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Kay Hymowitz: The Devaluation of Higher Education

This brings in the status issue again, doesn’t it? Because there are so many careers that people just wouldn’t consider because how would they tell their friends?”

On July 22nd, Kay S. Hymowitz joined Merion West editor-in-chief Erich Prince to discuss her latest piece in City Journal on college degree devaluation. Ms. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute as well as a contributing editor at City Journal. In this interview, Ms. Hymowitz and Mr. Prince discuss the notion of free college for all, how the bachelor’s degree rush morphed into the master’s degree race, the role social status plays in discussions about higher education, and, finally, potential solutions to close the gap between those who are college-educated and those who are not. 

Kay, good morning. Looking forward to chatting about your piece, which I think was very interesting. As I mentioned, it’s a topic I’ve had my eye on for a while.

What’s your interest in it specifically?

I do a number of one-on-one interviews with members of Congress on the issues, and I first encountered this around 2019. I was interviewing then-freshman Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, who, before she got involved in all of the constant Trump investigations, allegedly was interested in education. She was putting forward a proposal a lot like we’re hearing now about making college more and more available. I brought up to her someone you quote in the piece, Bryan Caplan, and his book The Case Against Education, and it was like talking to a brick wall.

Yes, I know their framework. [Laughs.] It’s college for all, and that is it. 

And there was no engagement with any alternative perspective. 

I figured I would start by asking you about Joseph Epstein, whose Wall Street Journal op-ed you begin your piece with. I’m a bit of an Epstein fanboy, so I was sorry to see the amount of criticism he received. And I don’t know if you saw it, but he did a piece later at Commentary mentioning some of the meanest hate mail—I think he called it “hate email,” and it was very nasty. They went after his age; I think he said only one [email] was anti-Semitic—but just about everything under the sun they could come up with. So, as you said, why did it hit a nerve so much? Why did Epstein become ground zero of all this anger and just outpouring of vitriol?

I think most of the objection to what Epstein said was put in terms of misogyny. People were convinced he just didn’t want to call a woman “doctor” and that he was making fun of her for pretending to be something that she wasn’t. That was most of the response I saw on social media. And I think it was also a product of politics at the moment because we have Jill Biden here, who is a working woman, and I should say in her defense that I think the work she does is probably pretty good and important in community colleges; these kids need good teachers—I don’t know if they need doctors, but we’ll get to that. So I think a lot of it was, “How dare you go after the innocent wife of the Democratic President-elect who will be our next First Lady?” So I think that was a lot of it as well.

In your piece, there were a few lines that stood out to me. I’ll quote one of them. You say, “The coveted B.A. from all but the most elite schools has become a yawn, a Honda Civic in a Tesla world.” Having a college degree at one time really meant something. There’s a reason why my parents’ and grandparents’ generations told their kids, “No matter what, don’t do drugs and get a degree.” But then, if everyone has one, all of the sudden, it isn’t as impressive anymore. I used to study evolutionary biology, and they often say, “It’s not absolute fitness that matters, but rather it’s relative fitness.” 

You often hear economists say, “If you subsidize something, you’ll get more of it.” We have subsidized college education—with the best of intentions, by the way. But what has happened is we have so much of it now that people look for other ways to stand out, to find status that other people will recognize and respect. So what’s happened is that we now have about 36% of the population with a bachelor’s degree. If you’re somebody who wants to stand out, you have to have something more. So more and more, you see people going for master’s degrees and higher. And the master’s degrees, from what I can see, are more vocational. 

People who go for a master’s are often thinking specifically about a career in a particular area, and they find the program that will fit that the most. So there are quite specialized master’s programs. And anyway, the more master’s you get, the more you have employers going, “Well, you know what? Why do I need just a stinky old B.A. working for me? I can get somebody with a master’s.” And that’s what’s happening; more and more people are being hired who have the master’s, regardless of whether the job itself requires those putative skills that they’ve attained in graduate school. Likewise, the B.A. has become a requirement in jobs that we never used to think would require a B.A; I go through a couple of examples [in the piece].

One of the examples that really stood out for me was when you said, “…more than 40% of manufacturing workers now have a college degree, up from 22% in 1991.”

