Sunday, June 12, 2011

What the Right Question is Really Worth

[Be aware: this is a long post. If you click "Read More," it means, in this case, about six thousand words.]

Last Monday, Tell Me More ran a story titled “What a College Major is Really Worth.” The piece discussed a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and consisted of an interview with one of the authors of the study, Anthony P. Carnevale. Before hearing from him, however, the host, Michel Martin, began the segment by pointing out that during this graduation season, some are “questioning the real value of attending college.” Now, I think that’s an excellent question to ask, but I honestly don’t understand where Martin is coming from in asserting that it is by any means a common question, at least among the segment of the population that is not made up of recent college graduates. Aside from myself and others like me, I don’t see anyone asking that question. Certainly not current high school or college students, or any educators.

But rather than citing any actual public discourse, Martin refers instead to some fairly compelling statistical data, pointing out that the official unemployment figures are around nine percent. She does not point out, but I think it is worth keeping in mind, that the official unemployment figures are not the real unemployment figures, estimates of which vary in absence of established data, but which certainly are substantially higher. Martin does however indicate that unemployment had a particular effect on workers under twenty five, the percentage of whom are currently employed has dropped seven percent, to 45.1%. That is, less than half of that demographic is currently working. And if that information is meant to call into question the value of college education, Martin would have done well to point out in addition that within that demographic, the average length of time that a person remains unemployed is effectively the same, whether he has a Bachelor’s degree, a post-graduate degree, or only a high school diploma.

Anecdotal evidence is perhaps just as significant, though, so the program then proceeded to air comments from a couple of frustrated college graduates, one of whom was a school teacher who stated that she was making less money than every one of her close relatives, none of whom went to college. The other indicated that she graduated from UCLA in 2007, around the same time I graduated from NYU. She said that currently she was working as a waitress, barely making enough money to pay for rent and gas. She took up a sarcastic tone and explained the impulses, and dare I say indoctrination, that drove her to attend college: “My parents sort of had the approach, you go to college, you study what you want, what you love and your life will just come together and it will be magical!” And after a pause, in a somber, defeated voice, she added, “And it’s not.”

And where, then, did the program go, following this heartfelt testimonial about the frustrations of post-collegiate disillusionment? The next words were from Martin: “Now there's a new report out that shows for the first time the link between specific college majors and long-term career earnings.” She then proceeded to introduce her guest to have him discuss that report. “Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.”

For about a minute and a half, I was led to believe that this was a story intended to contemplate the overall value of college education, and not merely the comparative value of different college majors. The question was introduced for some reason, but it was not answered. It was not even discussed. The listeners were left to take the answer to that question as an unstated assumption. There was no sense of transition from the broader topic to the more specific one. Ms. Martin did not so much as ask Professor Carnevale to assert his opinion about the former. We listeners were handed a pair of statistics and personal statements from a couple of young workers, all ostensibly in the interest of justifying the question of whether college is worth the investment, and then the first question posed to the expert on education and labor was the question of what had given him the idea for the report he had written on a different, more particular topic.

As it happens, Carnevale does have an opinion about the general value of going to college. I’ll give you one guess what it is. But to get it from him, you must either wait until the end of the interview or go to the text of the report. Look for his claim in the introduction to the study. I will not call that claim a conclusion. Introductions are rather odd places for conclusions, after all. It is well worth quoting the beginning of that brief first section here:

“When considering the question of whether earning a college degree is worth the investment in these uncertain economic times, here is a number to keep in mind: 84 percent.

“On average, that is how much more money a full-time, full-year worker with a Bachelor’s degree can expect to earn over a lifetime than a colleague who has no better than a high school diploma.

“Clearly, for most students, when asked whether to go to college, the answer should be a resounding “yes.” And statistics show that Americans are drawing that conclusion in ever-growing numbers. Since 1992, the proportion of workers with Bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. labor force has grown from 28 percent to 34 percent.

“Answering that big general question has been relatively easy, then. But other, more specific questions have been harder to resolve.”

It took us a whole three paragraphs into the introductory section, but we’ve successfully established that college is almost always a worthwhile investment. Case closed. And being as it’s only three paragraphs, I suppose I couldn’t possibly take issue with any aspect of the methodology behind reaching that conclusion.

