About those 100,000 Extra College Degrees…

by James A. Bacon

Gov. Bob McDonnell has set a goal for Virginia institutions of higher learning to award 100,000 more degrees in the next 15 years. “In this increasingly interconnected global economy a world-class education is the key to economic growth in our communities and personal success for our citizens,” he said last year when touting the Higher Education Opportunity Act. “A well-educated citizenry is what companies are looking for when they are deciding where to locate and expand. I want Virginia to be a magnet for the high-paying jobs of the 21st century.”

In so speaking, the governor articulated one of the few truths that resonate across regions, political parties and special interest groups. In setting the 1000,000-degrees goal, McDonnell employed logic very similar to that of President Obama, who espouses the ideal that everyone who wants to go to college should be able to. Few would disagree.

This trope in American political discourse does have some justification. Higher levels of education are correlated with higher levels of income — for individuals, for racial and ethnic groups, even for nations. But that broad truth obscures as much as it reveals. It is easy to oversell the value of educational investment. There is a risk that Virginians will spend more on higher education than can be rationally justified.

The governor cited a study by the Cooper Center at the University of Virginia, which concludes that awarding 100,000 more degrees would create $39.5 billion more in Virginia’s Gross Domestic Product by 2025, $36 billion in increased personal income and $4.1 billion in new tax revenues. “In short,” he said, “Virginians will be more prosperous and Virginia will be more competitive.”

Two points are worth making. First, not all college degrees are created equal. Some provide skills that are more highly valued and more highly compensated in the marketplace than other degrees. According to “What’s It Worth?“, a publication of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, those who hold degrees in petroleum engineering have median earnings of $120,000, while those who earned degrees in counseling/psychology have median earnings of only $29,000. Thus, it very much matters which disciplines those 100,000 extra degrees are in. (It is reassuring to see that McDonnell’s Commission on Higher Education Reform is giving special attention to the so-called STEM degrees — science, technology, engineering and mathematics but there is no assurance that those are disciplines that Virginians will choose to master.)

Second, the fact that the average earnings of people with college degrees is $46,000 doesn’t mean that the median earnings of those 100,000 additional degree holders will be $46,000. Americans most likely to hold college degrees also are Americans who (a) come from families that placed a greater emphasis on academic achievement, (b) were better educated in high school, (c) are more highly motivated and self disciplined, and/or (d) are just plain smarter. Dipping deeper into the talent pool for the purpose of increasing college enrollments will not yield the same caliber of student. It is foolhardy for public policy makers to expect that these students have the same earnings prospects as those who started with more advantages in life — and it’s cruel to the students who will rack up large educational debts only to discover themselves earning less than expected.

Just as citizens must demand that lawmakers prioritize dollars invested in transportation and infrastructure by Return on Investment, we should insist that our dollars we spend on education be spent the same way. High-blown rhetoric may stir the soul but it won’t change the reality that we cannot afford to squander scarce public dollars.

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4 responses to “About those 100,000 Extra College Degrees…”

  1. in an earlier thread, I asked Groveton to supply the education requirements for some new positions being created.

    His response was a degree in CS …OR 2-5 years programming in Java.

    the question in my mind here is can a young person not get the level of experience he/she needs without a college degree or with a college degree but one not earned at a high-dollar traditional bricks/mortar outfit?

    I think we are on the cusp of more and more young people realizing that a degree alone or a degree in the wrong field is not worth the over-the-top fees now charged by the “brand name” universities.

    The countries that beat us in international assessments have two-track systems – college and technical – but technical is just as demanding and requires the same competence in using critical thinking skills in solving real world problems whereas in our country – we essentially abandon the kids who are not on a college track.

    they non-college bound kids comprise about 90% of the kids who do not meet NAEP/international proficiency benchmarks.

    and this is not a scorecard. We’re talking about who ends up needing entitlements.. and who pays them.

    we’ve focused on the best and brightest – at the expense of those who don’t have strong parental support but have perfectly good IQs and there are proven methods for reaching them and educating them but those methods are different from the methods used to teach kids who have strong parental support.

    if there was no consequences to this policy, some would just call it misguided but there are real consequences to not educating a majority who will grow up and enter the workforce and without enough education will labor as working poor who will not be able to afford things like health insurance.

    we are screwed up. We keep trying to evade the hard things that we cannot evade without damaging our own interests…

    public education by taxing everyone is justified only if we produce an educated and competitive workforce… not just the top one-third of the easiest ones…

  2. Jim:

    Glad to hear you defend the STEM degree programs. May I ask, what were your degree(s) in?

  3. My degrees?

    B.A. History
    M.A. History (African)
    M.A. Creative writing

    Really useful for the high-tech marketplace, eh? I have urged my daughters (and will urge my son) to pursue STEM degrees. Honorable Daughter #1 is pursuing an advanced degree in nursing. Honorable Daughter #2 just finished a program in library science, in which she ended up taking mostly IT and computer programming courses.

  4. Well, the creative writing degree is paying dividends every time you post something about Rail To Dulles!

    Good luck to you kids. Tell ’em to call me if they end up with enough CS credits to qualify for at least a minor in that field. Reverse brainwashing your children would be a challenge but I am up to it.

    Ok kids, chant along with Uncle Groveton …

    User pays is a smokescreen to further soak NoVa.
    User pays is a smokescreen to further soak NoVa.

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