The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert Reich is right: Stop pushing college on every kid

Liberal economist Robert Reich’s words of caution about our higher ed system could not be more important or more timely:

The biggest absurdity is that a four-year college degree has become the only gateway into the American middle class. But not every young person is suited to four years of college. They may be bright and ambitious but they won’t get much out of it. They’d rather be doing something else, like making money or painting murals. They feel compelled to go to college because they’ve been told over and over that a college degree is necessary. Yet if they start college and then drop out, they feel like total failures. Even if they get the degree, they’re stuck with a huge bill — and may be paying down their student debt for years. And all too often the jobs they land after graduating don’t pay enough to make the degree worthwhile.

Rather than preparing students for high-end jobs, colleges are creating overqualified, debt-ridden workers. Reich points out that “46 percent of recent college graduates were in jobs that don’t even require a college degree.” The main beneficiaries of the four-year push are colleges and universities, who get a never-ending supply of “customers” who enjoy taxpayer subsidies. The entirely expected result is tuition inflation.

Instead Reich argues that the alternative to pushing four-year schools on every high school graduate is “a world-class system of vocational-technical education.” He comes up with a variety of alternatives, including extended education beyond high school that would result in technical accreditation.

I wish liberals would listen to him and embrace a number of conservative plans that take just this approach. In the conservative reform manifesto Room to Grow, Andrew P. Kelly observes: “Generous federal loan programs, particularly those available to parents, encourage enrollment at any college and at any price, providing little incentive for colleges to keep their tuition low or make sure their students are successful. Meanwhile, though advances in technology could increase access and reduce the cost of education, federal rules governing access to student aid programs create high barriers to entry that keep low-cost competitors out of the market.” The solution, he suggests, would include student aid reforms such as forcing colleges to take “a direct stake in the success of their students by requiring them to pay back a percentage of any defaulted dollars. Such a policy would encourage colleges to guide students to programs that are likely to provide a positive return. It would also have them share some of the risk that students and taxpayers now bear on their own.” Other ideas include “a new accreditation agency that is designed to certify innovative programs (as Senator [Marco] Rubio, among others, has proposed), or it could mean devolving accreditation power to a new set of actors (like state governments, as Senator Mike Lee has proposed).”

And going after state-based certification programs designed to keep out new workers would help create opportunity for those without a college education. Michael Strain points out: “Rolling back oppressive licensing requirements would be a big help. The Institute for Justice reports that the average cosmetologist spends 372 days in training to receive an occupational license from the government, while the average emergency medical technician trains for thirty-three days. Which occupation seems like it should require more training? Government (especially at the state and local level) certainly has a role in ensuring that certain occupations are practiced only by well-trained workers, but it seems obvious that we have gone too far. As part of their effort to put Americans back to work, conservatives should support scaling back unnecessary occupational licensing at every level of government in order to advance economic liberty and create jobs.”

Unfortunately, whenever the topic of student aid comes up, liberals treat any efforts to curtail or reform the program as a heartless attack on the young. In fact, what is heartless is inducing them to take on exorbitant debt with little or no return on their investment. Perhaps this is a rare topic on which the right and left can agree and cooperate on reforms.