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The Hyperinflation of College and its Unintended Outcomes

 Politicians these days like to talk of sending EVERY child to COLLEGE.  While inspiring, it makes me think they are missing the reasons behind failing schools and our education systems’ inability to prepare EVERY child for a hopeful future.  It also leads me to think about the unintended outcomes, which usually come to haunt all well meaning but poorly thought out, simplistic political initiatives.

The net effect of trying to send everyone through a four-year well-rounded degree program will be threefold:

1) the college degree will increasingly lose its value as a method of distinguishing the probable capability level of knowledge workers, thus employers will look to other criteria such as experience, graduate studies, domain expertise, and whether or not the degree is from an institution they perceive as ranked highly and exclusive;

2) the number of colleges will proliferate in the face of inelastic demand, thus driving up costs as they compete with each other by increasing marketing and admissions coddling expenditures (not just brochures but shiny new infrastructure) and building non-core programs to capitalize on the inability of prospective students to distinguish the strength of their intended programs;

3) those unfortunate souls who are not college track or those who did not go to college will likely have a negative self-image that not only will reduce the quality of life but also prevent many of them from self-educating, self-motivating, and seeking opportunities they may desire, thus debasing both the American Dream and a core driver of our economy – determined and motivated go-getters from all walks of life.

I have no data, but I would venture to say that these trends are well into already happening.  For instance:

1) The hiring practices of top firms now centers exclusively on a red carpet from top ten universities while worker training programs have more or less been externalized in much of the knowledge economy – making for “talent wars” over the same set of people rather than expanding the pool of those that have the needed skill set.

2) Look to any lesser-known college or university and they are likely spending frustrating sums on not only recruitment efforts per matriculated student but also on increasing the sets of possible studies and investing in all things shiny, new, and trendy, including rebranding with some sort of “global make a difference” theme.  Charles Miller, who headed the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, recently refuted the idea that college provides a return on investment of $1,000,000:
“[P]roperly using the present value of the lifetime earnings, adjusted for the cost of going to college and the difference in the number of working years, and excluding those graduates with advanced degrees, calculated at the three percent discount rate used in the report produces a lifetime earnings differential of only $279,893 for a bachelor’s degree versus a high school degree!”

3) Pockets of sub-cultures in urban and rural areas are dependent on government assistance and conditions there are deteriorating.  While attendance in college is going up, high school graduation rates are falling as those unsuccessful at pre-college track curriculum wave a white flag and drop out.
All of these effects are in no way exclusively caused by the push to send everyone to college, but certainly a relationship can be drawn.  It should be evident that no solution is exclusively rhetorical or involves some sort of “political will” of the people.

And, it should be made clear that addressing even the most politically savvy mom and apple pie issues can have serious unintended consequences.  Perhaps politicians and even the non-profit world should rethink the implications of even trying to send EVERY child to COLLEGE and start thinking about providing a diverse set of opportunities with the goal to prepare them to contribute to our economy, find value in their life through their work, and have a secure livelihood.

One Response to “The Hyperinflation of College and its Unintended Outcomes”

  1. Tom Huchko April 10, 2008 at 2:01 pm #

    There are great of skilled jobs that do not require a college degree. There will always be a demand for the good mechanics, plumbers and other tradesmen. Some of them make a heck of a lot more than the college grad; and without the student loans to pay off.

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