Thursday, September 11, 2008

Too Many People Go To College

I would like to draw your attention to a fantastic article on education by Charles Murray: "Are Too Many People Going to College?" Murray is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he has also set out excellent ideas on economic reform, including his tax and entitlement reform known simply as "The Plan." But his ideas on education are his best thing yet.

At 6,000 words, the article probably strains the internet-reading limits of most people (which, I must note, is part of his point). Here is a key section:
Let me put these calculations in terms of a specific example, a young man who has just graduated from high school and is trying to decide whether to become an electrician or go to college and major in business, hoping to become a white-collar manager. . . .

He begins by looking up the average income of electricians and managers on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, and finds that the mean annual income for electricians in 2005 was$45,630, only about half of the $88,450 mean for management occupations. It looks as if getting a B.A. will buy him a huge wage premium. Should he try to get the B.A. on economic grounds?

To make his decision correctly, our young man must start by throwing out the averages. He has the ability to become an excellent electrician and can reasonably expect to be near the top of the electricians’ income distribution. He does not have it in him to be an excellent manager, because he is only average in interpersonal and intrapersonal ability and only modestly above average in academic ability, all of which are important for becoming a good manager, while his competitors for those slots will include many who are high in all of those abilities. Realistically, he should be looking at the incomes toward the bottom of the distribution of managers. With that in mind, he goes back to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website and discovers that an electrician at the 90th percentile of electricians’ incomes made $70,480 in 2005, almost twice the income of a manager at the 10th percentile of managers’ incomes ($37,800). Even if our young man successfully completes college and gets a B.A. (which is far from certain), he is likely to make less money than if he becomes an electrician.

Then there is job security to consider. A good way to make sure you always can find work is to be among the best at what you do. It also helps to have a job that does not require you to compete with people around the globe. . . . Low-level management jobs can often be outsourced to India, whereas electricians’ jobs cannot.

What I have said of electricians is true throughout the American job market. . . . The demand for skilled technicians of every kind—in healthcare, information technology, transportation networks, and every other industry that relies on high-tech equipment—is expanding. . . . Construction offers an array of high-paying jobs for people who are good at what they do. It’s not just skilled labor in the standard construction trades that is in high demand. The increase in wealth in American society has increased the demand for all sorts of craftsmanship. Today’s high-end homes and office buildings may entail the work of specialized skills in stonework, masonry, glazing, painting, cabinetmaking, machining, landscaping, and a dozen other crafts. The increase in wealth is also driving an increased demand for the custom-made and the exquisitely wrought, meaning demand for artisans in everything from pottery to jewelry to metalworking. There has never been a time in history when people with skills not taught in college have been in so much demand at such high pay as today, nor a time when the range of such jobs has been so wide. In today’s America, finding a first-rate lawyer or physician is easy. Finding first-rate skilled labor is hard.

Intrinsic Rewards

The topic is no longer money but job satisfaction—intrinsic rewards. . . . Our high-school graduate knows that he enjoys working with his hands and likes the idea of not being stuck in the same place all day, but he also likes the idea of being a manager sitting behind a desk in a big office, telling people what to do and getting the status that goes with it.

However, he should face facts that he is unlikely to know on his own, but that a guidance counselor could help him face. His chances of getting the big office and the status are slim. He is more likely to remain in a cubicle, under the thumb of the boss in the big office. He is unlikely to have a job in which he produces something tangible during the course of the day.

If he becomes a top electrician instead, he will have an expertise that he exercises at a high level. At the end of a workday, he will often be able to see that his work made a difference in the lives of people whose problems he has solved. He will not be confined to a cubicle and, after his apprenticeship, will be his own supervisor in the field. Top electricians often become independent contractors who have no boss at all.

The intrinsic rewards of being a top manager can be just as great as those of a top electrician (though I would not claim they are greater), but the intrinsic rewards of being a mediocre manager are not. Even as people in white-collar jobs lament the soullessness of their work, the intrinsic rewards of exercising technical skills remain undiminished.

