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The High Cost of Not Going to College


While the second Democratic debate is remembered for a political exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden on bussing, I thought the most interesting answer to a questions came earlier when, during a discussion of “Free College,” candidate Pete Buttigieg noted that we need to deal with both the high cost of college as well as the high cost of not going to college.


While that comment got swept into the maelstrom associated with a dynamic involving ten candidates positioning themselves against present rivals and another ten unseen ones, the notion of not attending college coming at a high cost was an interesting one – although not necessarily in the way Major Pete meant it.


Skyrocketing tuition prices are the obvious impetus for proposals to make college more affordable. While reasons behind double-digit inflation of college costs are complex (and a subject I tackled a few years ago in depth), when people bring up the high cost of not going to college, they are usually talking about opportunities and income lost by those who do not enter the job market with a college diploma.


This is indeed a problem, best illustrated by the lifetime income differential between those with and without a college degree. Now we should keep in mind that all of the numbers being argued over are averages and, in a world where not every Harvard drop out (like Bill Gates) will cancel out the earnings of Ivy League grads like Mark Zuckerberg, averages that don’t control for outliers can be misleading. But assuming these differentials reflect the bulk of human experience, it certainly seems like paying for four years of post-secondary school is a reasonable investment.


But might reflect tautological thinking?


Tautologies are statement in which one word or phrase simply repeats (or is implied) by another, such as frozen ice. But in some cases, tautologies imply circular or backwards reasoning.

For example, does a college degree represent better preparation for a job or career, or are most jobs and careers now requiring a college diploma regardless of whether or not higher education is required to succeed in that job role?


It was not that many years ago when people could get a job in retail, starting on the shop floor and then work their way up to management. Similarly, many computer programmers got their first job right out of high school (or even while they were in high school) based on their ability to program, rather than a degree in computer science. Today, however, degrees in retail management or computer science are common not just in college catalogs, but also in job descriptions that include the phrase “BA Required.”


In many cases, “BA” might be replaced by “MA,” “MBA” or “Advanced Degree” while “Required” is often toned down to “Preferred.” But this is where technology tends to harden preferences into commandments.


Many years ago, when I hired my first full-time programmer at a company I founded, the search firm I worked with sent me a dozen resumes to review, presuming pared down from 25-30 or so he had received as a result of a search. The number I was sent was managable enough for me to go through each one carefully, finally selecting an excellent candidate – one who had no college degree – based on his job experience, references and an interview.


This dynamic changed when online job boards meant that every job posting is likely to be hit with many dozen if not many hundreds of applications since applying for a job (like applying to college) no longer requires sitting down and typing something up and mailing it, but rather simply clicking an Apply button and uploading a few pre-written documents.


With so many resumes chasing the same job, there needs to be some way to reduce the initial surge to that same manageable dozen choice resumes I experienced during the pre-Internet era. Computer algorithms can perform this task, as can low-skilled labor hired to toss out 90% of the resumes that enter an applicant tracking system (the technology behind most job boards).


The easiest way for them to accomplish this task is to simply treat “preferred” as “required” and chuck out anyone who does not meet the highest levels asked for in a job description (by, for example, throwing out everyone who does not have an MBA, even if the job description did not specify that as a requirement).


This dynamic impacts at the high end of employment where people with decades of experience, but only a BA, might lose out to much less experienced candidates who invested in as much education as possible. But it also means that someone with only a high-school diploma, but lots of ability, won’t even get past the algorithm or unskilled resume shredder to be seen by an employer.

Such credentials inflation – abetted by technology – represents a major “cost of not going to college,” one that could be solved without necessarily spending billions to ensure everyone earns credentials they may not want, need, or be able to afford.


Is a degree in retail the best way to separate the strongest hire from weaker ones? Are there some metrics – other than the Yes/No answer to “Do they have a diploma?” – that employers could or should use when they look for the best talent?


Creating more alternatives to sheep skins might jeopardize the livelihood of institutions of higher education currently acting as gate keepers to many employment opportunities. But before we bankrupt the nation in an attempt to stuff everyone into a flawed system, perhaps we should look a bit more deeply into whether the system we want to shore up might be part of the problem, rather than the solution.

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