Well, actually, I am a little struck by that whole “full-time, full-year worker” thing. It seems a little unfair to claim that you have an eighty-four percent greater earning potential than less educated individuals when the veracity of that claim holds if and only if you are fully employed after receiving that education.

In seeking to establish the median income for recipients of college degrees, and thus the worth of those degrees, researchers like Carnevale have made a pretty clear determination about how to reach those conclusions. Allow me to put that determination into perfectly blunt terms: If you have a college degree and you’re unemployed, you don’t count. If you’ve fallen off the rolls of official unemployment, you don’t count. If you have a career position that only gives you thirty hours per week, you don’t count. If you work retail part-time in order to barely keep your head above water, you don’t count. If you are employed on a seasonal basis and otherwise out of work, you don’t count. In other words, you enter into the analysis of what the payoff is from a college education only after it has been determined that your college education has paid off.

Of course, being counted as both “college educated” and “fully employed” still does not mean that in any given instance a person’s college education is the reason for their employment. You might have obtained a biology degree, but then subsequently started a successful roofing business that ended up earning you one hundred thousand dollars a year. Life is full of extraordinary surprises, both for the better and for the worse, and there are potentially innumerable instances of people receiving training in one discipline but making their living through something else. In those instances, it would hardly be plausible to suggest that that training was the cause of subsequent earnings. Of course, this study, which is merely based on census data, does not isolate any such cases. And so this statistical analysis removes low wage earners altogether, but leaves in place anyone who may be fully employed for reasons unrelated to their particular education.

Intriguingly, the Georgetown study actually acknowledges data that rightly should reflect this idea. It just doesn’t let that data influence the conclusion about the economic values of majors. The study points out which majors are most frequently connected to the occupations particular to those majors. Nursing tops this list, but even so, only 82 percent of nursing graduates end up working in Health Practice Occupations, and presumably that 82 percent is only the proportion of full-time, full-year workers.

The researchers then go on to say: “However, most majors lead to broad sets of occupations.” As an example of this, they point out that of physics majors, 19 percent go into computer occupations, another 19 percent into management, 14 percent into engineering, and 9 percent into sales. Take careful note of the phrasing. These are occupations that a physics major “leads to.” They are pointedly not referred to as occupations that physics majors incidentally obtained. But are we really to believe that those 9 percent of physics majors who ended up in sales obtained their positions as a result of their physics degrees? That is hard to believe, unless they are all selling things like springs and rubber bands, having been hired for their special skill at thoroughly describing the tensile strength and other physical virtues of the product. Even if that’s the case, the figures given in the study only ad up to 61 percent of all physics majors. What fields took on the other 39? Perhaps retail and food service are among them?

Carnevale makes it very clear in his Tell Me More interview that he thinks students should give strong preference to highly technical fields of study, like hard sciences. He emphasizes that “the labor market is buying more and more technical talent.” No doubt that is true, but what Carnevale doesn’t say is whether the growing demand for technical talent actually outweighs the current supply available to the labor market. That question is apparently never asked by anyone in a position of authority or by the public at large. And certainly, the question is not addressed by Carevale’s study, which disregards unemployed, technically-trained workers in favor of determining how much money those workers should expect to make if they baselessly assume that they’ll be employed.

The study seems to promptly and thoroughly ignore a phrase that it used in the first sentence of the above-quoted text: “uncertain economic times.” These are indeed uncertain economic times, and the uncertainty is not “will I be able to own a yacht or just a dinghy?” It’s “will I have a job and will I be able to support myself with it?” I’m not interested in whether a particular college degree will make its owner 250,000 dollars or 45,000 dollars. What I want to know is whether it will get a young struggling worker like myself a job in the first place. Of course, Carnevale’s study assumes that any degree will do so, and it assumes it, I suppose, on the basis of the common wisdom. Determining truth by consensus is not exactly scientific, but most academics seem to do it in the case of this topic, and towards the end of supporting the majority claim, this study essentially removes any data that would contravene it, which is not exactly scientific either.

In the interview, Carnevale states that his study was primarily the result of “continuing pressure because college has become the ticket to the middle class in the United States, and parents feel they need to send their kids to college." His comment very clearly implies that parents not only feel the need to send their kids to college, but that that feeling is grounded in reality, and that they do in fact need to send their kids to college. That is the implication because he first flatly states that college has become the ticket to the middle class – that that is not merely appearance, but the true fact of the effect of college on an individual. But what do we have on which to base that claim? The fact that most middle class people tend to be college educated? Unless I am unaware of substantial data indicating that people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds regularly become members of the middle class as a result of college education, there is good reason to be dubious. But I’m fairly certain that such a study does not exist, and still more certain that it should.

