Thank You Mr. Graduate, I Will Have Fries with That!

The United States is facing a gigantic debt problem, as we all know. Governments at all levels have simply been spending too much, which most Republicans and Democrats now seem willing to concede. But don’t expect to hear the following from many members of either party: We need to stop spending taxpayer money on sending so many people to college! Indeed, President Obama has already said he’ll support spending cuts but not to education, and few Republicans have ever shown the willingness to flatly declare student aid a costly waste. And maybe they’re right. After all, doesn’t more college education necessarily translate into more productivity and prosperity?

Nope. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, lots of people never finish the education they start, and colleges just raise tuition to eat up aid increases. What I haven’t discussed as much is the problem of college-grad underemployment: college graduates taking jobs that don’t require college degrees. Well it’s a huge inefficiency, as the good folks at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity point out in a timely new study. And it could become an even bigger problem as President Obama pushes to have the United States lead the world in the percentage of the population with a college degree. As CCAP reports:

Evidence shows that currently more than one-third of college graduates hold jobs that governmental employment experts tell us require less than a college degree. That proportion of underemployed college graduates has tripled over the past four decades.

From an economic standpoint, that’s obviously a lot of waste. So why do our policymakers persist in simplistically asserting that more college education is always a good thing? I can’t read minds, but I’m inclined to agree with the CCAP authors:

[T]he notion of President Obama and many higher education leaders that our nation’s future depends on higher numbers of college graduates is fundamentally flawed. It is based more on assumptions, and perhaps almost an ideological attachment to colleges and universities, than on labor market realities.

Many people, it seems, do just assume that more education – without ever looking at what actually goes on in higher ed – is always a good thing, while others believe that government should constantly funnel money to our precious ivory towers no matter how little of concrete value taxpayers get for their dough. But whatever the reason, the facts almost all point in one direction: We need to spend much less taxpayer money on higher education, not much more.