What 17 Million Americans Got from a College Degree

Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

That's from this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, via Jon Bischke on Twitter. More:

Putting issues of student abilities aside, the growing disconnect between labor market realities and the propaganda of higher-education apologists is causing more and more people to graduate and take menial jobs or no job at all. This is even true at the doctoral and professional level—there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.’s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.

For hundreds of thousands of Americans, spending four years and untold amounts of money (and debt?) gets you a job as a waiter, parking lot attendant, or janitor. Yet everyone from Barack Obama to Bill Gates keep pushing a college education as the way to secure one's economic future. That is a view that should be heavily qualified.

Here's the complete chart: 


Lectures at Home, Homework at School

More wisdom from Sal Kahn (of the Kahn Academy):

…it makes more sense to have students watch lectures at home and do homework at school as opposed to vice versa.

So true! And revealing of larger structural problems of school.


Robin Hanson's theory of school is that it isn’t about learning material but rather "learning to accept workplace domination and ranking, and tolerating long hours of doing boring stuff exactly when and how you are told." He links to three other possible functions of school:

  • Legitimization: Repeated contacts with the educational system, which seems impersonal and based on reliable criteria, convinces students (and their parents) that they are ending up in an appropriate place in society based on their skills and abilities. Thus, people accept their position in life: they become resigned to it, maybe even considering it appropriate or fair.
  • Acclimatization: The social relationships in the schools encourage certain traits, appropriate to one’s expected economic position, while discouraging others. Thus, certain relationships are considered normal and appropriate. Subordination to authority is a dominant trait enforced for most students.
  • Stratification: Students from different class backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and genders are overwhelmingly exposed to different environments and social relationships and thus are tracked and prepared for different positions in the hierarchy. The different experiences and successes lead each student to see her place as appropriate.

Disintermediation in Education: The Kahn Edition

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great piece on a self-appointed teacher who runs a one-man "academy" on YouTube: "The most popular educator on YouTube does not have a Ph.D. He has never taught at a college or university. And he delivers all of his lectures from a bedroom closet."

Salman Kahn has recorded 1,400 10-minute lectures on a range of topics. Over 16 million people have watched his videos.

The Khan Academy explicitly challenges many of higher-education's most sacred assumptions: that professional academics make the best teachers; that hourlong lectures are the best way to relate material; and that in-person teaching is better than videos. Mr. Khan argues that his little lectures disprove all of that.

The Kahn Academy has become so popular that it has attracted the attention of folks like John Doer, who donated $100,000 to Kahn's venture to allow him work at it full-time.

What I love about the story is it shows the impending / in-progress revolution in education on both the production and consumption side. A smart, motivated man wants to use technology to present knowledge in a new way. Done. Millions of people around the world are hungry for knowledge and want it in a form and style that works for them. Done. No middlemen.

Now, how to credential those who have acquired such knowledge? This remains a huge barrier to new education efforts. (Speaking of credentials, how crazy is it that colleges do both the educating of students and the evaluating/credentialing?!)

Thanks to Hunter Walk for the pointer.

Who Should and Should Not Be Going to College?

I divide this question into three categories of high school students: academic underachievers, academic overachievers, and independent overachievers.

1. I think a lot of underachieving high school students should not be going to four year colleges. Marty Nemko says the “U.S. Department of Education reports that among the hundreds of thousands of college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class, 2/3 do not graduate even if given 8 1/2 years. Most mediocre high school students would be wiser to consider apprenticeship programs, short-term career training programs at community college, or learning entrepreneurship at the elbow of good and ethical small business owners.”

2. Among high achieving high school students, I think most should enroll in a four year college. This includes liberal arts programs. Even stand-out students in high school may not be motivated enough to do independent education. Many benefit from structure. All benefit from obtaining the credential.

3. Maybe 5-10% of high school high achievers should pursue higher education without attending a four year traditional college. This is the “Real Life University” option for entrepreneurial spirits. This is for folks who can learn a lot on their own, can assemble mentors and advisors to guide the process, and most of all find their creativity smothered by drudgery of school — or otherwise are on a trajectory higher than what college can offer — and therefore need an alternative path. Dropping out after a semester or two may be the optimal point in terms of a taste of a common experience and the institutional affiliation…

So, I would say among high school grads currently enrolling in four year college, ~ 25% of them should instead be going to vocational schools and the like, ~ 65% should stay in four year colleges, and 10% (the more independent of the high achievers) should be exploring alternative paths to get educated.

