(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Today on NRO Marcus Winters throws down the gauntlet before Charles Murray and others who have made the increasingly common argument that too many kids go to college these days. As the economy requires workers to have more and more knowledge for good jobs, more kids should go to college, not fewer, Marcus argues; the research on teacher quality and school choice shows that improvements in K-12 education can increase the number of high school graduates who are genuinely able to handle college work; and the wage premium of a college degree is not going down, but up – because the K-12 system hasn’t kept pace with the increasing demands of technological development, and college does make students more productive workers (contrary to Murray’s claim that it serves mainly as a sorting mechanism).
Over on AEI’s blog, Murray responds, calling Marcus a “romantic,” going over a lot of research that doesn’t really address the point at issue, and then falsely claiming that Marcus presents only anecdotes about “a miracle school in the inner city” but offers no “interpretable data.” Anyone who reads Marcus’s piece will see that Marcus points to the eminently interpretable data of the broad research on teacher quality, school choice, and economic outcomes.
The wage premium for college educated workers continues to increase for several reasons but an especially important one for school choice advocates is that the premium is a clear signal that the labor market is devaluing a high school diploma, prefering college educated workers, even for positions that do not require a degree. A high school diploma has become an innefective signal to employers of the competency, character, or achievement of potential employees. Hiring workers with college degrees for position that could be filled by HS grads may not maximize the wages of the college grad but it maintains or increases the wage premium by depressing the wages of HS grads and by bidding-up the wages of college grads with skills or degrees that are not especially in demand.
Brian, it looked like your comment got mangled into two parts by a glitch or something, so I combined them.
I think this point actually could be spun by both sides. Marcus would argue that employers are devaluing the HS diploma because the educational “productivity” of the K-12 system hasn’t kept pace with the increasing demands of the workplace, and Murray would argue that it’s because the diploma used to be an efficient sorting mechanism for distinguishing those who do and don’t have high natural talents, and now it isn’t.
Greg, thanks, for help with unmangling my thoughts – now can you help make them clearer?
I’ll fly the Swiss flag on the Murray – Winters throwdown, I haven’t reviewed the arguments in detail. I would say in theory, a large increase in college educated labor would tend to depress the wages of the college trained, and bid-up the wages for the remaining labor force who, it would seem, would be in shorter supply for lower skilled jobs. The wage gap in that scenario would diminish and a case could be made that it was not k-12 productivity as a cause. A large influx of foreign born workers has prevented the wages of the less skilled from being bid-up, so, on balance, I guess I still have no idea which side my comment supports which is a pretty good indication I am in over my head.
At this point I have to agree with Murray, though I think it can change if K-12 does improve.
If you think it can change if K-12 improves, then you really agree more with Marcus than you do with Murray!
Well, the dispute over the value of a college education is part of a larger dispute over whether or not school quality makes a difference to outcomes for most students. Murray believes that for the vast majority of students, school quality is not a very important factor in student outcomes because the outcomes are largely determined before the kids arrive in school. Marcus points out a bunch of research where the data show that’s bogus (unfortunately in an NRO article he can’t really get into the chapter and verse, which is part of the reason Murray falsely says there are no data backing up Marcus’s claim). So if you think K-12 reform would improve outcomes you’re in Marcus’s camp, because you believe school quality makes a difference.
Greg, you may have missed your calling – I see a new line of “Cliff Notes” on important public policy issues in your future.
If, as Murray’s work implies, college for many simply extends a HS education (at least in terms of life outcomes) that would not seem to preclude the need for school reform. Arguably schools “fail the least” with those clearly destined for college. The greatest failure of schools is among students who are “at the margin” – typically from families without a history of college attainment and fewer references to education’s importance. These are kids with the right influences and direction could obtain some postesecondary education. That doesnt happen often in schools, in part, because guidance departments have little or know understanding of the real economy and the opportunities within it. I have spoken to and worked with guidance personnel in many schools and my impression is that a majority see the working world as a very cruel place with few opportunties unless you go to a top college. Guidance personnel take pride in the top ten grads some of whome may attend an Ivy but their real work shines when they get a kid who is marginally attached to school to graduate, maybe get a 2 yr tech degree, with an opportunity for a decent job (we need electricians and plumbers!) and the possibility of furthering their education as neccessary.
They may never read the “Bell Curve” but I am not convinced that makes life any less worth living.
Put me in Winter’s camp.