Restoring the Value of a College Degree

In a recent op-ed piece for “The New York Times,” Paul Krugman, who moonlights as an economics professor at Princeton (so much better than moonlighting as a waiter), questioned the value of a college degree. Many years ago the broadsides against the academy came almost exclusively from those outside of it; now, they increasingly come from some of its most notable luminaries. The academy, Krugman says as if making a discovery, is preparing students for jobs that don’t exist. (No doubt, his logic, rigorously applied, would demand he discourage aspirants to both his lines of work). The implication, I suppose, is that universities should be preparing students for jobs that do exist. The problem is that many of the jobs that do exist are precisely those that even a mild dose of liberal education (and the doses today are of the mildest) can make insupportable.

                It is not the education, mind you, but the degree which makes the service industry jobs so difficult for the thousands of college graduates who hold them. I have a theory that the credentialed complain much more about their lot in life than the non-credentialed, for degrees and certificates are, at bottom, about distancing ourselves from the prospect of poverty and want. For many decades, they fulfilled that function admirably, but no longer. Our resumes have failed us, becoming the pieces of paper that they are. What’s needed now is scrappiness, a quality found more in the “unlettered” than the “lettered.” In an ideal would we would all get our education without the degrees. I’m not suggesting that universities shut down—though certainly many of them should—but rather that they stop conferring degrees on the unworthy. There are two ways to do this: either don’t admit them, or, more brutally, don’t graduate them. Perhaps this sounds radical, but a recent study shows that a considerable number of students leave college as unenlightened as they entered it, remaining, intellectually speaking, dwarfs. Whether we blame the student or his alma mater for the wasted (some would say criminal) interval between matriculation and commencement is academic, though I’m inclined to blame the latter, given the student is paying, or will be paying for the unhappy results. (Indeed, grade inflation seems almost justifiable when one considers that students are also customers. At the obscenely expensive schools, I think every student who receives a very bad grade (B+/A-) should be allowed, like a disgruntled diner, to “send it back.”)

                The restoration of the value of a college degree can only occur when the supply of them is rationed. (We also have to admit that college doesn’t prepare one for a job; a job prepares one for a job.) I don’t mean we should return to the old days when only the wealthy went to college, but to the exact degree that a university is open to all comers—on my first day of college, I met someone who prided himself on never having read a book, even one by the greatest synthesizer of all time, Mr. Cliff—it is irreparably debased. The skepticism with which nineteenth century politicians greeted the rise of public education seems, in this regard, most prescient. In educating everyone, we educate, as statistic after statistic tells us, no one.