Education Opinion

Gresham’s Law and a College Degree

By Walt Gardner — May 11, 2011 2 min read
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Convinced that the best jobs will move to states with a highly qualified work force, President Obama Obama is determined to add eight million college graduates by 2020. I question the wisdom of this strategy.

First, quantity is not synonymous with quality. Merely increasing the number of college graduates is no assurance that they will possess the knowledge and skills necessary for the workplace. As I’ve written before, colleges too often are education-free zones where partying trumps studying. Unless steps are taken to evaluate what students have learned after four years, the increase in the number of degree holders provides a false sense of accomplishment.

Second, many well paying jobs do not require a college degree. In fact, the only jobs that will be safe in the years ahead will be those that cannot be offshored electronically. As a result, mere possession of a sheepskin is no protection. Moreover, the wage premium attached to a degree has to be weighed against the cost of acquiring it. That’s why data showing only 28 percent of young adults in Arkansas, Nevada and New Mexico have college degrees, compared with more than half in Massachusetts, North Dakota and the District of Columbia are essentially meaningless (“Incentives Offered to Raise College Graduation Rates,” New York Times, Mar. 22). The data have to be put into context, which William Deresiewicz does masterfully in “The Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education” (The Nation, May 4).

Finally, there’s the more fundamental issue that is the third rail in education debates. How many young people are really college material? I realize that this question sounds elitist, but I still think it needs to be explored more fully. There is a difference between academic education and vocational training. College is supposed to be about the former, but it has increasingly been about the latter. That’s certainly the case with the Obama administration’s latest plan. Students who lack academic aptitude would be far better served by getting a certificate from a community college than by attending a four-year college or university.

That’s because it’s painful to watch students struggling with reading lists and subjects that they are not prepared for. In Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008), Charles Murray maintains that “no more than 20 percent of students have that level of ability, and 10 percent is a more realistic estimate.” We can argue all day long about the percentages, but I think Murray is being realistic.

The Atlantic published an essay coming to the same conclusion (“An Anti-College Backlash?”). As the writer, Professor X, put it: “I was expected to coax critically reasoned research papers from students who possessed no life of the mind at all: young and not-so-young men and women who didn’t read and thought not a whit about ideas.” In short, college is no longer an intellectual venue.

Even if we are somehow able to achieve the goal that the Obama administration has set, we will likely see Gresham’s law in action. In economics, it means that cheap money tends to drive dear money out of circulation. In education, it means that the flood of degrees in the market devalues their worth. As a result, employers will lose confidence in what a degree signifies. They will then be forced to look for other indicators of quality such as brand names.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.