“Busting the College-Industrial Complex”

Center of the American Experiment kicked-off our ongoing project “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” about three years ago. It would be inaccurate to say we had the issue to ourselves, but the number of people back then noting we were on to something distinctive and important was substantial, as they said so all the time. Suffice it to say, the issue, broadly conceived, is far from overlooked anymore.

In recent days, for example, the American Enterprise Institute disseminated a superb paper originally published in National Affairs, “Busting the College-Industrial Complex,” by Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison, and the National Association of Manufacturers announced the start of a $10 million campaign, “Creators Wanted,” aimed at inspiring and driving “more Americans to pursue careers in modern manufacturing.” I’ll return to that initiative in a few days, but for now, a few thoughts about Hess and Addison’s strong paper.

Rick Hess is a friend who I’ve considered one of the nation’s most insightful, important, and surely prolific education scholars for a long time. Shorthand, he’s superb. I should also note he wrote a much-appreciated blurb for my new book, Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees, which contained this particularly pertinent sentence, “Notably, in an era when many are quick to demonize higher education or rush to its defense, [Pearlstein] manages to do neither.” I’m certainly not saying Hess and Addison do any demonizing in their essay, but I must admit being surprised, shall we say, by its crispness. Three excerpts:

Yet even as reformers have pushed to remove a variety of barriers to employment, the biggest and most significant barrier to employment in American life – the use of the college degree as a default hiring device – has gone blithely unremarked. Indeed, even as reformers target employment obstacles for felons and florists, the pervasive use of college-degree requirements, despite dubious legality and profound costs, has bizarrely escaped serious consideration. . . .

In a comprehensive October 2017 report, researchers from Harvard Business School documented extensive evidence of increasing “degree inflation,” with employers demanding baccalaureate degrees for middle-skill jobs that previously did not require one and for which the work duties have not changed. In fact, 61% of employers surveyed admitted to rejecting applicants with the requisite skills and experience simply because they lacked a college degree. Researchers calculated that this affected an estimated 6.2 million jobs across dozens of industries. [I write about this remarkable study in Education Roads Less Traveled, “Dismissed by Degrees: How Degree Inflation is Undermining U.S. Competitiveness and Hurting America’s Middle Class.” It’s well-worth the read.] . . . .

College can be a very good thing. A great many Americans are better off for having earned their degree. That’s not the issue. Rather, the point is that an inconsistent judicial standard, excessive regard for employer convenience, and a well-fed college cartel ought not oblige Americans to pay the ransom of a college diploma in order to seek remunerative employment and professional success. Compelling Americans to buy a degree, especially when doing so involves onerous debt and yields dubious value, is behavior more typically ascribed to protection rackets than to engines of opportunity.

Yikes! Let’s just say I personally don’t talk that way at home or elsewhere for various reasons, including having moved to Minnesota in 1974 to work at the University of Minnesota and still finding myself, in nostalgic moments, resonating to the institution as home. This, even though the U of M, just like other colleges and universities routinely drive me wild because of malignantly absurd political correctness.

I’m not familiar with Grant Addison’s work, but I am with a fair amount of Rick Hess’s. And while it can be said to be pointed and never flat, I don’t recall reading anything of his as substantively and rhetorically barbed as “Busting the College-Industrial Complex.” How do I interpret that? Perhaps as growing evidence that frustration with American higher education—and not just for reasons of PC plus debt—is morphing into nationwide anger faster than I have imagined.