Many policy discussions are conducted on an open stage in full view of the public. I doubt if anyone reading this article is unaware of the ongoing arguments surrounding immigration, climate change, gun control and the budget deficit. The public's familiarity with these topics isn't accidental. Those on various sides of these issues employ public relations experts, lobbyists and marketing firms to advance their viewpoints.
Other policy discussions are conducted with much less fanfare. Yet, some of these quiet debates are vitally important. One example is the current debate on how many Americans should go to college.
On one side of the debate are those who contend the country would be better off if fewer Americans choose to go to college. Those with this perspective make three different, but interrelated, points. First, they claim a significant portion of jobs do not require a college education. Their second contention is that the improved earnings that come with a college education do not justify the costs. The final argument is that many Americans do not possess the intellectually capacity to benefit from a college education.
To a large extent, Richard Freeman started the current debate with his book The Overeducated American. For the past decade, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute has been one of the more adamant proponents of this perspective. The title of one of Murray's recent articles, "For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time," provides an accurate summary of his position.
Others, including the Lumina Foundation and the Utah System of Higher Education, are committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with degrees and post-secondary credentials.
In May, two economists, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, released a detailed study which presents compelling data that more young people should attend college. Here are a few of the findings from their report "The Undereducated American."
In the United States, the rate of growth in college-educated young people has dropped by more than half. From 1915 to 1990 the supply of college graduates grew by 3.1 percent per year. Since 1990, the supply of colleges has fallen to 1.5 percent per year.
Carnevale and Rose contend that there is a growing deficit between the demand of the workforce and the number of college graduates available. They write, "To correct our undersupply and meet our efficiency and equity goals for the economy and for our society, we will need to add an additional 20 million postsecondary-educated workers to the economy by 2025."
One of their findings is likely to surprise even the most ardent advocates for a college education. Specifically, Carnevale and Rose find that college graduates in blue-collar jobs that do not require a bachelor's degree earn significantly more than their coworkers who have not attained a bachelor's degree. Real estate agents, telemarkers, cashiers, dental hygienists, and travel agents with bachelor's degrees earn from 47 percent to 76 percent more than their counterparts who lack a bachelor's degree. Indeed, Carnevale and Rose didn't find a single occupation where a college degree didn't carry a significant wage premium.
Carnevale and Rose conclude that by 2025, 60 percent of the 25 to 30 aged population should hold a college degree of some type; presently that number is only 42 percent.
As I stated in the introduction, much of the public is unaware of the debate surrounding the proportion of the population who should attend college. Many are unaware of the Lumina Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute. For this reason, the public may have a more open mind on the issue of college attendance than other hot-topic issues. In some ways this is good because an open mind is receptive to new ideas. For those that would like to learn more about the issue of college attendance, the recent study by Carnevale and Rose is a good place to start.