Thursday, March 3, 2016

Why college helps you find employment (but less than it used to)

Note: This passage was excerpted from an online discussion with a friend.

Why does having a degree make it easier to get a job? The traditional answer (and the one most people advocating universal college intuitively assume) is that college PROVIDES graduates with skills, knowledge, and experiences that TRANSFORM them into more valuable workers than they could have been without it. By this logic, sending everyone to four years of college would make everyone much more valuable to employers, and thereby make it easier for them to earn jobs or higher wages than they could have previously while making our economy as a whole more productive. This is likely true to at least some extent.

The other answer, which is less intuitive but I think more accurate, is that college degrees send signals to employers about the underlying attributes the job applicant possesses (and has always possessed). In other words, getting into and graduating from college REQUIRES certain skills, intelligence, competence and work ethic, and employers know this, so a degree merely REVEALS to them how valuable a given worker already was relative to their peers.
One way to look at this is that employers are using college admissions as their scouting agencies, essentially outsourcing the research about who is qualified/competent and who is not (they would otherwise have to do at their own expense).

The substance of what most people actually learn and study in college may be important for other reasons, but it's not that important to *most* employers, and doesn't make *most* workers all that much more valuable or productive. Evidence for this comes from how most people wind up working in fields completely different than the one they majored in, and how people forget the vast bulk of the knowledge/content of their courses even very shortly after graduation.

By this logic, sending everyone to four years of college would not make everyone more employable, because degrees are more a RELATIVE marker of merit than they are an ABSOLUTE marker. If almost everyone had a degree, it would merely cheapen the value of a degree in the eyes of employers, and they would be forced to look to other indicators to size-up job applicants - perhaps who had a Masters degree, for instance. This would just pressure the most ambitious and talented in the workforce to seek more and more degrees, not because they actually cared about the subject matter of found the information to be worth the money and time spent, but because they were trying to increase their earnings potential by setting themselves apart. And in fact there is evidence this is already happening, as employment is increasingly difficult to find even for people who have an undergraduate degree, and many of these people are seeking higher ed because they literally have no idea what else to do.

There are some who see this as a good thing, and who would like to see this process continue until everybody has a masters and a PHD in their chosen field and we'll have a world full of brilliant experts. If there were no trade offs, I would agree that sounds like a pretty cool world to live in one day. But there are trade offs, and that's where the next question - about cost - comes in. 

In any case, making college free and universal would not ensure everyone has a chance to succeed economically so much as it would merely force anyone who wants to survive economically to attend college (even more so than they are already pressured today).

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