Finally, there is an overarching consideration so important it is hard to express adequately: the satisfaction of being good at what one does for a living (and knowing it), compared to the melancholy of being mediocre at what one does for a living (and knowing it). This is another truth about living a human life that a 17-year-old might not yet understand on his own, but that a guidance counselor can bring to his attention. Guidance counselors and parents who automatically encourage young people to go to college straight out of high school regardless of their skills and interests are being thoughtless about the best interests of young people in their charge.

I would like to offer three comments to fill out Murray's excellent perspective.

First, I would like to connect his bell-curve analysis to one of my central theses: the importance of birth and family. Murray's 1994 book The Bell Curve was hugely controversial for pointing out the simple fact that most people are not exceptional, and many people are below average. (Murray was accused of being a racist, though I think that misses his point.) What I would like to point out is simply that where you come from matters. To expect the children of laborers to become doctors is unreasonable and unfair. It is also anti-family. It is appropriate for people to follow in their fathers' footsteps. It is natural. The passion in our culture for making everyone alike cuts out the beautiful diversity, and the beautiful continuity within families, that makes a culture strong.

Murray is not saying that the sons of laborers should be barred from college. He is saying that people are different, and their differences should be accepted: let the natural electrician be an electrician! I would add, letting people be who they are recognizes that family matters. That recognition is good, first, because it is true: an educational system that tries to make family irrelevant is bound to fail, because family makes a difference. And second, society is stronger when people are free to be part of their family, instead of being pushed to scorn who they are and where they come from.

Second point: I disagree with Murray's dismissal of brick-and-mortar campuses. Murray is too quick to dismiss the intangible goods of being in the same place. Or rather, the tangible goods: I love email and the internet, and they have greatly helped my intellectual development, but being in the same room as a person, holding a book in your hand, and walking through a library are important precisely because we are material beings. Disembodied friendship is not fully human friendship.

Murray would have done better to say that the kind of personal, tangible contact for which universities are built is hampered by the presence of people who do not really want to be there. And the real way to "come in contact with people who are different" is through real contact: that is, through actual human interaction, which happens much more when you are actually engaged, on the job, than when you are just showing up for class. "College" does not happen just by throwing everyone onto the same campus. It happens, on campus or off, when people are actually interacting about things in which they are invested.

In any case, I do not think Murray's dismissal of brick-and-mortar colleges plays any crucial role in his argument.

Last point: Murray is perhaps too quick to dismiss the value of liberal education for true human development. This is something we should try to make more broadly available -- it is a key part of the Catholic educational mission from the beginning.

However, we should again acknowledge that true liberal education cannot happen without personal investment, and it has very little to do with 32 courses or a piece of paper. One of the great benefits of eliminating our culture's preference for a B.A. would be to separate education from degrees. The first benefit, as conservative education reformers have noted in the past, would be to strengthen earlier education. People should learn how to read and write in high school, and even middle school, not in college. Our current system allows high schools to slough off that duty, knowing that people will get a remedial college education anyway. I heard once on C-SPAN an author detailing his study of letter-writing in the Civil War. Short summary: the average "uneducated" soldier in the nineteenth century was way more educated than even most smart college grads now, because they made sixth grade count for something.

A second benefit of separating education from college would be to promote non-traditional learning. Good Catholics ought to be reading books on their own, taking correspondence courses just for personal development, taking night classes through their parish or other non-degree program, etc. People should be learning. But they would learn more if they were moving at their own speed and learning for learning's sake, instead of because taking an English course is supposed to get you a higher-paying job in middle management.

(Incidentally, the promotion of such learning for learning's sake would also be helped by a looser work week, so that people could study on Thursday afternoons, for example. The more government defines what normal is -- especially the forty-hour week -- the more people will be pressed to do that. We should all be working for a world where there is no "normal" work week, so that people can model work to their own needs. One of the main ways to do that is to get government out of the business of defining what counts as full-time. It comes across in things like mandating who gets benefits and over-time, and how businesses pay taxes.)

Finally, a political note: one of the beautiful parts of this presidential campaign is the disconnect between Obama and McCain on education. Notice how McCain is talking about vocational training and middle school, while Obama wants to push more people to go to college. McCain is profoundly right on this.