The New York Times Gets Higher Ed Wrong Again

The New York Times loves stories about the apparent decreasing value of college degrees because they don’t require any actual journalism, and their readers really like them. You see, the readership of the NYT includes a lot of affluent, educated oldsters who would very much like to know when their college-educated kids will be able to move out of the basement.

This is a big problem for people who had enough money to send their kids to college in the first place. And for people who have basements.

Yes, once again the NYT has slapped together some piece of crap story, the same one they’ve already published time and time again, about how college degrees just don’t seem to be worth much anymore.

In an article called “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s,” reporter Laura Pappano would like us to be very concerned about the number of M.A. degrees being awarded these days. She calls this phenomenon “credential inflation,” which means jobs that used to require a bachelor’s now require a master’s. The number of people who have M.A. degrees “has more than doubled since the 1980s,” Pappano writes, “and the rate of increase has quickened substantially in the last couple of years. . . . Nearly 2 in 25 people age 25 and over have a master’s, about the same proportion that had a bachelor’s or higher in 1960.”

Do you see what readers of the NYT are being advised to care about here? It is implied that we should be concerned about the number of M.A. degrees out there, like maybe too many people are going to grad school these days? Yes, too many people learning stuff is a major problem!

Then, alongside these statistics about a surfeit of people acquiring knowledge, we get the obligatory story about one B.A.-holder in particular, a young man with a degree in history, who has the misfortune of having to work in a restaurant for a paltry wage.

Why does this educated person have to stoop so low? It’s because he doesn’t have an M.A. degree, he says. This is a problem he plans to remedy right away. Maybe, if this guy has another acronym next to his name, he can stop working for $7.25 an hour! Wouldn’t that be great?

Once again, the problem, we are told, is not that restaurant workers make $7.25 an hour and are expected to live on that wage (without health insurance, no doubt). No, the problem is that people with B.A. degrees work in restaurants and earn only $7.25 an hour. This is unacceptable! (By the way, if you think people with college diplomas working in the service economy represents a new phenomenon, raise your hand. Anyone?)

Of course, in a NYT story on this beloved topic, we are obliged to hear from Ohio State economics professor, Richard Vedder, who will explain, as he always does, that the problem is Americans are “overeducated” nowadays.

“Colleges are turning out more graduates than the market can bear, and a master’s is essential for job seekers to stand out,” Vedder explains. “In 20 years, you’ll need a Ph.D. to be a janitor.”

First of all, this is quite possibly the dumbest thing I have ever heard. The vast majority of low-income folks do not earn college degrees because they can’t afford college. So I would like to ease Vedder’s anxiety by letting him know that, as long as there are poor people, there will still be plenty of non-college educated workers to perform the janitorial duties he does not think privileged people (like himself) should have to do.

Secondly, Vedder is not the only one just making up nonsense that Laura Pappano types into her computer and publishes in the NYT. She also quotes David King, dean of graduate studies and research at the State University of New York at Oswego, who makes a rather startling claim. “There are several million job vacancies in the country right now, but they don’t line up with skills,” he says, before plugging his own campus’s Professional Science Master’s program, which, he explains, features a curriculum developed with “advisors” from the “companies where students may someday work.”

Okay, aside from the question of whether asking companies to design graduate school curricula is a good idea or not, what I really want to know is: is this guy insane? What “job vacancies” is dean King talking about, exactly? Does he know that there is only one job opening for every four workers who are looking for one? Does he know that tens of millions of Americans are out of work and millions more are underemployed, including many college graduates? Does King expect us to believe that, if all of those people graduated from the SUNY Oswego M.A. program in “Professional Science,” they would be miraculously employable?

What’s even worse is that a college dean is allowed, in the pages of the New York Times, to spout nonsensical jobs numbers with no actual “reporting” by the so-called reporter. Is this statistic about the “several million job vacancies” factual, Ms. Pappano? I do not think that it is. Is it too much to ask that you would do a little Google searching before you just let this guy – who obviously wants to plug his college’s M.A. program – say whatever he wants in your newspaper?

In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever that there are “several million” jobs out there waiting for people to graduate with M.A. degrees from SUNY Oswego or any other college.

The issue here is NOT some post-apocalyptic future where PhDs will be stuck working as janitors. Nor is the problem one of “credential inflation.” See, degrees only have value in the job market if there are jobs available, a fact that is lost on Vedder, dean King, and dictation expert, Laura Pappano.

According to Jared Bernstein, college-degree holders need “an economic context wherein they can realize the economic returns from their improved human capital. Over the past few decades,” he explains, “the set of institutions and norms that historically maintained the link between skills and incomes have been diminished, particularly for non-college-educated workers.” In other words, the problem is not too many degrees; the problem is that there are not enough jobs at decent wages available in the economy. “Credential inflation” is the symptom, not the disease. It would be beautiful in its simplicity if it weren’t so damned awful.

Alas, I shouldn’t blame Ms. Pappano alone because she too is just a symptom of a wider problem, which is that, far too often, the New York Times is simply not doing its job as the “paper of record.” Such things as “context” and “facts” are not journalistic niceties; they are essential; they are crucial; they are everything, dear, dear Gray Lady.

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