Employers today use a bachelor's degree to weed out applicants the same way they used a high school degree a generation ago. So in one sense, I suppose, a college education is more important than ever, in that without one, your prospects in the white-collar world are pretty dim. But if everyone else has a degree, the value of your degree drops pretty dramatically.Particularly if the degree is a signal that is replacing the signal a high-school diploma used to communicate. Don't overlook the response to the incentives third-party payments bring in.
That's because by making it easier for anyone who wants to to go to college, the government has made buyers of colleges and sellers of prospective students, and rigged the system in favor of the buyers. When colleges get 10 applicants for every spot in a freshman class, they can pretty much charge whatever they please for tuition. There's very little consumer pressure to keep costs down (I'd submit this is also one reason why textbooks cost so much more than ordinary books -- college kids aren't spending their own money. They're spending their parents' money, the government's money, or their own future income in the form of loans). That same lack of consumer pressure also means colleges don't have to work as hard to provide as good a product, in this case a high-quality education.(I would note in passing that ten applicants for each slot is not the norm. The ratio is something larger than one but not exceeding 1.5 at Northern Illinois.) Quality isn't the priority for many administrators, surfeit of applications or not. "Access" is, which provides lots of additional work for assorted crying-towel pushers. By their fruits ...
If we look what increased access to college has effected so far (the diminishing real value of an ever more expensive degree, grade inflation that makes it increasingly difficult for employers to evaluate graduates, the dimished quality the college education itself, and a generation of graduates burdened with debt) it's probably safe to predict that "universal" access would provide more of the same, only worse.Not to mention that employers would carp even more about having to do the education establishment's work than they currently do. Not to mention that students would lobby for additional government grants and engage in more grade-wheedling to guilt-trip professors who would be stopping the gravy train by telling the truth on grade sheets.
Instead of Adesnik and Yglesias' ideal, my guess is that univeral access would give us a generation of young adults with college degrees who are about as smart as the population of young adults with high school diplomas a generation or two before them, only they'll be getting started on their careers (and building wealth and savings) several years later in life, and with the added handicap of looming student debt and interest.And natural constituents for politicians who would like to turn college into a taxpayer-supported "right."
The Truck and Barter guys have been following this story as well. Ian, who points to the Agitator article, does some careful thinking about the margin, along which payoffs tend to equality.
On the margin, then, lowering these costs lets in a student for whom the returns may not be as high and for whom other activities might be of greater value. If you don't have to cover tuition, and don't mind eating the cafeteria food, school is a relatively cheap and fun way to live. This doesn't mean it's the most productive thing for that person, however. It's not that I know what would be more productive, either, but making it easier for them to attend college by spending more federal money isn't exactly doing them some great service and the little it might or might not do is done at the cost of everyone else. Additionally, it negatively impacts the people who would have attended even when the costs are high. Increasing the cohort that graduates at a certain time with similar degrees increases the labor force for a certain category of work. A couple things happen, such as people taking jobs for which they are overqualified (as mentioned in some of the posts linked to above), or wages may drop for that pool since labor is then potentially in larger supply relative to the demand (ok, so some of both of this happens, plus some people go back to school, some people leave the labor force altogether...but I'm limiting the scope here).Consider that point along with Kevin's comparison of givens and druthers for students and employers.
Which provides a bit of job security for professors in graduate programs, as one observer observes:
Top 10 Demand (2004): accounting, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, business administration, economics/finance, computer science, computer engineering, marketing or marketing management, chemical engineering, and information sciences and systems.
Top 10 Supply (2001): Business, social science, education, psychology, health, performing arts, biology, engineering, communications, English...
I apologize to everyone actually using their college degrees in any of these fields...but everyone I know who was a communications/psychology/leisure studies major and didn't continue to graduate school is now a waitress or sells copy machines or something equally worthy of a college graduate.But one who will show up for work. The high school diploma no longer has that signalling value.
There's a more recent Agitator post suggesting that more targeted financial aid might restrict the supply of majors in such disciplines.