Bob Herbert, What Are You Talking About?

Give New York Times columnist Bob Herbert credit — not many writers can pack three ridiculous claims into a single lede. Somehow he manages to do so in his latest column, which begins:

One of the weirder things at work these days is the fact that we’re making it more difficult for American youngsters to afford college at a time when a college education is a virtual prerequisite for establishing and maintaining a middle-class standard of living.

Did you catch all three? They are:

  1. “American youngsters” are finding “it more difficult “to afford college.”
  2. “[W]e’re” the ones who are “making it more difficult for American youngsters to afford college.”
  3. “[A] college degree is a virtual prerequisite for establishing and maintaining a middle-class standard of living.”

Let’s tackle these in order: 

If American youngsters are finding it more difficult to go to college, that’s not showing up in college enrollment data. The enrollment rate of recent high school graduates for 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, was the second-highest in history at 66.7 percent. The years 2000, 2002 and 2003 are also among the seven highest in history, with enrollments of 63.3, 65.2 and 63.9 percent, respectively. And, looking forward, projected enrollment numbers out to the 2015–2016 school year suggest enrollment rates will continue to rise.

What of Herbert’s claim that “we’re” the ones who are making it more difficult for youngsters to go to college? If by this he means that American taxpayers aren’t doing enough to help college students pay their tuition bills then, again, the data aren’t on his side. Funding for federal Pell grants has increased 80 percent in real terms between 1994 and 2006, while the money available through federally subsidized student loans (Perkins Loans, Direct Student Loans, and Family Education Loans) has increased 87 percent in real terms over that time. Data from the 2003–2004 school year (the most recent data available) show that more than half of undergraduates that year received grant money (in the average amount of $4,000) while 35.1 percent of undergraduates received subsidized loans (in the average amount of $5,800).

What of Herbert’s claim that a college degree is a “virtual prerequisite” for a middle-class standard of living? To be sure, higher education translates into increased earnings over a person’s lifetime. However, people who lack a college degree are not doomed to a life of lower-class living. Earnings data for 2004 show that a high school diploma and some work experience can add up to a middle-class lifestyle. The mean earnings per person in 2004 were $37,897; the mean earnings for a person with only a high school diploma who was between 35 and 44 years of age were $32,060. If that person had some college education but no degree, mean earnings were $38,076.

Herbert’s column goes on to lament the debt burden incurred by recent college graduates, including grad- and professional school graduates. Remarkably, he gives no thought to the value of the degrees that were purchased with that debt. Fortunately, more-thoughtful people have done present-value calculations on various college degrees (see, e.g., these calculations by Arizona State’s Carey School of Business, or these by Don Burleson of Burleson Consulting, or these by MSN Money’s Liz Pulliam Weston). The general consensus is that a bachelor’s degree, after subtracting tuition and other college costs as well as lost earnings from the years spent in school, has a present value of about a quarter-million dollars. Advanced degrees provide mixed returns (my MA in philosophy is of great personal value, but it doesn’t deliver much bling in the marketplace), but degrees in law and medicine deliver a present-value payback of upwards of $1 million dollars or more. And the still-ridiculously-cheap associates degree is the best deal in higher education, delivering well over $100,000 in present value for a mere few thousand dollars in cost.

Now, ask yourself: Would you be willing to spend $5,000 in exchange for something worth $100,000? Or $50,000 in exchange for $300,000? Or $100,000 in exchange for $1 million? Apparently, Herbert wouldn’t — unless taxpayers subsidize him (more) to do so.

Herbert’s column strikes me as yet another example of the all-too-common “progressive” lament that not enough money is being redistributed to the upper middle class. He would tax people (including many with no college degrees) to help out the soon-to-be-well-off.

Curiously, Herbert’s column says absolutely nothing about the one obvious issue in higher education financing: Why has a four-year college education gotten so expensive? My Cato colleague Neal McCluskey has discussed that, and you can read some of his thoughts here.