I expect the percentage of students in #3 — those high achievers who choose to not graduate from a four year — will grow over time thanks to the weakening signaling value of a B.A. and the emergence of semi-structured learning options for high potential 18 year-olds.

Here is my post on the three categories of benefit of going to college. For clarity and concision, I believe it stands above my other posts on the topic.

Colleges Work to Maintain an Information Deficit About Their Effectiveness

To graduate from college students do not have to demonstrate anything whatsoever beyond passing grades. Students do not, for example, take a standardized test administered to students from multiple universities, so their performance cannot be measured against a common benchmark. As Philip Greenspun points out, “There is literally no way that a university can be embarrassed by its graduates’ poor overall performance.”

Without accountability, colleges don’t have an incentive to actually succeed at teaching students basic critical thinking skills. And so a majority of college graduates enter society without them. According to Kevin Carey, in the journal Democracy: “A 2006 study from the American Institutes for Research found that only 31 percent of adults with bachelor’s degrees are proficient in ‘prose literacy’ — being able to compare and contrast two newspaper editorials, for example. More than a quarter have math skills so feeble that they can’t calculate the cost of ordering supplies from a catalogue.” Remember, this is 31% of the 25% of Americans who even have bachelor’s degrees.

Unfortunately, it’s exceedingly difficult to figure out which colleges are helping students and which aren’t. Right now there is no “objective, publicly available information about how well colleges teach and how much college students learn. Nobody knows which colleges really do the best job of taking the students they enroll and helping them learn over the course of four years.”

It’s not for lack of data. Colleges are now collecting rich data sets about how students learn, how much time they spend studying, how engaged they are in class, and how well they know certain concepts. There are dozens of studies conducted by outside organizations and government regulators about student learning and professor teaching — and yes they probe for things like critical thinking and creativity.

The reason there’s no access to the data is because colleges do not want it to be public.

One of the most powerful special interests lobbies that nobody’s ever heard of…is the American Council on Education (ACE), the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), and a host of other alphabet-soup organizations conspire to maintain higher education secrecy at all costs.

For example:

in 2006, Mark Schneider, the commissioner of the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, proposed adding some new questions to the annual survey all colleges are required to fill out in exchange for federal funds. Colleges would be asked if they participated in surveys and tests like NSSE and the CLA. [Tests which measure teacher effectiveness and overall student learning.] If the college answered “yes,” and had already chosen to make the data public, it would be asked to provide a link to the appropriate Web address. It would not be required to participate in any test or survey not of its choosing, or disclose any new information. It would just have to tell people where to find the information it had already, voluntarily, disclosed. One Dupont Circle rose up in anger and the proposal was summarily squashed.

Why are colleges so eager to keep private the data? The obvious reason is because the data are embarrassing and everyone would prefer to be held less accountable. The more interesting reason is that the older colleges with better reputations dominate the lobbying effort and they benefit disproportionally from the “existing, information-starved reputation market.”

See, the lack of data about which colleges are doing a good job — whose graduates are succeeding, whose are not — means that the customer (high school seniors) suffer from an information deficit. As Carey explains, this turns college into a “reputational good”: “You’re paying up-front for professors you’ve never met and degree programs you probably haven’t even chosen yet. Instead, you rely on what other people think of the college. Of course, some students simply have to go the college that’s nearest to them or least expensive. But if you have the luxury of choosing, in all likelihood, you choose based on reputation.”

If there were clear data about which colleges were doing a good job and which were not, colleges could distinguish themselves based on how well students actually learned. This would give newer entrants into the higher ed market a better shot at competing. At present, even if they’re doing a good job teaching students, newer colleges must wait for reputation to catch up to reality. This can take generations. Wouldn’t it be better if there was a detailed database online showing every possible metric?

Bottom Line: The sorry truth is that “colleges remain indifferent to how well they help students learn, graduate, and succeed in the workplace.” And “like the church…they see themselves as occupying an exalted place in human society, for which they are owed deference and gratitude.” We should demand that all data around the effectiveness of colleges at teaching students be made public and easily searchable so that consumers of higher education can make more informed choices.