Before taking the time to determine how much more is made by gainfully employed business majors than gainfully employed English majors, perhaps the academic community should have conducted a study tracking the progress of similarly accomplished students from different socio-economic backgrounds in order to report upon whether or not poor college graduates enjoyed significantly higher salaries later in life than did their less educated peers from the same backgrounds. It seems highly plausible to me that college educated workers with middle class backgrounds might have other variables to thank for their success early in life, apart from their degrees. These might include having start-up capital, greater access to transportation, better networking opportunities in their own communities, and fewer economic restrictions to their engagement with volunteerism, lengthy internships, and other resume-building opportunities. Until there is compelling evidence that disadvantaged workers are growing their earning potential through college education, and that the income of wealthier young workers does not increase to greater levels as a result of the same input, I will operate on the assumption that living in a class-based society still matters. And if it does, surely some part of the reason why college educated people tend to be middle class is that people who start out middle class tend to have more of an economic opportunity to go to college.

It never ceases to amaze me that highly trained academics, at least when it comes to this topic of inquiry, do not recognize the very well-known logical fallacy of assuming causality on the basis of correlation. If proper deductive logic is such arcane knowledge, perhaps that indicates that there are not enough philosophy majors out there. But then, philosophy is not among the majors that leads people to the highest annual salaries, and so Carnevale and his colleagues would advise against going into it.

However, for all of the stigma attached to it, and its reputation for worthlessness and impracticality, philosophy, which is my discipline, is not on the list of the bottom ten income earners. Incidentally, neither is Fine Arts, which was the major of the UCLA graduate and waitress whose commentary preceded the Tell Me More interview. Still, in my personal experience and my observation, when a person with a degree, even a post-graduate degree or a Bachelor’s from a prestigious university, reports that their job search has been fruitless or frustrating, depressing or debilitating, and that they earn far less than any of the median incomes in Carnevale’s study, the first response they tend to come up against is the accusation that they must have picked wrong when it came time to declare a major. Perhaps that is an understandable point of view. After years and years of being told that college is “the ticket to the middle class,” it’s hard to imagine that that premise – the common wisdom – might be seriously flawed. So clear examples of many people being severely downtrodden despite being highly educated and academically accomplished must be anomalies. And anomalies can be removed from statistical analysis.

Collectively, we assume that college is the ticket to the middle class, and with times being what they are – “uncertain economic times” – we extend that assumption to include the belief that college is the ticket out of unemployment. We build policies on that assumption, and so members of the presidential administration regularly appear on television to stress the importance of addressing the economic crisis through the extension of Pell grants and Stafford loans, by encouraging laid-off employees and single mothers to go back to school, and by emphasizing widespread training for non-existent manufacturing jobs. Unfortunately a major effect that this has on the actual individuals concerned is to convince them that they’re going to be just fine and keep them confident in that belief just until they’ve done everything they’ve been told to do and then found that they’re not okay.

Yet their continuing education is where the policy emphasis remains, and everybody nods along and doubles down on the assumption that cycling oneself back into a university will secure one’s financial future, because the statistics indicate that you make eighty-four percent more as a college graduate than as a mere high school graduate, as long as you get a job.

Even if that fundamental claim has tended to be true even without limiting analysis to full-time, full-year workers, that doesn’t mean that it always will be true as we continue to saturate the academic system with people who are entering it for no reason other than claims about economic self-interest. It doesn’t even mean that it is true now, with unemployment at persistently stunning levels. Michel Martin pointed out in her interview with Carnevale that his study encompassed a long period of time and “doesn’t necessarily show the effects of the recent recession.” Much like the general question of the value of college education full stop, that is a point that was raised casually and dropped without further inquiry. Isn’t that kind of important? Shouldn’t it be something we think more about if the value of a college education might not apply when the economy is bad, and that those who had the misfortune of simply graduating at an inauspicious time might be financially crippled for the rest of their lives by virtue of their inability to establish themselves in a career soon after their graduation?

