American Education: Increasingly Out-of-Step with the New Economy

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American Education: Increasingly  Out-of-Step with the New Economy

Whether it’s a piece of apparel or a college education, “one-size-fits-all” has seldom been a good idea.  But that has been the mindset behind America’s unwritten national policy that everyoneshould attend college. 

This pervasive attitude flies in the face of a diverse population filling diverse niches in an evolving economy.  Why?  Because individuals possess very different abilities, aptitudes, and dreams.  The traditional model of a four-year liberal arts education, hopefully including some sort of vocationally-specialized training, is suitable only for a subset of the population. 

Obviously, for some, the traditional four-year college experience and degree is excellent preparation and a wise investment.  However, it is becoming exceedingly clear that college is not for everyone.1 

In fact, it can be detrimental to many young people for whom it is not the best option; and forcing too many square pegs into this round hole is, in the long run, a bad thing for the country as well. 


Of course, it’s not too surprising that this model has become so prevalent.  Incentives are such that the primary beneficiaries of this misplaced notion are the colleges, their administrators, and their teachers. 

So, the very people who are in the best position to make the positive changes needed to make the education system provide what the marketplace actually needs are the least motivated to do so.


Working from the flawed assumption that college is for everyone, leaders, including President Obama, have reached an incorrect conclusion that our nation’s future is dependent on maximizing the number of people attending college. 

As a result, approximately 40 percent of Americans have either a Bachelor’s or Associate degree.  The question is, “Are these degrees worth it?”  That is, “Did the degree holders gain skills that are both useful and valued in the marketplace?”

Recent statistics hold the answer:

  • The present rate at which colleges and universities are producing graduates is higher than the rate at which the labor market is producing jobs that require those degrees.2  Between 1992 and 2008, roughly 20 million college graduates were added to the population, but during this same time, 12 million of these graduates ended up in jobs that didn’t require a degree or the skill sets one is supposed to acquire in college.  This means over the past two decades, of the graduates added to the population, 60 percent were underemployed.
  • In 1992, 5.1 million people with bachelor’s degrees held jobs that required no degree.  By 2008, the number had more than tripled, to 17.4 million.3 
  • Focusing on all current working graduates, we find that more than one-third of them are employed in jobs that require no degree, such as flight attendants, taxi drivers, and non-technical sales.  In fact, nationally, around 330,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees that are not needed for their jobs.
Percent of Young College Grads with Jobs, by College major (2009)

Percent of Young College Grads with Jobs, by College major (2009)

What of the argument that we need more college graduates for the future of our country?  With 40 percent of Americans holding degrees and an increasing number being added every year, the number of graduates is clearly not a problem.  What’s at issue are the types of degrees being issued and their poor fit with business needs. 

In short, we have invested tens of millions of person-years and hundreds of billions of dollars in the acquisition of college degrees that have little or no practical value, neither to society nor to the individuals who received those degrees.  Meanwhile, we have a serious shortage of workers in highly specialized trades, as well as a scarcity of job candidates with a deep understanding of science and engineering.


 How did we get here?

The root of the “college for all” mentality can be traced back to the 1980s, when state schools began heavily subsidizing tuitions. 

As explained by Diane Ravitch in her history of U.S. education, titled The Troubled Crusade,4 this move was in reaction to “the shift in the occupational structure to professional, technical, clerical, and managerial work.” 

The marketplace was demanding higher skills, and a college education was identified as the ticket to better-paying jobs and entry into the middle class. 

Improving access to college for everyone became a goal in itself, along with creating the means for more students to attend.  Grants and loans from the government opened the door for many who otherwise would not have had the opportunity for higher learning.  But, as is the case with so many government actions, there were unintended consequences. 

In his 2008 book, Real Education,5 Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute concluded, “The number going to college exceeds the number capable of mastering higher levels of intellectual inquiry.” 

He goes on to argue that the cognitive skills, work discipline, drive, maturity, and integrity to master truly higher education are found in only a small segment of our population. 

This means that, at any given time, there are a significant number of students who do not have the wherewithal to absorb and implement the lessons derived from higher learning.  And, it appears that other post-high-school learning options would have better served them and society.

Not only is this detrimental to students, it is negatively affecting colleges themselves.  In a move to maintain this influx of students, qualified or not, Murray suggests it “leads colleges to alter their mission, watering down the intellectual content of what they do.” 

Others would call this “dumbing down,” and along with lowering the requirements for entry, it’s the easiest way to enroll and retain more students. 

Even with these lower standards, many students ultimately realize they’ve made by a mistake by enrolling in college.  Overall, less than 60 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year schools graduate within six years, which suggests that two of every five college students either take time off from their studies or drop out completely.

Perhaps even worse is the push to award more degrees, without paying enough attention to providing the type of knowledge and skills that will make a graduate valuable in the workplace. 


In all too many cases, college graduates discover too late that they’ve operated under the delusion that it’s the degree that counts, not the skills and knowledge that should be behind it.  Sadly, it is possible to earn a lot of credits, but not really learn anything — at least nothing the marketplace finds useful.

As reported in Academically Adrift, after four years of college, 36 percent of college students showed no significant improvement in critical thinking and writing skills, two of the most important and marketable skills in the real world.

As reported in Academically Adrift, after four years of college, 36 percent of college students showed no significant improvement in critical thinking and writing skills, two of the most important and marketable skills in the real world.

