Fallacy and Folly: Higher Education Edition

The Washington Examiner has this column by Glenn Harian Reynolds on higher education. While I generally disagree with most of his analysis I think he brings up some interesting points. This is one I’d like to take a look at:

This is a simple case of inflation: When you artificially pump up the supply of something (whether it’s currency or diplomas), the value drops. The reason why a bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability is that the government decided that as many people as possible should have bachelor’s degrees.

I’m not exactly sure I understand this concept of educational inflation as Reynolds expresses it. Whenever I read about student loan debt, the 290% increase in tuition costs are usually discussed as inflationary:

Or even the 511% growth in student loan debt:

To be fair, he does specifically mention the supply of bachelors diplomas. Maybe we’re just ‘giving away’ too many damn diplomas. There’s two ways we can approach this:

1. The percentage of students completing bachelor’s degrees starting in 1996-2001, and then 2003-2009, from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (h/t The Quick and the Ed):

The last BPS found that 62.7 percent of 1996 students who began at a four-year college seeking a bachelor’s degree got one by 2001. Yesterday, NCES released the first results from the newest BPS, which tracked students from 2003 to 2009. It found a nearly identical national graduation rate: 63.2 percent. Of the remaining students, 4 percent earned an associate’s degree or certificate, 8.8 percent were still enrolled at a four-year institution, 2.9 percent were enrolled at a two-year institution, and 21 percent had dropped out.

So we see an attainment rate of around 63 percent and a fairly stable for a 13 year period. I can’t imagine that number has particularly skyrocketed in the last two years. Sure, this number is probably a substantial change since 1970, but we’re particularly paying attention to the last two decades. Reynolds feels that BA(S) degrees have become especially less useful in this time, quoting another:

“Until the early 1970s, less than 11 percent of the adult population graduated from college…A bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability.”

Having looked at the attainment rates for bachelor degrees, maybe his use of the word inflationary refers to the change in the amount of people enrolling in college. Which brings us to the second way of looking at “supply.”

2. The percentage change in enrollment in post-secondary institutions, also from the NCES:

Enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased by 9 percent between 1989 and 1999. Between 1999 and 2009, enrollment increased 38 percent, from 14.8 million to 20.4 million. Much of the growth between 1999 and 2009 was in full-time enrollment; the number of full-time students rose 45 percent, while the number of part-time students rose 28 percent. During the same time period, the number of enrolled females rose 40 percent, while the number of enrolled males rose 35 percent.

Casually adding those two numbers gives us a percentage change of 47 in increased enrollment from 1989 – 2009, much of which came between ’99 and ’09. Of course 47% may sound like a lot for a 20 year period. Yet this kind of increase seems awfully pitiful next to a 290% increase in tuition and 511% increase in student loan debt in roughly the same time period. I can imagine why most people would focus on tuition and student loan debt increases when thinking of things that should concern us about higher-education.

I suppose there is one way for me to understand the motivation behind the analysis in this column, and that is to understand that for a certain segment of the American populace (on all levels of the knowledge spectrum) there exists incentives – financial, philosophical, ideological, emotional, etc – to participate in a type of purposeful fallacy whereby every societal ill (whether imagined or real) can be blamed on the federal government. So sure, a 47% increase in college enrollment coupled with a 63% attainment rate may sound like a disastrously horrific societal defect for Reynolds, but I imagine most people would welcome this kind of increase. Let’s deal with the issues that we do have, not the issues we imagine we have.

*I may go back to some of this other comments, but I’ll assume this is enough for now.


One response to “Fallacy and Folly: Higher Education Edition

  1. Pingback: Is vocational education a better alternative? | Punditocracy·

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