In “As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short,” Motoko Rich says that “the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower.” It’s a fascinating story and an older one than Rich lets on: In November 1991, before we had Facebook to distract us and the Internet as a scapegoat, Daniel J. Singal wrote about “The Other Crisis in American Education.” In that crisis, we learn of “the potentially high achievers whose SAT scores have fallen, and who read less, understand less of what they read, and know less than the top students of a generation ago.” Is that true? It’s hard to say. Many of 1991’s students are now tech visionaries and writers and parents themselves. I haven’t seen strong evidence that today’s 45 year olds are substantially dumber than 1991’s, or 1971’s.
What we can say definitively, however, is that schooling consists of at least two parts. Part of schooling is widely and conventionally discussed: It imparts real skills that students eventually need to lead productive and satisfied lives. The other part is less often discussed: Schooling functions as a signal of intrinsic conscientiousness, intelligence, conformity, and so forth. Bryan Caplan is writing a book called The Case Against Education about how the signaling model either dominates in education or has come to dominate in education.* The signaling model can explain Rich’s article because schools find teaching reading, writing, math, epistemology, and motivation much, much harder than they find giving people degrees.
Real education is also quite hard to impart because students resist it. I know because I’ve been teaching college-level writing for eight years. I’ve read a quote attributed to various writers that goes, “When a writer asks for feedback, what he really wants to be told is, ‘It’s perfect. Don’t change a word.'” That of course is rarely how writing works. When students show up to class, they by and large want to be told, “You’re perfect as you are. Don’t change a thing.” That is rarely true, but showing it to be true in a way that builds skill and that might be accepted is hard.
Giving people degrees, on the other hand, is easy.
This topic is particularly germane because the Department of Education (ED) just released a new Talent Search RFP. We’ve written about Talent Search before, in posts like “Sign Me Up for Wraparound Supportive Services, But First Tell Me What Those Are.” The goal of Talent Search, and other Department of Education TRIO programs, is to get low-income and first-generation college students to attend and ultimately graduate from four-year institutions of higher educations (IHEs, which is ED-speak for a college or university that confers four-year degrees).
But it’s increasingly unclear that “college” automatically adds a huge amount to earnings. America has a rapidly growing number of waiters, Uber/Lyft drivers, bartenders, baristas, barbers, and other service-sector workers who have college degrees employed in jobs that don’t require a degree. One widely noted report from the the Center for College Affordability and Productivity found that “About 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests requires less than a four-year college education.” That is … distressing. Or depressing. Whatever it means to you, it is definitely true that a large cohort of college grads spend years doing things that may be fun but aren’t all that remunerative, often accumulating huge debts along the way.
The ED remains somewhat behind the education research frontier. At the ED, college degrees continue to inspire near-religious devotion. We don’t suggest that you tell the ED in your Talent Search proposal that college degrees aren’t magical. As a grant applicant, you may want to cite the research above, but only to explain how your proposed Talent Search program is so sophisticated that you’re aware of the research showing that “college” is a grab-bag of all kind of things, many of which are either signals or which don’t pay off for degree holders. Can a random Talent Search program overcome the problems of correlation and causation implied by the ideas I’ve cited above? I doubt it. But there’s no reason you can’t say you can. There is a time and a place to discuss real education and the real world. Your Talent Search application isn’t it.
* Watch this space for a review when it does appear.