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College: Investment or Vacation?

Does it build human capital—or are students just marching in place?

By George Leef


November 17, 2009

Human capital means the mental toolkit a person has—the stock of knowledge and skills that enable him to produce and solve problems. We benefit from accumulating human capital just as we benefit from accumulating physical capital (tools); both increase our productivity.

We augment our human capital through learning. That fact leads many people to jump to the conclusion that schooling necessarily adds to human capital. After all, when students take classes in grade school, then high school, then college, they’re engaged in learning. So the more time people spend in education, the more human capital they acquire.

Could anything be so obvious?

Many writers assume that this direct connection between schooling and human capital holds true, but few ever question it. An excellent example is the new book Crossing the Finish Line by William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson (Princeton University Press). It raises a number of important issues that I plan to address later, but for now, I’ll focus on the book’s keystone.

The authors want to convince readers that the country would be a lot better off if we could somehow get many more young people to graduate from college. But how do they know that would be good? Unfortunately, they’re so certain college adds to human capital that they glide past the key question.

Right at the beginning, the authors inform us that “academics, policy decision-makers, and journalists are united in bemoaning the failure of the United States in recent years to continue building the human capital it needs to satisfy economic, social, and political needs.” Then they quote Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke who says that “the best way to improve economic opportunity… is to increase the educational attainment and skills of American workers.”

But why believe that more “educational attainment” (more time in formal schooling) necessarily leads to better skills? Bernanke points to the great economic growth in the U.S. after World War II that corresponded to rising education levels. He and the authors assume that the rising education levels caused that economic surge. Given the poor state of our economy now, we badly need another boost in educational attainment.

How could anyone doubt that more education would be good? Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson briefly acknowledge that there are a few skeptics, but immediately brush them away: “To be sure, some commentators have suggested that the perception that there are superior economic returns to investments in higher education is mistaken; however, careful statistical work by several leading economists strongly suggests that these worries are misplaced.” They refer to a paper by Professor David Card who maintains that students who might be added “at the margin” would enjoy gains at least as high as college students generally. A footnote adverting to one essay by one critic (Charles Murray) finishes the matter off.

Unfortunately, the authors never engage with the considerable body of work arguing that we have already oversold higher education, including Who’s Not Working and Why by Frederick Pryor and David Shaffer, Does Education Matter? by Alison Wolf, Going Broke by Degree by Richard Vedder, and Real Education by Charles Murray, among others.

The critics don’t deny that increases in human capital are beneficial, but question whether going through college necessarily does much to increase it. At the elite schools the authors are familiar with, bright and dedicated students add greatly to their mental toolkit through their studies—but what about the far more numerous schools where the entrance standards are very low and the level of academic rigor lower still?

Are we sure that students who attend (and perhaps graduate from) those school gain in human capital?

I don’t think so. Human capital gains occur when an individual improves his mental ability; when his learning enables him to better think through problems, produce value, communicate, evaluate options, and so on. Unfortunately, at many colleges and universities, students can easily pass courses with just the mental toolkit they possessed in high school. Yes, they briefly learn enough about subjects to pass their exams, but they could do that before. Short-term learning isn’t the same as improving your mental capacities.

Let’s put it this way: passing a college course no more indicates a human capital gain than just going to a gym indicates an improvement in physical fitness.

To get through college, many students don’t have to become better at reading, at writing, at math, at logic. Sadly, the key consideration at many colleges is not educational excellence or even modest progress, but simply enrolling and collecting tuition from as many students as possible. Therefore, course content has been watered down and expectations lowered so that even the weakest and most disengaged students can pass. As Steve Balch, founder of the National Association of Scholars says, “We don’t so much have higher education these days, as longer education.”

That contention isn’t easy to prove. It doesn’t lend itself to quantification. More than a few professors have, however, written about their experiences in dealing with students from what Professor Mark Bauerlein calls The Dumbest Generation.

For example, Peter Sacks described his “sandbox experiment” in Generation X Goes to College. In order to save his job after horrible course evaluations from students who didn’t like hard work and resented his criticism of their writing, he had to ratchet the level of academic rigor way down. He wrote, “Overwhelmingly, our colleagues told us they were watering down their standards in order to accommodate a generation of students who had become increasingly disengaged from anything resembling an intellectual life.” Sacks did that too, keeping the students happy and saving his job.

Retired history professor Thomas Reeves says much the same thing. The students he taught “can talk about several things, including their jobs, television, sports, and rock music, but they are often baffled and sometimes irritated to hear from their professor that there is more to life. If that ‘more’ requires reading, they aren’t interested.” (“The Classroom Game,” Academic Questions, Spring 2001, p.24.)

Or as one University of Missouri undergrad explained to Professor Murray Sperber, “Most Mizzou students are satisfied with easy schoolwork because other things are much more important to them, mostly partying and following the Tigers.” (Beer and Circus, p.114.) Unfortunately, many students spend more time drinking than they do studying.

Doubt that college does a lot for human capital development is heightened when you reflect on the fact that students often put in little time on their coursework (as the National Survey of Student Engagement found), graduate with terrible writing skills (as the National Commission on Writing found), and don’t read well (as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found).

The authors of Crossing the Finish Line seem certain that when students go to and especially graduate from college, they significantly enhance their human capital. That belief is the keystone of their book, but instead of solid granite, the stone is pumice. Sure, many students do work and study hard, adding a lot to their mental toolkit. The problem is that many others don’t, going through their courses--often chosen with the help of campus websites to avoid demanding professors—with a minimum of effort and little lasting intellectual gain.

Taking college classes isn’t the only way to learn useful things. For many young Americans, it isn’t the best way and it’s a costly mistake to push them into college if they aren’t prepared for or interested in academic pursuits.


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