…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?