• Su Ning Goh

A Test of Higher Education

Photo by Roman Mager

Education is seen as the ultimate means to social mobility – the skills and qualifications acquired provide access to higher-paying jobs. Higher education has long been shown to have a causal impact on the ability to earn a higher income (Government of Canada). Yet in recent years, the number of voices questioning the effectiveness of a college degree have grown. Analytical articles like “The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone” by Bryan Caplan and “College May Not Be Worth It Anymore” by Ellen Shell give compelling evidence that our culture of prizing a college degree above everything else is an impractical one, a controversial argument that I will explore later on. While the saturation of college degrees presents a problem in developed countries, the other extreme is the “learning crisis” in the developing world (Edwards). It seems that all over the globe, problems with higher education and its purported aims are becoming apparent.

To better understand the issue, let's examine some of the problems surrounding the concept of higher education:

Is higher education accessible?

The greatest and most obvious problem regarding education is its lack of access. The effectiveness of a school is only evident when there are students in it, and thus it is important for a country’s education system to reach as many people as possible. Arguably, in situations where there is great social inequality, the accessibility to education is all the more important. While it is undeniable that higher education does lead to greater social mobility, its inaccessibility creates gaps between those who are privileged and those who are not – to the extent where “schooling exacerbates social inequality” (Edwards).

Nowhere is this more obvious than in developing countries, where higher education is often exclusively accessible to the most privileged sector of society. A study of thirty-five developing countries in South and sub-Saharan Africa – the region where there is the lowest rate of university enrollment in the world – revealed that poor young women were demographically the least likely group to enter university (Havergal). A particularly extreme case is Guinea, where less than 0.1 percent of poor young women enroll in university, compared to 1.1 percent of poor young men. The most privileged group – rich young men – have an enrollment rate of 15 percent (Havergal).

The lack of accessibility to higher education is symptomatic of deeper problems at the primary or secondary levels of education. Although the UN reports that enrollment in primary education in developing regions reached a high of 91 percent in 2015 (“United Nations Millennium Development Goals”), the key issue lies in whether the students enrolled were receiving quality education. Studies showed that literacy rates and numeracy skills of students in various developing countries were still alarmingly low even after receiving primary education: for instance, in Malawi and Zambia, over 80 percent of students were still illiterate after 2 years of schooling (Edwards).

In developed countries, exclusion from higher education exists in a subtler form. Higher education is, in theory, open to anyone who would like to apply. However, admissions to elite colleges such as Ivy League universities reveal a bias towards applicants from more affluent backgrounds. A 2017 study showed that a child from the richest 1 percent is 77 times likelier to get into an Ivy League school than a child from the bottom 20 percent (Thompson). This is significant because a degree from these elite colleges has the ability to propel its holders to the top economic stratum. Thus, if most of the graduates from these colleges are already wealthy and those excluded from these colleges are not, higher education will only aggravate pre-existing inequalities.

Does higher education lead to economic improvement?

Given that one of the main reasons to advocate for higher education is that it has the power to improve individual and national economies, it is necessary to closely examine whether or not this claim is truly achieved in practice.

On an individual level, a college degree has a significant improvement on one’s earnings. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Americans with a Bachelor’s degree earned 98 percent more per hour on average than those without a degree (Leonhardt). The logic behind this is obvious: college education means access to jobs that require more skills and are thus higher-paying. Yet in our imperfect reality, other factors confound this causal link. Even when disregarding the level of education, one's race and level of affluence still affect one's earning potential (Shell). In other words, there is a "glass ceiling" for people from poorer backgrounds, or of minority races, that "even a bachelor's degree does not break" (Shell).

In developing nations, the link between a college degree and high earnings is completely overturned. Developing countries face the unusual problem of chronic unemployment of the highly-educated (Usher). This phenomenon is two-sided, with an outdated model of higher education supplying underqualified or mismatched graduates to an economy whose industries are ill-suited to these graduates (Shimeles). On the supply side, the poor quality of higher education presents a real challenge. University graduates attend schools that are underfunded and understaffed (Usher), only to graduate with a degree that fails to prepare them for a professional job. China is a case study of this: the poor quality of teaching in universities has rendered degrees meaningless, leaving 16.4 percent of fresh graduates in 2011 facing unemployment (Bloom, Altbach, and Rosovsky). Furthermore, in many less developed African countries, higher education still follows the colonial model: a heavy focus on degrees relevant to the public sector, such as management, law and economics (Shimeles). This brings us to the mismatch with the demand side: such an outdated model of higher education disadvantages the graduates, due to the fact that the private sector (in which degrees in accountancy and engineering for instance are highly prized) is the main driver of growth and job creation (Shimeles). As a result, many industries in less developed countries remain technical and require few skills. Demand has simply not caught up with jobs that require higher skill levels (Shimeles). Therefore, the real worth of a college degree in a developing country provides a counterargument to the causal link taken for granted in the context of an advanced economy.

