My recent post on student loans and the bailout bill included a passage by Charles Murray, normal curve enthusiast and ardent opponent of universal liberal arts education. Murray builds an eloquent and controversial case against college for all, which deserves serious scrutiny.
Fortunately, that’s just what it’s going to get: Murray wrote the lead essay in this month’s edition of Cato Unbound, where freaky-smart policy scholars gather to kick around Big Ideas. First to respond is economist Pedro Carneiro, who argues that a B.A. is pretty good for a bad investment:
Recent research shows that, empirically, the expected rate of return to college varies widely across individuals: As we expand college attendance we attract individuals who are increasingly less suitable to attend college, and who have lower expected returns to college than the ones who are already there. Nevertheless, these studies also show that most people can expect a relatively high return to college. Even if we take the most pessimistic estimates for the return to education for those outside the elite (whom economists would call the marginal students), they are probably above 7% per year of college, and they are not lower for a year of a BA as opposed to a year of any other type of post-secondary schooling. Individuals for whom a BA degree is truly a bad idea are just not enrolling in college anyway. In fact, the best predictor of college enrollment, or of completion of a BA, is cognitive ability, and most individuals with low levels of cognitive ability end up never enrolling in college.
So, what’s the punch line? Murray is correct in stating that a BA is not for everyone, and may be right in saying that some people are wasting their time getting a BA, but for most of the population I doubt that the case he is making is of great importance. As he says, firms are not stupid, and will not pay for a BA degree if a BA is not teaching anything to their potential recruits. Similarly, I believe that individuals make mistakes, but at this level they are probably not as serious as Murray is implying. For most of those enrolling in college, a BA has a good expected return, but there is some risk.
Over the course of the week others will continue the commentary, so if you’re interested in the topic, make sure you check back. Meanwhile, there’s one more opinion on the universal university worth consideration: Justyn Dillingham has a smart post up over at The Civic Spirit.