Why Focus on College?

Megan McArdle thinks she knows why people focus on pushing people through college:

Why are we so obsessed with pushing that group further into the higher education system, rather than asking if we aren't putting too much emphasis on getting a degree?

Asking that question usually raises accusations of elitism, of dividing society into the worthy few and the many Morlocks who aren't good enough for college. I would argue instead that what's elitist is our current fixation on college.  It starts from the supposition that being good at school is some sort of great personal virtue, so that any suggestion that many people aren't good at school must mean that those people are not equal and valuable members of society. And that supposition is triple-distilled balderdash.

Of course, it's hard to know precisely why there is a broad based emphasis on increasing educational attainment. As far as I know, there aren't surveys about it. Thus, any theory is necessarily speculative. With that said, my speculation is that McArdle is wrong here.

We fixate on college, and education more generally, because it's the only thing in our social imagination that can solve extremely destructive economic and social problems. Go around and ask people such things as "how do we fix poverty?" or "how do we reduce inequality?" or "how do we reduce high unemployment especially among the youth?" And the answer is always education, education, and education.

Instead of promoting distributive policy measures that have successful track records elsewhere in the world at fixing many of these economic and social problems, our society obsesses over human capital fantasies. We don't seek to make every job a comfortable one (whether through increased wages or transfers). Instead, we say that someone in a poverty wage job with a low education needs to find a way out of that position and move up to something better.

As McArdle once noted (apparently before she thought dogging someone for having low educational attainment is bad), "[w]riting a check will let a high-school dropout sit at home with her three children, but it will not make her employable at something better than McDonald's." This is a cruel and elitist sentiment, as the more recent McArdle registers, but the nut of it accurately captures what's going on with college promotion. The implicit message is that both the market incomes and status achieved through better jobs (which are themselves achieved through higher educational attainments) are the true solution to the economic and social destruction caused by precarious and low-paying jobs. This is a wrong belief shared by many, not just those who are trying to backfill arguments in favor of growing wealth inequality.

So, in short, we fixate on college, not because of a love of academic abilities for their own sake, but rather because we see all sorts of horrific problems around the bottom of the economic distribution and we think pushing people through college (or improving K-12 education in other moments) will fix these problems.

We see that people who go through college get better jobs and think that if we can just get more and more people through college, they'll all get good jobs and then poverty, unemployment, and inequality will be solved or greatly reduced.