When Will Robots Replace Journalists Urging Everyone to Go to College?

…Is the question that crossed my mind reading David Leonhardt’s, “Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say,” for The New York Times.

The title alone tells you exactly how this article will play out. The “new data” will specify the returns to higher education for the “average college graduate,” who is, apparently, everyone who goes to college. There will be some quotes from notable college-for-all economists who haven’t left campus for the real world in ages. There will then be liberal-esque dismissal of student loan debt and how tough it is for college grads to find good jobs. The article will close with a bunch of hail-Mary pseudo-arguments about the consequences of not sending everyone to college. There might be a line about naughty for-profits.

Leonhardt’s article fits just about all the points.

Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree.

There’s your “average” earnings premium.

“We have too few college graduates,” says David Autor, an M.I.T. economist, who was not involved in the Economic Policy Institute’s analysis.

There’s your cloistered economist.

But what about all those alarming stories you hear about indebted, jobless college graduates?

The anecdotes may be real, yet the conventional wisdom often exaggerates the problem. Among four-year college graduates who took out loans, average debt is about $25,000, a sum that is a tiny fraction of the economic benefits of college. (My own student debt, as it happens, was almost identical to this figure, in inflation-adjusted terms.)

Student debt excuses, check. They aren’t a problem because someday grads will have the college job that’ll enable them to pay them off. Debtors need to have faith, but don’t worry about David Leonhardt, he’ll do just fine because he’s just as average as you are with his job at the NYT.

Those who question the value of college tend to be those with the luxury of knowing their own children will be able to attend it.

As the economy becomes more technologically complex, the amount of education that people need will rise. At some point, 15 years or 17 years of education will make more sense as a universal goal.

And there’re your hail-Marys. (I’d love to know Leonhardt’s source for the first one.)

Nothing on the perfidious for-profits, but Leonhardt’s defensiveness is entertaining.

It’s important to emphasize these shortfalls because public discussion today — for which we in the news media deserve some responsibility — often focuses on the undeniable fact that a bachelor’s degree does not guarantee success. But of course it doesn’t. Nothing guarantees success, especially after 15 years of disappointing economic growth and rising inequality.

In other words, if college doesn’t pay off, don’t expect David Leonhardt to solemnly assess the situation. He’ll just blame “inequality” instead.

If NYT articles on higher education are going to be so one-sided and filled with unsubstantiated claims about its critics, why can’t we just replace their authors with robots?



  1. Average student loan debt of $25,000? Does the New York Times still think it is 2009 or so? Average student loan debt this year is $33,000.

    And while the economy becoming more complex, it is also becoming much more efficient and globally connected. The outsourced manufacturing jobs of yesterday are the outsourced lawyering, computer programming, backroom high-level math for industrial applications, radiology, etc jobs of today. One might point out that nearly all of the fastest-growing jobs in America do not require a college education. Store clerk, home health aide, etc.

    1. But Unemployed Northeastern, certainly you know that Andrew Carnevale proved that college-educated people take non-college jobs because the work they do requires more skill. The BLS categories are too rigid!

      Anyway, you may’ve seen these, but I really liked Paul E. Harrington’s and Andrew Sum’s, “College Labor Shortages in 2018?” which responded to Carnevale’s report. They focus on the earnings of college-educated workers in non-college jobs in New England and found the premium to be about 5-8%, even for people with advanced degrees. Their surrebuttal to Carnevale is here.

      1. Autor and Carnevale are the kings of mal-/under-employment deniers.

        Very few note that the reason for the widening college wage premium is that high school wages are declining (there is a wider gap between 0 and 4 than 8 and 10, but no one seems to grasp this regarding wages), and that most of the research on college wages fail to disaggregate between those with just a 4 year degree, and those with a 4 year degree plus graduate studies.

        What’s really troubling is the number of state level policymakers who use Carnevale’s work as proof that state and local economies will turn around if only we have more college graduates. Again, there is no such thing as over-production or mal-employment

  2. If college is to become the new high school, then there’s going to have to be some changes. The current model of constant prestige-driven rapid price inflation is simply unsustainable. Ultimately what may need to happen is that the government will have to take over most colleges and offer basic but serviceable college degrees essentially free of charge, like what they do with high schools under the K12 system.

    Or perhaps America could just step back from its apparent goal of trying to give 100% of the population bachelor or greater degrees. Put viable options other than college in place so that not going to college becomes respectable once again for middle class kids.

  3. But shouldn’t there be a wage gap between 4-year degree holders versus high school grads? I do not think this is the worst from the “College for all” brigade.

    I do think Leonhardt should have included the classic line “Correlation is not causation” when describing the economic trend however.

    The straight juice that David minces around is that our economy is shite, we are in an era of massive inequality perpetuated by super high concentrations of wealth backed by an over-arching and nebulous federal authority, and clueless Boomers that still hold enough nervous purse strings to avoid changing anything too fast right now. I mean really, John Kerry, the guy who testified about Vietnam, would today happily have Snowden executed for Treason.

    1. To the extent that college imparts human capital that qualifies graduates for higher-paying jobs they could not have performed otherwise, then yes, there should be a wage premium. But if the Leonhardts of the world think that “average” means “everyone less a few unlucky exceptions,” then they’re substituting solid research methods for ideology. Leonhardt may not be the Lumina Foundation, but he’s still not meeting the minimum standard of competence in reporting on the topic. Either you know how composition fallacies work or you don’t. Even Wonkblog was better on this last year, except it didn’t research the topic thoroughly enough.

      As for the economy being shite: That’s not good news for college grads because if they enter the workforce underemployed or mal-employed, then they won’t get much of a premium. Since Leonhardt should know the economy’s barely growing (1Q revision is at 1.0%), he should recognize that today’s college grads aren’t as privileged as he was. Nevertheless, he arrogantly points to his $25k-equivalent debt and says that he did okay so everyone else will.

      As for John Kerry, he’s so deep in the hole for running for president as a pro-war Democrat in 2004 that he has very little credibility with me.

      1. “That’s not good news for college grads because if they enter the workforce underemployed or mal-employed, then they won’t get much of a premium. Since Leonhardt should know the economy’s barely growing (1Q revision is at 1.0%), he should recognize that today’s college grads aren’t as privileged as he was.”

        And studies (Lisa Kahn of Yale; Philip Oreopoulos of U. of Toronto) have shown that college students who graduated into the much softer recessions of the 1980’s and 1990’s have lower salaries decades later than their peers who did not graduate into those recessions. Given the severity of this recession, to say nothing of the exploding number of college graduates around the world and concomitant outsourcing of white-collar work, we can reasonably expect the career earnings of our cohort to be much, much worse.

        And then there’s the student loan debt.

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