I think that’s incredible. 

I also wonder how much of that is related to some broader shifts in the economy? I know, for example, we’re now something like an 80% service economy, with close to 19% industry, and less than 1% agriculture. So I wonder how much of that’s also related to some of these shifts in the macroeconomy?

So the manufacturing story is complicated because it’s very easy to say, “Oh, these darn employers that just want more status for their industries.” That’s not entirely true. The fact is that advanced manufacturing requires a lot more math and spatial skills than it used to. This is not rote work anymore for a lot of people in that sector. They have to work with machines that are digital and computerized, and they need people who understand the digital world, so you can kind of understand why that might lead to expectations for higher education. I still think it’s very possible that you could set up programs that were more directly training people for those jobs that didn’t require student debt of the sort that I’m sure we’ll be talking about and that didn’t require another two to three years of school.

I’m glad you mentioned the time component, Kay; that’s another thing I think about. In an ideal world—maybe for some of these jobs that historically haven’t required a degree—you would learn all the things you needed to in high school. And by the time you are 18 or 19, you’re able to productively contribute in whatever sector you’re working in. But now you’re tacking on this extra four years of college, then maybe you take a year to do grad school prep, and then another two years with a master’s program. You’re 27 before you even have your first real job.

Right, and not to mention the fact that you probably have some debt to pay off. So it begins to make sense why people are getting married and starting families so late. This training just takes a long time, and people put the training before the family-making—for good reason, by the way. But I just think there’s a way to streamline this to make it much more efficient, much less time-wasting, and much less status-oriented. Because whether you need the M.A. or not for the specific training, it also has the effect of saying to other people, “Well, this guy has a master’s” or “This woman has a master’s, and you don’t.” And regardless of what it actually means in practice, what it signifies is somebody who’s better trained.

I think that’s a great point. I guess there are two ways of even looking at what it conveys because, as I recall, Bryan Caplan in The Case Against Education is talking a lot about “signaling to employers.” But then, other people—like Rob Henderson and others who are more focused on what college represents in terms of social status—might talk about it more in the context of: Can you be a “member of the elite,” so to speak, without having a college degree? At this point, now maybe it’s a master’s degree because it just moves on to the next tier.

Right, and there are other signals in there: the sector that you’re in, the kind of job you have, the school you graduated from. The particular school has tremendous buying power for people. And, for instance, one of the points I made later in the article is that Jill Biden got her master’s—she has two masters, a Ph.D., an Ed.D. rather, which is sort of the equivalent of a Ph.D. in education. She was in an area that, within academia, within the world that knows these things—education schools are looked down on as being kind of Mickey Mouse, and they always have been. According to her husband, she wanted this degree because she didn’t want to just be Mrs. Biden. She wanted to be Dr. Biden—talk about signaling—not because it really was going to change her trajectory.

I know I’m betraying my prejudices here, but that sounds like a silly reason to get a degree.

I totally agree with you. [Laughs.] But she didn’t have to worry about the money, obviously. She liked the status. I mean, she wanted the status. So it was interesting to me that the criticism within the “Dr. Biden” flap was never about that.

That’s what I was sensing a little bit with the first question. At first glance, you would think that some of the ​​brouhaha would take that turn, but it seemed relatively confined to the angle that she’s a woman. And I think if you ask Epstein, the word that really set people off was when he said “kiddo.” But it wasn’t so much on the substance of the whole conversation about the education aspect, which is, I think, what Epstein was trying to get at in a way.

I think there were all kinds of status subtexts to that debate. [Laughs.] And some of them were more out front and center than others. If I remember correctly, Epstein didn’t say anything about Ed schools, but that was in there. That’s behind a lot of this discussion.

Your piece touches on a lot of very important aspects, but I want to bring up one in particular. Obviously, this whole phenomenon is to the detriment of the people who are part of this degree rat race, and they’re saying, “Okay, now I’m graduating college. It’s ultra-competitive; now, I have to go get a master’s.” But you also bring up: How about the people who can’t even be part of that process at all? You mentioned how maybe they’re taking care of a grandparent, or they’re taking care of their own child, and they can’t even be part of this to begin with. And in a time when so many people are talking about wealth inequality, there are all these people who can’t even be part of the signaling degree process at all.

