Thursday, February 03, 2011

Ditches Still Need to be Dug

The prevailing wisdom in the United States and most of the rest of the world, is that on an individual level the more education you have the better and that on a national level the more people who have more access to more education the better. This belief was articulated by President Obama in last week's (it seems like last year's) State Of The Union speech:

If we take these steps -- if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they are born until the last job they take -- we will reach the goal that I set two years ago: By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. (Applause.)

And naturally that would be great, both for America and for all those college graduates, right? Well, perhaps not. Does everyone need a college degree? Maybe not, says Harvard study:

A new report released by Harvard Wednesday states in some of the strongest terms yet that such a “college for all” emphasis may actually harm many American students--keeping them from having a smooth transition from adolescence to adulthood and a viable career.

“The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken,” concludes the report, “Pathways to Prosperity.”

And concern that this relentless drive to push as many people down the path of higher education as possible may not be such an unalloyed good is not limited to the United States. Here’s The Real Story of What’s Happening in Tunisia: A Higher Education Bubble - CNBC:

Tunisia’s big problem is said to be unemployment. But unemployment there is running at somewhere between 13 percent and 14 percent, which isn’t really so bad. The real problem is that Tunisia cannot create suitable employment for the huge numbers of college graduates it creates every year.

That’s right: the education bubble popped in Tunisia.

Tunisia has a gigantic education apparatus that has earned it plaudits for years. Free university education is guaranteed to anyone who passes the government’s exams at the end of high school. As a result, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 university graduates enter the job market every year. Fifty-seven percent of young Tunisians entering the labor market are college educated.

It turns out that creating a large class of college-educated workers is not necessarily a recipe for prosperity. Tunisia has discovered it can be a recipe for political unrest and mass unemployment. For Tunisia’s recent college graduates, the unemployment level reaches to at least 30 percent. If you count in various forms of under-employment, it’s safe to say that as many as half of Tunisia’s recent college graduates are losing out in the jobs market.

One of the more interesting revelations from Michael Burleigh's insightful Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism was that in a number of countries a surge in the number of students attending college was followed by the outbreak of terrorist movements, almost always lead by students dissatisfied with the status quo who become radicalized at universities. He has a chapter called "Guilty White Kids: The Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction" which details the history of two of these movements in Italy and Germany. And although Burleigh doesn't touch on it in his book, it's not difficult to construct a link between the actions of groups like the Weatherman and SLA in the early Seventies and increasing number of American college students in the Sixties.

It's not to say that sending more people to college will necessarily result in a revolution such as Tunisia recently experienced or an increase in domestic terrorism. But before we all embrace the idea that one of the metrics for how we measure America's success is the proportion of college graduates, we should pause to consider what achieving that goal would really deliver for us and what the unintended consequences might be.