On a national level, higher education is particularly crucial for developing countries. Just as it can serve as a means of social mobility for individuals, a highly-skilled workforce can help in the economic development of a country. The current trend towards a technology-centered economy means that higher education is the key to economic development. For developed countries, this imperative translates into an educational rat race. From high-school being seen as the “frontier of education”, to college being a middle-class essential, it stands to reason that at some point in the future, a Bachelor’s degree simply won’t be enough (Leonhardt). Developing countries find themselves caught in a chicken-or-egg conundrum. It is unprecedented that development in the 21st century requires human capital, rather than the manufacturing industries of the past (Usher). As Usher writes, “There aren’t going to be anymore Taiwans or Koreas” -- while countries in the 1960s could achieve economic development aims through mass manufacturing bases, the nature of the current knowledge-based economy makes this impossible. As the gap between developing and developed countries widens in educational achievement, this challenge will become increasingly insurmountable.

A more cynical view of the efficacy of higher education on national development comes from the economist, Bryan Caplan. On average, an extra year of education raises an individual’s level of income by 8 to 11 percent. However, an extra year of education across a country’s population leads to a 1 to 3 percent increase in the gross domestic product (Caplan). He explains this by referring to the issue of credential inflation: while the education level of the average jobholder has increased, the jobs themselves have not changed. Thus what happens in the economy is the displacement of lower-educated workers, as people with better credentials are hired over other applicants for jobs that both are qualified for. It is important to note that although this may very well be the case in developed economies with a significant population of highly-educated people, such problems are not as prominent in developing countries where regional issues of inequality often take precedence.

The irony of a college student writing on the failure of college education is not lost on me. Yet as part of a culture that revolves around the (sometimes blind) attainment of a college degree, it is worthwhile to take a step back to reflect on its value and its implicit privilege. We must question why alternative pathways, such as vocational education, are generally seen as inferior to a college degree. While it is not wrong that our culture values and rewards a college education, we tread a fine line between turning this into a penalty on those who are unable to attain it, or those who choose to go without.



Bloom, David E, Philip G Altbach, and Henry Rosovsky. 2016. “Looking Back on the Lessons of ‘Higher Education and Developing Countries: Peril and Promise’— Perspectives on China and India.” International Journal of African Higher Education 3 (1). https://doi.org/10.6017/ijahe.v3i1.9635.

Caplan, Bryan. 2017. “The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone.” The Atlantic. December 7, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/01/whats-college-good-for/546590/.

Edwards, Sophie. 2017. “World Bank Says World Is Experiencing a ‘learning Crisis’ for School Leavers.” Devex. April 19, 2017. https://www.devex.com/news/world-bank-says-world-is-experiencing-a-learning-crisis-for-school-leavers-90093?utm_source=article&utm_medium=88888&utm_campaign=line.

Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. 2017. “Census in Brief: Does Education Pay? A Comparison of Earnings by Level of Education in Canada and Its Provinces and Territories.” November 29, 2017. https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016024/98-200-x2016024-eng.cfm.

Havergal, Chris. 2016. “Access Gaps in Developing Countries.” September 16, 2016. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/09/16/study-finds-major-access-gaps-higher-education-developing-countries.

Leonhardt, David. 2018. “Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say.” The New York Times, February 8, 2018, sec. The Upshot. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/27/upshot/is-college-worth-it-clearly-new-data-say.html.

Shell, Ellen Ruppel. 2018. “Opinion | College May Not Be Worth It Anymore.” The New York Times, August 7, 2018, sec. Opinion. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/16/opinion/college-useful-cost-jobs.html.

Shimeles, Abebe. 2016. “Can Higher Education Reduce Inequality in Developing Countries?” IZA World of Labor. https://doi.org/10.15185/izawol.273.

Thompson, Derek. 2017. “The Myth of American Universities as Inequality-Fighters.” The Atlantic. August 31, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/08/universities-inequality-fighters/538566/.

“United Nations Millennium Development Goals.” n.d. Accessed September 22, 2018. http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/education.shtml.

Usher, Alex. 2016. “Higher Education in Developing Countries Is Getting Harder.” HESA (blog). January 22, 2016. http://higheredstrategy.com/higher-education-in-developing-countries-is-getting-harder/.

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