Isn’t the possibility of college not even remotely paying off a cause of serious concern and reevaluation at a time when, as Carnevale himself says in the interview, “more and more of the cost [of higher education] is falling on the students and their parents”? His acknowledgment of that fact, more than anything else, makes me wonder what he and his co-authors meant when they said in their introduction that “for most students, when asked whether to go to college, the answer should be a resounding ‘yes.’” If that advice applies to most students, which students are the exceptions? Is it the exceptionally dumb or disinterested students, or is it just those who are too poor to take on what may be, despite our constant efforts to portray it as a guarantee of future employment, an enormous financial risk? Excluding the latter seems like a disturbing alternative to me, but not as disturbing as asking them to take on an awful debt burden before they’ve turned twenty. The former scenario, however, seems to be unacceptable to the mainstream trends of social thought and educational policy. Everyone seems terribly insistent that even the academically disengaged should go to school, not because it’s better for their minds, but because it’s better for their bank accounts. But then, if it turns out that it isn’t better, those students will have not only wasted time and money, but they will have wasted time and money doing something they don’t even want to do.

For my part, I went to university primarily because I love learning and because I was a truly excellent student. But I would never have taken on the financial burden of attending an institution of higher learning, rather than, say, going to a library every day, had I not been under the impression that attending a great school would make me eminently more employable. I didn’t go into philosophy and religious studies because I expected them to be lucrative, but I did think that having a degree from NYU would make it easier for me to obtain certain jobs, even if just office lackey positions or manual labor. Instead, the opposite has proved true. Lower class employers are resistant to hiring me because I am seen as having heightened prospects for jobs that currently aren’t available, and because, as per Carnevale, I’m supposedly worth more than they’re willing or able to pay. And of course I’m not the only one who has experienced this tendency. Carnevale’s conclusions about the worth of particular college degrees for those who are employed on account of them may be largely correct. But personally, if given the choice between being theoretically worth 47,000 dollars and actually possessing a job that pays half that salary, I’d much prefer the latter, and so my own judgment of the value of a college degree would be based far more on the likelihood of its gaining me employment than on the wages of the employment with which it may or may not provide me.

47,000 dollars, incidentally is indeed the median income that the study identifies for full-time, full-year employees with a terminal Bachelor’s degree in humanities and liberal arts. That fact makes me all that much more irate when I hear Carnevale’s answer to Martin’s question of what he expects readers to take away from his study:

"I think what it says is that if you love learning, it'll love you back, but some different kinds of majors will pay you
back more than others. And whatever you do when you go to college, don't just focus on getting the degree. Pay some
attention to where the degree will take you, what occupation it will lead you to, what kind of a career. If you major in
the humanities, or liberal arts... plan to go on to graduate school or some additional schooling, to put an occupational
point on your educational pencil, something you can sell."

Why? Because the 47,000 dollars you would otherwise make annually just isn’t enough? I find it extraordinarily annoying that that is what the authors are distinctly claiming. It is as if we are expected to look down on those whose income is in the range of which the median is 47,000 and wonder aloud, “My goodness! How can they possibly survive?” Considering that there are plenty of people with equivalent educations subsisting on something like 14,000 dollars, I think the average fully employed liberal arts graduate will do fine.

Then again, that’s probably only true if you don’t control for student loan debt. But if you do, many educational backgrounds might end up looking a great deal less lucrative than they do under current assessments. Calculating the profit that one earns on his education, rather than just the gross income that can ostensibly be connected to it, might be a better way of identifying its economic value. On that basis, perhaps we could encourage students and their parents to look on the investment in college in a more realistic way, identifying it as exactly what all other types of investments are: a gamble. Generally speaking, if you feel it’s in your interest to gamble and you want to do it rationally, you should first know what you’re wagering, what the odds are, and what the house pays on those odds.

People probably know the amount of money that they themselves are putting down, but most students are signing promisory notes at eighteen, presumably before they’ve had much experience with bank loans and interest accruing on the principle value, so perhaps that’s not entirely true. In any event, as to odds and actual payout with respect to college programs, there seems to be no information. So I would earnestly like to see both the study that I described earlier, assessing not just the economic position but the economic mobility of graduates, and a study comparing the net income of groups with different educational backgrounds after subtracting away necessary debt incurred by each group.