That’s right. I’ve written about—and I’m sure most people are aware at this point—that the divide between the college-educated and those without a college degree has grown wider and wider. Now, you add other layers in the ladder, and the guy who can’t afford to take out a loan and maybe isn’t very good at sitting in class and needs to get into the labor market looks up at the top of that ladder and says, “That’s not me.” Maybe a B.A., but this other stuff just makes it look like it’s completely out of reach. And also, just in terms of the way you present yourself, there’s a whole language—we’re learning this from this whole CRT debate. There’s a whole language that comes from going to college that you learn and a way of being in relation to others. That, I think, is also part of the polarization in the country now. 

You mean some of the jargon one picks up going to college? 

Yes.

I know Harry Truman’s family used to say, “Whenever you hear someone praying loudly, go home and lock up all your valuables.” [Laughs.] Whenever I hear someone using jargon, I just put the proverbial wax in my ears, and I don’t listen to anything they have to say.

[Laughs.] Right, and notice how that jargon keeps shifting so that you have to keep up with it. 

People use these abbreviations in emails, and I have no idea what they mean at all. 

[Laughs.] I know, I know.

I’ve also been very interested in the issue of inequality, and mostly I’ve written about it from the point of view of family structure because I do think that that’s a big part.

I saw that you had a piece out at the beginning of the month about the child-tax credit.

Yes. I think we can get into this if you want to, but my basic view is that if you’re raising kids in such dramatically different environments—one stable and one unstable; one with two parents and two incomes and two brains to figure out problems; and one with one, usually a mother, who is also then dealing with her own personal issues (new boyfriends, other children)—then you are going to have inequality perpetuate itself. We have a lot of data on that.

I mentioned Rob Henderson. He talks a lot about this—his experience being a foster child and how he became the exception rather than the norm.

Absolutely. He’s a rare bird, Rob. Foster kids are usually not going to make it to Cambridge. 

Right, but, anyway, you were saying about family?

So I think the family issue is absolutely key to understanding inequality. I’m not clear exactly what we can do about it, but I’m determined to make people understand it because there’s a tendency to feel very shy when talking about family breakdown or “alternate family forms.”

People get maligned for saying, in my view, pretty straightforward things. 

Absolutely. And then there are just a lot of people who know it, but they’re just not comfortable talking about it. I think it’s partly a race issue because the single-parent family is the norm in many black communities. In fact, I remember seeing years ago in an article that there are some neighborhoods where kids never meet a married couple family. I think people are very nervous about the racial imbalance there. I’ll put this in there—because it’s always so shocking to hear—that over 70% of black children are born to unmarried mothers. And those unmarried mothers are generally not living with the father of the child. And if they are, that relationship is likely to break up before the child is three or five.

I’ve seen some of the statistics, and they’re staggering. I cover a lot to do with law enforcement and crime, and that’s one of the main things I’m usually covering when we’re not talking about colleges. And if you ask a lot of people in law enforcement, they’ll say the number one thing to address with teenagers committing crimes is to have these two-parent households. Nearly everyone says that.

And the data confirms this. You go into a prison, and what you find is a lot of fatherless children.

So one thing that comes to mind—I think I alluded to this before—is, can we make high school better? It seems like there are all these kids; they’re going to high school; they’re graduating; and they don’t know that much. And I was recently working on a piece that was talking about the difference in what college kids know between those graduating in 1980 and those graduating in 2012-2013. But I would imagine it’s something similar with high school. It seems like there are a lot of kids graduating from high school right now, and they don’t know that much.

It’s not just that they don’t know that much; they don’t have the soft skills, either. They don’t learn how to speak in coherent sentences. They don’t know how to look at people while they’re talking to them; they don’t know how to organize their workday. And I think there’s no question that what we did was with the best of intentions in trying to increase school graduation rates. And, within a bureaucracy, people are looking at your numbers if you’re a principal, and you have to do what you can to get those numbers up. But what we’ve done is assured that a lot of people who shouldn’t be graduating are.

Where do you see the origin of that? Was that No Child Left Behind? Did it predate that? Does it vary from city to city?