In their recent book, Academically Adrift,6 sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa make the observation that after two years of college, 45 percent of students showed no significant improvement in critical thinking and writing skills, two of the most important and marketable skills in the real world.  Even after four years, the figure was still a disturbingly high 36 percent. 

According to Arum and Roksa, the main reason for students’ lack of academic progress is a lack of rigor.  Too many colleges create a comfortable academic environment where students are not challenged.  A survey by the authors is revealing:


  • On average, students spent only 12-14 hours per week on studying, and much of that time was in “group settings.”
  • Only one-third of students studied alone, and those who did averaged five or fewer hours a week. 
  • Half of those surveyed indicated they avoided taking courses that required more than 20 pages of writing per semester.
  • 32 percent of students avoided courses that required more than 40 pages of reading a week.

Beyond not teaching critical thinking and not demanding rigorous study, schools are also woefully deficient in helping students make wise choices regarding majors and classes that will prepare them for landing a job and building a career. 

In the end, the schools generate vast sums of money and the students, in all too many cases, amass crippling debt without developing any viable skills.  This leads to the questions, “Does the typical college experience represent a wise use of time and money?  Will it ever generate an acceptable return on the investment?” 

How College Students Spend Their Time

How College Students Spend Their Time

Increasingly, students and parents are not the only ones asking these questions; so are taxpayers.


One government program for the funding of college is looking particularly dubious:  the Pell grant.  What began as a program to provide low-income students with a way to afford college now dispenses money to around 60 percent of undergraduate students, making it the biggest expenditure of the Department of Education, at nearly $42 billion in 2012.7 

The stated goal of the program is an example of how the college system is not geared toward providing effective employees for the workplace.  The DOE states that the program “helps ensure access to post-secondary education for low- and middle-income undergraduate students.”  With the focus on “access,” there is no eye toward graduation or any desirable outcome. 

That’s probably why no performance-related information ever makes it back to the DOE.  When more students gain access, the program is considered more successful, never mind the fact that many of those gaining access would be better served by training in some other venue than a four-year college. 

In short, the “success” of this and most college funding programs is measured much differently than it should be.  Instead of tracking how many students enter college, the success of any program should be evaluated on how many students graduate with marketable skills.


On the basis of this trend, please consider the following forecasts:

First, to meet the real needs of businesses and employees, the government will redirect an increasing share of money now allocated to college financial aid to companies that provide vocational certification for their industries. 

Some disciplines already have this type of program.  For example, accountants must pass the CPA exam, which ensures they have the high level of proficiency demanded by that industry.  Instead of using a BA or BS as the qualifier for a job, if a similar type of certification test was used for each industry, the competence of students could be measured more precisely for any particular job.  By giving industry leaders appropriate input into the content of the certification tests, colleges and universities would have a quantified target to guide their curriculum for each competency.  For many disciplines, two years of college would prepare students for the certification test.  Even better, in-house training programs subsidized by the government would motivate employers to train and certify employees whether they stayed with the current firm or not.  This would represent a much more targeted and cost-effective approach to meeting companies’ needs for talent, instead of having all students working towards one-size-fits-all four-year degrees.

Second, higher education will become more effective as government cutbacks and hard times force colleges to shift from simply enrolling students to actually preparing them to meet marketplace needs. 

A certification program outlined in the first forecast would help drive this change, but it needs to go deeper.  There needs to be a move away from measures of “social engagement,” that is, non-academic activities, and a move toward academic engagement.  This means a commitment from faculty to create more rigorous classes, including tougher course requirements and appropriate grading standards.  Effective administrators will create plans that will ensure continual improvement, and they will institute a mechanism for assessing the quality of their school’s programs and learning outcomes of students. 

Third, a new way of thinking at the high school level will help students choose the most appropriate next-step as they prepare to attend college or join the workforce. 

Currently, high schools have become “college prep” schools that do little for those who aren’t suited to four years or more of “higher education.”  For many students and their eventual employers, this is a disservice since a vocational school or apprenticeship program would streamline their expedited entry into a rewarding line of work.  Some criticize the idea of such “employment-oriented schooling,” saying it traps students in low-paying, dead-end jobs.  But for many, the unrealistic expectation of college is doing the same, with the added burden of college debt.  The development of high-quality vocational schools would fill two needs: 

  • First, the schools would instill pride and self-confidence in students who master difficult technical skills. 
  • Second, they would provide the technical workers needed to help revive the U.S. manufacturing industry. 


    1. The Washington Post, May 27, 2012, "It's Time to Drop the College-for-All Crusade," by Robert J. Samuelson.  © Copyright 2012 by The Washington Post.  All rights reserved.
    2. To access results from a study conducted by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity regarding higher education and gainful employment, visit their website at:
    3. Forbes, December 2010, "Is America Saturated with College Grads?" by Christopher Matgouranis and Jonathan Robe.  © Copyright 2010 by Forbes LLC.  All rights reserved.
    4. The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 by Diane Ravitch is published by Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  All rights reserved.  © Copyright 2005 by Diane Ravitch.  All rights reserved
    5. Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality by Charles Murray is published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  © Copyright 2008 by Cox & Murray, Inc.  All rights reserved.
    6. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa is published by University of Chicago Press.  © Copyright 2011 by The University of Chicago.  All rights reserved.
    7., June 27, 2012, "Too Much College," by Walter E. Williams.  © Copyright 2012 by  All rights reserved.

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