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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationOCTOBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 2 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
Trouble on the Horizon - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
Get SMART - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
Tulane's Next Move - BY JEFFREY SELINGO

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
CONTRIBUTORS
BRIEFINGS
REFRACTIONS: ENGINEERING AND HISTORY - BY HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: The College Payoff - BY ANTHONY P. CARNEVALE

TEACHING TOOLBOX
Let Go of My Legos - Those little bricks are a wonderful way to teach engineering to youngsters. BY ALICE DANIEL
BOOK REVIEW: An Inconvenient Truth - BY ROBIN TATU
TEACHING: The Plague of Self-Plagiarism - BY PHILLIP WANKAT AND FRANK OREOVICZ
ON CAMPUS: The Write Solution- BY LYNNE SHALLCROSS










 
LAST WORD: The College Payoff - BY ANTHONY P. CARNEVALE  

A NUMBER OF INFLUENTIAL PUNDITS ARE QUESTIONING THE VALUE OF A COLLEGE EDUCATION.

An assault on the value of a college education is coming from an unlikely corner: prominent liberal economists. Where their ideological predecessors fought to open higher education’s doors to the disadvantaged, influential voices on the left have lately been declaring that the earning power of a college degree is overblown.

...former Federal Reserve Vice-Chairman Alan Blinder recently warned that offshoring will so shrink the job market for the college-educated in the United States that many students would do better to pursue a trade...Sadly, this misguided message is being trumpeted by some pretty impressive thinkers. Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute moans that the wage premium for skills has fallen during the current business cycle. Princeton University’s Paul Krugman goes even further, saying that not only are college-educated workers not sharing in the nation’s recent prosperity but that “improving our educational system is not the way to mitigate inequality.” Even former Federal Reserve Vice-Chairman Alan Blinder recently warned that offshoring will so shrink the job market for the college-educated in the United States that many students would do better to pursue a trade or face-to-face personal service.

But this recent liberal cooling of opinion toward college seems to have more to do with politics than economics. By asserting that a college degree may no longer guarantee a good job, these policy wonks (many still fuming since Republicans took the Congress and President Bill Clinton lurched to the right in hot pursuit of a second term) can argue that only an expansion of the welfare state and national industrial policies can save us from global economic forces.

Yet casting aspersions on the value of college in order to resurrect shopworn ideas is not only factually inaccurate, it’s also politically reckless. Americans across the political spectrum welcome the nation’s increasing reliance on education as the arbiter of economic opportunity because, in theory, education allows us to expand merit-based opportunity without surrendering individual responsibility. We each have to do our own homework to make the grades that get us into college, and thus in line for the “good” jobs. Education has become America’s Third Way between runaway markets on the right and welfare state dependency on the left.

The wage advantage of a college degree over a high school diploma increased by 83 percent from 1979 to 2003, or about $1 million over a working career. And advantages for college grads have grown over the period despite an 11 percent increase, equal to about 33 million new job seekers, in the supply of college-educated workers. Krugman worries that the college wage premium increased by only 1 percent per annum since 1975. Only? Where I come from, an increase of 1 percent per annum compounded over 30 years is real money.

A recent pause in the growth of earnings advantages for college grads seems to have fueled much of the current debate. Average wages of college grads did fall 3 percent, or about $1,600, from 2001 to 2004. But such lulls are common in wage growth: Wages for the college-educated declined in the “jobless” economic recovery of the mid-1990s, only to be followed by an explosion in both job growth and wage advances later in the decade. Moreover, the decline scenario may be a timing fluke: Use 2000 rather than 2001 as the base year and average wages of college grads actually increased by about $2,000, or 4 percent, by 2004.

Still, higher wages aren’t the only payoff in the workplace. Nearly 95 percent of full-time workers ages 25 to 54 with at least a bachelor’s degree have healthcare coverage, while about 90 percent have retirement plans. Such coverage drops to 81 percent and 80 percent, respectively, for similarly aged workers with high school diplomas.

With the demise of the blue-collar economy (which let workers with modest skills earn middle-class salaries), college is no longer just a preferred avenue to professional careers; it is increasingly the only route to economic success. I’ll bet that none of those who are knocking higher ed’s value are telling their own kids to skip college. Until they do, their public pronouncements just add up to a lot of bad advice for other people’s children.

Anthony P. Carnevale, a senior fellow at Education Sector, is a former economist for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

 

 


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American Society for Engineering Education