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Outrageous Universities

In response to:

Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality from the July 9, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Andrew Delbanco is likely to mislead readers with his unqualified affirmation [“Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality,” NYR, July 9]: “given the proven advantages for the college-educated in the form of higher wages and lower unemployment….” A college degree does confer advantages over a high school degree. But this so-called college premium is not because the income of college grads has increased over the years. Instead, the median earnings of those with a bachelor’s degree have steadily decreased for more than a decade. But the wages of high school graduates have decreased even more. Thus, the differential economic consequences of a college degree ought to be called the “high school discount.”

There is more to this matter than the correct name of a phenomenon. It may open the door to a deeper understanding of the relation between educational credentials and socioeconomic inequality, which is the central concern of his essay. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the decade until 2022 there will be 19 million college graduates competing for the estimated 3 million jobs requiring a college education. Even if only roughly correct, the mismatch between the supply of and demand for college graduates suggests that the faith in college education as the ladder to “the blessings of American life” may be misplaced at best, and misguided at worst.

Sajay Samuel
Clinical Professor of Accounting
College of Business
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania

Andrew Delbanco replies:

Real wages are indeed stagnating for many Americans, including college graduates. But Professor Samuel does not dispute that those with a college credential tend to do better than those without. The central concern of my essay was to show that we are rationing this asset by making it inaccessible to students without means.

As for the projected relation between the number of college graduates and the number of future jobs “requiring a college education,” see Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose, “The Economy Goes to College: The Hidden Promise of Higher Education in the Post-Industrial Service Economy” (cew .georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/Econ omyGoesToCollege.pdf), which concludes that higher-skill jobs are a growing share of the overall economy. Colleges cannot fix America’s inequality problem, but we are worsening it by narrowing college opportunity for the children of low-income families.