A basic premise underlying much public policy regarding American higher education is that some post-secondary training is necessary for young Americans to realistically expect to be successful in life. A shorthand way of putting it is: College Is For All. With that philosophy firmly entrenched, state governments have put public universities near almost everyone, and the federal government has created a massive financial aid program trying to promote this message. President Barack Obama early in his administration declared expanding college involvement was a national goal, and the Lumina Foundation has dedicated itself to having at least 60% of Americans with a college education in the near future.
With that by way of background, one group that you would expect would enthusiastically agree with the premise that everyone needs more education after high school is college professors. They make their living teaching and presumably would think what they do is an important, even vital, part of American life.
Yet a provider of services to universities and their students, Red Hat, has conducted a survey of nearly 2,000 college professors with evidence that questions that proposition. When asked, Do you agree that a post-secondary education is necessary to a persons success in life? only the barest majority, 51%, said yessome 49% said no. If I had to guess what the response would have been, I would have speculated that at least 80% would have said yes, no more than 20% no. Even university faculty have become much more skeptical about the absolute necessity of college to having a positive life experience.
Part of this skepticism is perhaps explained by answers to other questions the faculty was asked. Generally, professors think their students are unprepared and not very hard working. When asked about their biggest in-class teaching challenge, a large 69% said students were not coming to class prepared. Asked, Do you think students are more distracted now than ever before? an extraordinary 87% said yes. With the students perceived to be unprepared and disengaged, it is no wonder a healthy proportion of faculty question whether higher education training is critical to success, although even disengaged students who manage to procure a diploma have some economic advantage. Even here, however, some recent evidence shows the sheepskin effect is not always too bigsome data suggest that students in the bottom one-fourth of their graduating class at college typically make little more than what an average quality high school graduate does.
On a number of other issues, however, those surveyed by Red Hat performed as might be expected. Most (74%) think the Trump administration has had a negative impact on higher education, in keeping with other surveys showing faculty has a predominantly left-of-center political perspective. A solid majority (60%) think that insufficient funds is one of the biggest issues facing their school. On average, faculty members think their own university administration is doing only a so-so job, giving them a 6.04 average on a 1 to 10 scale (10 very highly satisfied). By contrast, they are much more satisfied with their own teaching career, giving an average evaluation of 7.46 on the same scale. While most claim to work hard (over 40 hours weekly), some 37% admit to taking seven or more weeks vacation annually, with the median for the whole group being about six weeks, much more than average for all workers.
With labor markets tightening in the U.S., there are growing numbers of reports that some employers are dropping their college degree requirements in an attempt to lure workers. A few years ago, a top HR employee at a prominent accounting firm in Britain (Ernst & Young) found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.
In securing employment, Does college matter? The answer still is yes. Does college alone matter? The answer clearly is no. Are degrees losing some of their potency as a screening device for employers? Perhaps.