I think that it probably predates No Child Left Behind. This is a question that I haven’t given an awful lot of thought to, but my instinct is that it happened post-1960s and that it was in part racial, an attempt at trying to make it easier for black kids, who were not doing so well in school. That would be my guess. Somebody could do some research on that. There is some research showing that grade inflation is such that it’s adding to degree inflation.

That makes sense. I remember when I was in college, there was one professor, and he was trying to wage a one-man war against grade inflation, so none of us took his class. [Laughs.]

Well, exactly. That is actually in another piece that I wrote years ago, which is just that the students have gained much more power. In the 60s, 70s, and into the 80s, they were the ones calling the shots. So, colleges and universities have many more electives, and there’s no common core anymore or no cohesive curriculum that everybody has to take. So you take the courses that are going to be easy for everybody.

You were mentioning the economic component of when you subsidize everything, and our whole conversation comes on the eve of this potential “human infrastructure bill.” Obviously, there’s a push to have more Pell Grants, more funding for certain types of universities, historically black colleges, and universities. We’ll see what the actual details of the law, if passed, will say. But one of the main proposals that’s received a lot of attention is this free community college aspect. I wanted to ask you how you see the community college component within this entire discussion. Obviously, on the surface, the debate right now is about whether they should be free. In general, though, how do you see community colleges fitting into this whole picture?

I think they could play a tremendously important role if we let them or, rather, if we designed them a little differently. There are exemplary programs where students at the community colleges are working with local employers and really training kids for jobs. We should be thinking of community college in more vocational terms because the dropout rate for people who go to college, particularly community college, is very, very high. 

So, why is that? It’s not just that they can’t afford to keep it up, though that’s part of it. But they also don’t see it going anywhere.

That’s a great point because I think a lot of people say, “Oh, it’s because of the cost.” But you’re saying maybe they say, “Well, I’m going to have an associate’s in the liberal arts, what am I going to do with that?”

Right, what is that going to do for me? And I think there’s very little guidance coming to these kids about what’s available; how they should be thinking about their futures; all they hear is “college for all.” So a lot of them are going to community college, thinking then they’ll go to a four-year college when that’s really not what’s best for them. Employers don’t even need it if they knew how to work better with these community colleges to get these kids prepared in a way that will be best for those local industries.

I’m guessing you probably wouldn’t support these proposals for free community college. 

I have very mixed feelings because I want to support people who are trying to better themselves, but I think this is not the way to do it. If it passes, I’ll understand why. And again, best of intentions, but I’ll also think that it’s really not the way we should be going about this.

There is a common thing one hears about, and, at this point, it’s almost a little bit of a cliché; I’ll just ask you if you think there’s some truth to it. One of the things you’ll hear a lot is there’s so much social unrest going on, and one of the reasons for that is you have a lot of highly educated people sitting around with these advanced degrees but without jobs. They’re frustrated; they’re over-educated; and they’re ready to sow social dissent perhaps as payback for not sowing their proverbial “wild oats” because they’re sitting around studying for all these years. And that’s one of the reasons that there’s so much frustration among these younger people right now. I was just wondering if you think there’s any truth to that basic narrative.

I think there’s something to it. I think that we haven’t done a very good job of guiding people into the career path that they want and should have. Instead, we just say more college, more training, more debt. The Wall Street Journal ran a piece just a couple of weeks ago. It was an incredible piece about these kids who have taken out $50,000 to $100,000 worth of loans. And what they’re left with is an MFA, Masters of Fine Arts.  

The arts are notoriously difficult to break into and make any money on, and the early-level earnings are going to be very, very low. In fact, there is research out there saying that most people who get an MFA come from wealthy families. So that makes perfect sense; it’s sort of a luxury degree. There are people who make it and have a good living, but the odds are against you. So, I think that too many people drank the Kool-Aid that said, “Follow your passion. Find the career that’s good for you, that will be so meaningful.” And God knows I wanted meaningful work. We all want meaningful work, but we also have to be realistic.

Some of these people are probably very bright. They could become a dentist; that seems like a meaningful profession to me. 

