Should you be studying?

From discussing the possibilities of making tertiary education more accessible, I now segue to the other side of the debate: Are there too many people getting university degrees, and are they worth it?

The issue is exacerbated in the US, where the stakes are so much higher. A college education not only incorporates all the learning during the years of your degree, but is also the quintessential cultural experience of every middle-class youth: from madly rushing fraternities, to playing beer pong at the pre-football match tailgate party, to sharing the best places on campus for an all-nighter before finals – there comes a time in every man’s life, and college is not that time. But behind all the fun are the hours spent working and the years of family planning to accumulate the college fund necessary to pay for the degree.

Peter Theil, American entrepreneur, venture capitalist, hedge fund manager, first outside investor in Facebook and all-round success-story offers his two cents:

“Education is a bubble in a classic sense…It’s basically extremely overpriced. People are not getting their money’s worth…And at the same time it is something that is incredibly intensely believed; there’s this sort of psycho-social component to people taking on these enormous debts when they go to college simply because that’s what everybody’s doing.”1

The proportion of society’s resources going towards funding higher education has tripled over the past half-century and tuition costs are rising at a rate faster than inflation. Meanwhile, the market is being flooded with college graduates, leaving some of them to take jobs that require minimal qualifications, such as waitressing and bartending, in turn eliminating people without college degrees from taking these jobs. Richard Vedder from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, claims that the US has “engaged in massive and costly credential inflation to certify competency for jobs.”2

For those who drop-out of college, the outcomes are bleaker. They face lower job prospects than their college-completing counterparts and still have large amounts of student debt to shoulder. Such high stakes prompt valiant efforts to put a value on college, with one finding declaring that 45% of students didn’t demonstrate any significant improvement in learning during their first two years of college, and that students gain more by studying alone rather than in groups.3 If so, may the frivolous expense of college be speedily replaced by no-frills MOOCs.

Yet despite all the debate, consensus is that college degrees are worth it. Over their lifetime, college graduates make vastly more than their degree-less peers and the lack of jobs for graduates may not reflect a surplus of bachelor degrees, but rather a society that is up-skilling. Put simply by Norton Grubb, professor of higher education at the University of California, Berkeley:

“Education has not stopped delivering its expected returns, not in terms of income or (un)employment. It has stopped delivering on the promise of a middle-class job = professions and managerial occupations, for which a BA was sufficient in the 60s, and for which an MA is now necessary.  So this leads to education inflation = middle-class kids seeking MA degrees and professional degrees, where a BA might have sufficed a generation ago.”4

In Australia the situation is a lot milder. Twenty-nine per cent of 25-34 year olds have degree level qualifications, with the Bradley review of higher education concerned that we are now ranked 9th among OECD countries, dropping from 7th a decade ago. To answer targets of up to 50% in other countries, the review has proposed a 40% target for Australia. It claims that with globalisation and growth of the information sector, Australia will need more graduates in order to meet the demands of the future economy and remain competitive. Furthermore, to increase our numbers, the review claims we must look to demographics where degree attainment has traditionally been low, for example, students of low SES backgrounds or those who reside in rural areas.

But does this mean that universities should open their doors to as many students as they can?

Primary and secondary education deliver the highest positive externalities, but as people progress (especially towards tertiary studies), the benefits of education are internalised and the externalities diminish. Thus, is there some optimal level of education for most (or all) people to attain? Given current legislation, society seems to place this level at about year 10. If the majority were to progress onto university, or if people who traditionally should not go to university ultimately do, then there are costs of:

  • foregone wages
  • labour skills shortages in the areas these students would’ve traditionally entered upon completing high school
  • time and effort of students and teachers, especially if the degree is not finished
  • teachers spending more time on less able students at the expense of the better students

There are also matters of efficiency – without considering the internalised benefit that university may develop a well-rounded character – do certain occupations need a university qualification? And if not, is it efficient to spend the time and money attaining a credential that isn’t relevant or required?

Then there are also dangers when universities start lowering ATAR prerequisites for courses in order to enrol more students. Earlier this year The Age reported dismal figures for entry rankings to study teaching in Victorian universities. Among them is the mere 43.35 required by Ballarat University’s Melbourne campus. Should these people be teachers and should they be going to university at all?

The more people going to university, the more bachelor degrees are devalued, and the more necessary postgraduate coursework becomes. Perhaps this is fitting since some Australian universities are trying to introduce a liberal arts system, yet there is concern that we run the risk of producing a generation of adults overqualified and too intelligent for manual labour. On the other hand, with the manufacturing sector playing a smaller role in tomorrow’s economy, is this such a pressing issue?

As Steve Hind, former director of debates of the University of Sydney Union most elegantly puts it, “…at the end of the day, as much as we need people to sit atop the dreaming spires, we still need someone to wire them and to make their toilets flush.” 5