The Higher Education Myth

Abandon-HopeThis is how the story goes. Higher education has been shown to be a path to prosperity. Those with college degrees historically earn more and have more stable and productive lives. Moreover, good citizenship depends heavily upon a knowledgeable electorate. The more young people who go through this process the better and it is a worthwhile government investment to facilitate this. In particular, children from less prosperous backgrounds with no family history of college education particularly need a helping hand. If some is good, more must be better.

Doesn’t that sound reasonable? Indeed, in principle it surely is. But, as with so many ideas, the devil is in the details. One problem arises from the belief, or perhaps it is the wish, that everyone can benefit from college. If we ignore cost-benefit analysis, no doubt that is largely true. But for many the hard fact is that it just isn’t a practical investment of time and resources. Moreover, and this is the crucial point, trying to fit square pegs into round holes has already done enormous damage to the higher education process. Those who could really benefit have suffered as the process has been degraded to accommodate the unqualified and unmotivated. The elite, highly selective schools remain largely undamaged and continue to provide educational experiences unsurpassed anywhere in the world. But many colleges have become Potemkin villages, providing fake students with fake educations leading to fake degrees, if they complete the process at all.

We have confused correlation with causation. Higher education doesn’t make people successful. Successful and intelligent people are more likely to seek and complete higher education and thereby to continue their success in life. Attempting to replicate this situation for the unqualified is to imitate a Cargo Cult.