Sunday, April 22, 2012

Do college degrees make us rich?
To be the nation with “highest proportion of college graduates in the world” sounds grand, but is actually rather vague. What nation is now in that position?...

Russia still topped the rankings at 54 percent for data as of 2008 for the population aged 25-64. No other country came close. Canada was ranked second at 49 percent. The U.S. came in at 41 percent, behind Israel (44 percent) and Japan (43 percent)...

The rankings look dramatically different for the age cohort 25-34. Russia ties with Japan (at 55 percent) and falls behind Korea (58 percent), and Canada (56 percent); and the U.S. (42 percent) ties with Australia, Belgium, and Israel, and fades behind Denmark (43 percent), Ireland (45 percent), New Zealand (48 percent), and Norway (46 percent).

The comparisons are revealing, but not necessarily in a way that fits Obama’s or Higher Education’s preferred narrative.

The nation’s strongest economy, the United States: 41 percent of 25-to-64-year-olds.

Economic powerhouse Switzerland: only 34 percent.

Europe’s strongest economy, Germany: a woeful 25 percent.

In the doldrums for two decades, Japan: still beats us at 43 percent.

And energy-rich but economically weak Russia, still at 54 percent.

Note that Germany's workforce has a lot more vocational training than ours, so exercise caution in interpreting its lower proportion of college graduates. As for Russia, one could always maintain that they would be even poorer if they were less educated. In any case, two general observations stand. First, what opportunities people have to use their education might matter more than how much education they have. Second, a more credential workforce is not necessarily a more educated workforce.

My off-the-cuff take on the second point is that a college education adds value beyond the signaling effect of giving you a credential, but only if you work really hard at it. If you just coasted through, probably you either didn't learn much or most of what you learned you could have learned just as well reading books in your parents' house for four years. However, if you just aren't that interested in the kind of stuff taught in college, you likely won't be motivated to work your butt off; you'll pick an easier major and your college experience won't be worth its combined costs to you and those who subsidized your education. Some people are ambitious and can delay gratification (think of pre-med stereotypes) by working hard in courses they don't care about in order to obtain a high-paying or prestigious career. However, most college students are just not that motivated. As I see it, motivation is the hardest part of higher education. Even lousy teachers and lousy textbooks cannot prevent a motivated student from getting a good education. If higher education is to be de-skilled and/or conducted mostly on-line, then the enabling technological advances will be motivational. In other words, don't imagine Wikipedia University; imagine Farmville University.

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