Thoughts on degree inflation

Catherine Rampell had a piece about degree inflation in the New York Times yesterday. What follows are some scattered thoughts about the piece and degree inflation more generally.

First, the piece manages to run down someone with an undergraduate degree that has over $100,000 in student loan debt. The New York Times is really talented at finding these people. In reality, only 0.2% of bachelor’s degree recipients graduate with six-figure debt.

Second, degree inflation is a natural consequence of cramming more people through college. It seems like very few people understand this. Putting more people through college does not necessarily change the underlying market for labor. If that underlying market for labor stays the same, putting more people through college wont have any aggregate affect on the number of people with good jobs. A great number of people — the education reform set in particular — have this magical understanding of college that leads them to think that minting a degree causes a new high-paying job to simultaneously pop into existence. But it isn’t so.

This is the reason from the very beginning that I was skeptical of the theory that education can be a net poverty reducer. You can take a poor kid and put her through college, and the odds are that she is not going to be poor afterwards. But that does not mean that doing so reduced overall poverty or changed the economic distribution. Think of it like a line. If you cut in front of others (move out of poverty), you wont be at the back of the line anymore. But if the structure of the line itself remains the same, someone will be at the back of the line. So helping people leap ahead of others does not reduce the amount of economic misery; it just moves it around.

Third, I wonder how helpful all of these higher education sob stories might actually be. I am serious too. For the most part, the whole college degree obsession has been used to mercilessly blame non-graduates for their plight. They have basically been told that they should not dare to complain about their struggles and economic insecurity because it is their own fault for not getting through school. The illogic of this jeer was always apparent to those who paid attention, but it was still very effective.

Our national narrative insisted that everyone go to college so that in the future we would all be college graduates making handsome salaries. Although that clearly does not work, it is hard to explain why to those who are not inclined to think about things on the macro level. Being presented with it actually failing right in front of us might help change some things. Our society does not think of college graduates as utter trash, and so it may be more sympathetic to the plight of college graduates. Against the prevailing ideology, it will be harder to make the case that these graduates are undeserving garbage who should have done better with themselves. Additionally, college graduates themselves will probably be more self-confident about their worthiness and might be harder to break down. That could make them effective political agents, and their efforts to remedy their own misery — which could involve unionization, labor market reforms, and even transfers — could benefit everyone.

Finally, degree inflation really should cause us to think about how we want to structure our higher education system in general. The problem with degree inflation will be exacerbated by the collective action problem our current institutions create around the choice to go to college. If less people went to college, some jobs that now require college degrees probably wouldn’t. So if you could organize enough collective action to keep people who do not really want to go to college out of it, you might actually make a ton of people better off. They would have the same jobs but without having to go to college. This sort of collective action wont be possible without intentional coordination built into our system of education though. Without the coordination, those who do not really want or need to go to college will still feel like they must go, lest they fall even further behind in the job hierarchy.