a treadmill to graduate school. They will sacrifice years of work experience to sit in classrooms, accumulating additional debt and doing academic busy work that does little to prepare them for their eventual jobs.
To avoid this, we should align college education with the needs of the workforce. We should encourage students to explore alternatives to college, such as trade school or vocational training. And employers need to experiment with blind hiring and other assessments not based on educational attainment.
Higher education faces many challenges, and reducing student debt is only one of many needed reforms. A broken system cannot be improved by feeding more students into it.
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