Must Everybody Have a College Degree to Get a Decent Job?

09/16/2010 02:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On a recent edition (9/8/10) of the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC, Tamar Lewin of the New York Times discussed the issues and problems in acquiring a college education. At the end of the interview she questioned the value of a college education compared to its costs and the dubious likelihood of the graduate getting a good-paying job sufficient to pay back college loans. However, the recent concerns about the graduation rate in the public schools that have spurred the so-called "education reforms" of both the Bush and Obama administrations seem to assume that the primary objective of our public school system is to produce an ever higher proportion of high school graduates who would be eligible for college. Yet these educational reforms, relying very heavily on fairly meaningless statistics, ignore a deeper systemic issue: not only is college not for everyone, but high school graduation has not been for "everyone" over the last forty years.

According to a comprehensive study of high school graduation rates and their composition by James Heckman and Paul La Fontaine, high school graduation rates peaked in the late 1960's and began a slow decline in the 1970's and 80's, remaining basically static for the last 30 years. Figures that indicate higher rates are due to the increase in the awarding of GED's (General Education Diplomas). These were originally intended for GI's returning from World War ll who had had their high school education interrupted by military service. In 1960, when graduation rates began to increase, only 2% of high school graduates received GEDs. Today the figure is 20%!

Since the percentage of students with GEDs successfully completing their college degree is much lower than those with academic diplomas (according to Heckman and La Fontaine's study), the use of them today in inflating graduation rates around the country is yet one more example of how statistics can be used to mask or distort the true picture of a serious problem, and unlike the recent past, the hi-tech industries will not bail out the economy.

According to a recent New York Times article (9/7/10) "Once a Dynamo, the Tech Sector Is Slow to Hire":

"The chief hurdles to more robust technology hiring appear to be increasing automation and the addition of highly skilled labor overseas. The result is a mismatch of skill levels here at home: not enough workers with the cutting-edge skills coveted by tech firms, and too many people with abilities that can be duplicated offshore at lower cost."

This leaves the jobs that cannot be exported in the service and health-care sector; those that have the greatest likelihood of growth: low-skill, low-paying jobs. Moreover, the unemployment rate for college graduates seems to be low compared to the national average -- under 5% compared to 9.6% -- but it still is higher than ever in the two decades since such records have been kept. Pinning the hopes of young learners for economic success if only they "work hard" enough to get a college diploma presumes that if they don't succeed in attaining one they have no one to blame but themselves for not getting a good-paying job. Yet our economic system is not producing these jobs, regardless of a student's credentials. Still, it has not stopped students from aspiring to and attending college.

The explosion in student college attendance, increasing by almost 50% from 13 to 19 million in the last twenty years, however, is due in part to "for profit" institutions that have been springing up around the country. According to a recent (August, 2010) report by the GAO, excerpted in "On Campus" (September/October, 2010) :

"Enrollment in for-profit colleges has grown from about 365,000 students to almost 1.8 million in the last several years. These colleges offer degrees and certifications in programs ranging from business administration to cosmetology. In 2009, students at for-profit colleges received more than $4 billion in Pell Grants and more than $20 billion in federal loans provided by the Department of Education."

Among the findings reported by the GAO was that although these colleges enroll only 10% of college students, they receive 23% of all federal aid. In their investigation into these schools, the GAO found all 15 that they used as a sample guilty of some kind of fraudulent or misleading act in representing themselves.

That these "colleges" depend largely on federal grants is evidenced by the fact that between 2002 and 2009 their federal aid dollars increased from 62% to 89% of their total revenue. In one instance, according to the GAO:

"A student interested in a massage therapy certificate costing $14,000 at a for-profit college was told that the program was a good value. However the same certificate from a local community college cost $520.

As to the claim that they these schools have a "high graduation rate," over 60% compared to the national average below 50%, from my connections to a number of people who have worked at them, "for-profits" don't accept low grades. When one of these conscientious teachers insisted that students who had been doing inadequate work receive low grades, she was not rehired. That the Obama Administration is finally addressing the problem of "for-profits" with some oversight about standards and practices of these places is gratifying. Only the deceptive practices that have been going on will not easily be stopped.

Not only can't everybody graduate from college: and this involves a complex combination of social and economic class, cultural habits, opportunity and motivation; but I believe not everybody should be expected to have a college degree in order to obtain a decent-paying job and a promising future.

Until the general public becomes aware that it is completely unrealistic and misguided to blame young learners, their teachers and their schools for trying to function better than they have in forty years, especially now, in a faltering economic system, and begins to address the problems of education holistically, no serious and effective educational reforms in this country will be possible. But a lot of potentially outstanding young learners from all ethnic groups and economic statuses will be sacrificed in the process.