Friday, March 2, 2012

The Debate Over the Value of Higher Education

The comment of President Barack Obama that everyone should go to college, and candidate Rick Santorum response that Obama's comment amount to elitism, has clumsily sparked a much-needed discussion of the merit of higher education.

I would seem an unusual person to raise skepticism about the value of higher education.  My father was a high school dropout who left school in 10th grade to get a job and help out his parents (my paternal grandparents) who were struggling financially.  Four of my father's five sons though (no daughters) were able to go to and graduate from college.  I later graduated from law school and, in addition to being an attorney, I've taught at the college level for most of the past 24 years.

So I of all people should be someone who praises higher education and emphasize its importance.  But instead what you hear from me is skepticism along with a warning that higher education is not for everyone and some post-secondary education can leave people mired deeply in debt and overqualified for jobs.

It depends first of all on what you believe the role of higher education is.  Many view higher education as being about enlightenment, giving people the opportunity to meet a diversity of people with a diversity of thought, to explore new ways of looking at issues.  While that is indeed important, I take an alternative view, that at the end of the day higher education needs to be about preparing people for their future careers, making them more employable with the opportunity to seek higher salaries.

When I graduated from law school in 1987, I had the idea that my J.D., my law degree and the background a law education provided, would open the door to non-law jobs and help me succeed in non-legal fields.  I was very wrong.  I instead found that the law degree limited my job opportunities.  Employers were simply not willing to hire law school graduates for non-legal type jobs, despite the fact doing so seems to make perfect sense.  I went into the law in 1987 following passing the bar and have been there ever since.

Fortunately though I had it much better off than the lawyers-to-be who followed me.  The market for attorneys has become increasingly saturated.  Salaries for new associates, who aren't members of the big downtown law firms, has barely increased in the past twenty years.  Many law firms have stopped paying salaries associates only get a portion of the legal fees on clients they bring into the firm.  Worse yet, law school tuition has risen markedly.  I hear horror stories of law students graduating with over a $100,000 student loan debt and not being able to find any job.

Worse yet, the law schools lie to students about salary and employment prospects.  Just a few years ago, my law school alma mater, Indiana University School of Law at Indianapolis, claimed that 95% of students are employed within nine months of graduation and those ex-students are averaging $65,000 a year.   (In the light of recent lawsuits against law schools over their data, I notice that IU- Indianapolis has quietly started lowering their employment numbers and salary averages.)  I have complained about these lies for about a decade, and once asked Indiana University to produce the graduate surveys that backed up the school's outrageous claims.  Not surprisingly, IU officials refused to produce the surveys, but did happen to mention that the school "estimates" the salary and employment of people who do not return the surveys. 

I so often run into new lawyers who enter the profession with the belief that their law degree and law license will be the passport to a higher income and a better life.  Months later they find themselves facing enormous debt (which is nondischargable in bankruptcy) and with an education that does not land them a job in the legal profession and disqualifies them from non-legal job.  The look of desperation on the faces of those individuals is something you won't soon forget.

But law is not the only area where the degree can disqualify you fromjobs.  Many people I know have gotten an MBA thnking that will make them more employable with a higher salary.  They, like law school graduates, often find the education closes doors, not open them.

While above I talk about how graduate degrees can overqualify people, the same things applies to college.  Some people just are not cut out for college.  For many people, going to college would simply mean a four year delay from entering the field they were destined to enter.

We need to get away from the notion that everyone should go to college.  There are plenty of smart people who do not go any further than high school.  We should not look down our collective noses at people who choose a different path in life.  They may well be a lot smarter than those of us who have chosen the path of higher education.


Nicolas Martin said...

We need not oppose the notion that everyone should go to college. After all, we don't have to oppose everyone having large TVs or Land Rovers. We should oppose government subsidy of education and leave it to individuals (and their private benefactors) to decided if college is worth the effort and expense. Remove government loans and you eliminate the problem; there is no longer an incentive to over-consume. The education bubble bursts.

deuber said...

It's impossible to argue against the logic of this post, but seemingly easy to dispute the context.

College degrees, bachelor degrees and associates degrees.. are becoming more relevant in our economy, not less relevant.
Technology is decreasing the need for manual labor and the economy needs more brains functioning at a higher level.

How are Obama and Santorum related to this?

Santorum is a fool for characterizing education with the elite. He's clearly trying to swing a sentamentalist vote in his favor.

Since when were elitists deemed to be the smarter portion of out population? Elitists are ignorant assess whom, if educated, ignore the more fundamental and human parts of their education.

Indy Student said...

I think it's important to emphasize that in Obama's SOTU address, he stressed the importance of post-high school education. INCLUDING college but also community colleges, certification, and all types of training.

While specifically a college education and post-graudate work might not be as important as it once was, having some form of education or professional training beyond high school is very important. And I think we're making progress to expanding certification, associates degrees, and such, but in many areas, we've got a long way to go.

IndyDem said...

I agree, Matt. I've been saying for years, from personal experience. I've got boat loads of friends who went on to college and then grad school who have been unemployeed once or twice in this recent recession. I went to trade school and have been employeed at the same place for 15 years. The important thing here is to not get locked into a box thinking that higer education means college. Likewise, high school should be prep for life. Learning life skills needed by everyone. Nutrition, personal banking and basic eonomics should all be as manditory as basic math or English.

patriot paul said...

I would argue that most HS students have no clue what future job they really want. After you complete your basic and elective course requirements, you may be an educated idiot & have no direction what field of interest some employment may hold. College or trade schools should be for specialized/technical training and certainly not applicable for everyone. Not everyone should be expected to aspire to a profession. In fact, many join the armed services where they get on the job employment training and get paid at the same time.