This brings in the status issue again, doesn’t it? Because there are so many careers that people just wouldn’t consider because how would they tell their friends? “Oh, I want to be a dentist.” No. Not in many circles, not in many subcultures. That is part of what’s going on. These kids are the sort who were interviewed in The Wall Street Journal, and now there’s another article that’s coming up on Substack by Anne Helen Petersen about that same issue: kids who are in debt and have very little to show for it and no hope of a middle-class adult life despite their degrees. I can understand that this makes them mad and that they feel the system is pretty rigged. It is; it’s not working for them. It’s working for the benefit of colleges and universities.

And that’s an important point because you mentioned that the colleges, as they’re taking on various financial issues, that the master’s degree programs are one of the places they think they can break even. 

This article in the Substack that I just mentioned talks about the wining and dining that went on with at least one of these students to get them to come to the master’s program. Now, why are they so excited to get this kid in a master’s program? If he’s that great of a writer, he’ll make it anyway. He’s so impressed with all of this—all the big guns that were bought out. I think there was one kid who was looking at the University of Chicago program; they bought out Martha Nussbaum, and he was blown away by that. And now he is saddled with debt and very few prospects. There’s a con going on, and they’re not wrong to feel that way.

The last question I want to ask you to close is: You invoke a pretty telling thought experiment that Bryan Caplan brings up—and I actually remember it from when I first was reading through his work—and it’s this analogy of everyone standing up at the ballgame or auditorium. So we already talked about some of the folks who were, unfortunately, lower down on the income ladder, and they don’t have as much choice with this situation. But how do you get that first group of people who can go to college or can get a master’s degree to start sitting down and saying, “I’m not participating in this degree race anymore?” It’s maybe a little bit of a collective action problem. 

It is a collective action problem, and I’m not sure exactly what you do. The one thing is to be much more upfront with kids about what’s needed to get ahead. You need to get rid of this idea that college is for all. You need to make sure—with the example we just talked about, the community colleges for instance—that people know that there are alternatives to getting decent jobs. That takes us to employers working with these community colleges and other training programs and making sure kids know about it.

I think a lot of kids are about to graduate [from high school], and they think, “Well, what am I supposed to do? Well, I’m supposed to go to college.” They don’t even think of alternatives, and their parents don’t know of any alternatives, either. We have to get a lot more information out about possible alternatives. We have to make sure those alternatives are good and help kids really make a life for themselves and have the dignity that so many of these kids are despairing about. It’s essential to the health of the country that we have more people who are not college-educated who are given the kind of respect that they want and deserve.

I think in your last paragraph or two, you said something to the effect that most of these pieces [critical of higher education] end by proposing certain types of work-based or apprenticeship-type programs, and you’ll join them. I remember a couple of years ago, Bernie Sanders, of all people, was talking about this. I haven’t heard that much about it recently, though, about beefing up some of this training to be an electrician etc.

I did write an article for City Journal on a very interesting program outside of Philadelphia called Williamson College of the Trades; it’s extraordinary. They have an endowment, so it’s not going to be replicable for most people who are interested in going into this area. But it will give you a sense of just how much can be done for people going into the trades, and how good they can feel about it, and how productive they can be.

There’s no question about that. If you build a house or something, it’s there. That’s something to be proud of.

That’s right, and they know they’re good at it, and they know that they have skills. But they’re also getting a lot of training on the soft skills that I mentioned before, just in terms of their self-presentation. They know they have to dress in a way that commands respect.

It makes such a difference how people dress.

I think that we live in a very casual culture, and when billionaires can dress in hoodies, it’s hard for people to understand that when they dress in a hoodie, it doesn’t signal the same. [Laughs.]

Anytime I muster the energy to put on a necktie, and I’m walking through the train station, everyone is saying “Sir, can I help you with anything?” It’s unbelievable. 

[Laughs.] 

Kay, this has been a lot of fun, so thanks so much. I’m glad we got to connect because, as I said, it’s a topic I’ve had my eye on for a couple of years now. 

It’s bigger than education. 

There are so many variables; we’re talking about social status; there’s a lot going on. Thank you so much.

Thank you, Erich.

Erich J. Prince is the editor of Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on polarization in the United States Congress.

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