Still, I think that whatever points can be derived from such studies, they are effectively moot in light of the larger unresolved question that is “What are the chances that a degree is going to get me a job in the first place?” Carnevale’s answer is clearly that the odds are great, and his further answer tells us that we don’t have to waste our time proving that assertion. Indeed, why would a member of academia conduct a study that might risk mitigating the impulses that drive people in ever increasing numbers to go to college and graduate school?

But those who are directly observing the effects of the ongoing economic crisis know that the more tenable answer to the question of whether a degree is going to get a person a job is “Who knows?” There then seem to be a few different popular ways of responding to this fact, and each of them strikes me as equally unacceptable. One is to say that no matter what you’ve studied or how far you’ve gone, and no matter what the surrounding circumstances, your efforts to establish a career just might not work out. That raises the question of why it’s worthwhile to go to school at all, if the process of connecting that education to a career is essentially a crapshoot, especially given that many students are compelled to go on to higher education on the basis that it is presented to them as guaranteeing a return on the investment. We are frequently told not only that you must go to college if you wish to be successful, but that you cannot be successful without a degree. Of course, anyone who’s heard of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Richard Branson knows that this is bullshit, but those names often don’t factor in when you’re young and impressionable and everybody’s firmly pointing in the same direction.

Another response to the uncertainty that current graduates face in the job market is to say that under ordinary conditions, a college degree always pays off with at least some sort of job, but that these are not ordinary conditions. Some people sympathetically ascribe the hardships of recent entrants to the job market to record levels of unemployment and “the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” But, they go on to point out, it is still always worthwhile to get a formal education, because this setback won’t last forever, and when it does we’ll be back to the status quo, where all the college graduates get first dibs on all the jobs. I suppose that could be so, but it’s certainly no comfort to those who are struggling now if we say that the reason they can’t find a job with their their Ivy League diplomas, their M.A.s, and their J.D.s is because they were unlucky enough to graduate into a recession. What do they do about it now if they have no career positions to add to their resumes? Shrug their shoulders and pass their might-have-been futures onto the next generation?

People who have vivid dreams about becoming authors, artists, or rock stars are always told that they have to go to college so they can have a backup plan. Has college ever constituted a backup plan for anyone? When you devote four to eight years to something, that thing pretty much becomes what you’re doing with your life. I would be thrilled to meet the person who attended school as a stall along the way to where they wanted to go, committed to that education, graduated with honors, and then walked off campus and said, “Well, now that that’s over, back to my original plans.” College is necessarily a primary plan. It, therefore, is the thing that needs a backup plan, because what if college fails to win you a decent life? There is no viable alternative. The de facto backup plan is what a lot of successful college students who became unsuccessful job seekers are doing: working retail or food service to keep alive, and gradually defaulting on their student loans.

And when those people complain about how things went wrong despite their best efforts, there is this other response to the acknowledgment that college doesn’t always pay off, which I cited earlier, and which is perhaps the most popular sentiment: “You must have picked wrong.” People who repeat that phrase evidently suppose that they can uphold the claim that college is the ticket to the middle class by claiming that its guarantee of economic return applies only to the obviously useful degrees, and that serious financial struggles are only an outcome for the idiots who majored in a stigmatized discipline like philosophy, English, or fine arts. There are a couple of problems with this point of view.

Firstly, according to people like Carnevale, there are no such financial struggles for any particular college degrees. That is, there are no struggles on the order of what the bone fide poor experience. 47,000 dollars is apparently seen as a struggle by some, and you can make of that what you will, but the range of median incomes by major groups only goes down to 42,000 (education, psychology and social work, incidentally). You can call this a low income if you like, but it is nowhere near the monetary deficiency faced by those who are unemployed or underemployed, and so the point is that with limited data like what is emphasized by this study, no particular major groups are identified as unique sources of poverty.

Secondly, even if you factor in unemployment and suggest that only the useless majors make you prone to that, you’re still wrong. Though the Georgetown study did not include statistics about unemployed or part-time workers in calculating median incomes, it did at least pay lip service to that data. There are a few paragraphs under the heading of “Work and Employment Status.” In it, the authors point out that some majors are associated with more part-time work, with Medical Assisting and Services being one of them and having 48 percent of subjects working part time. Others are indicated as having relatively high unemployment, with social psychology having sixteen percent, and nuclear engineering and educational administration and supervision each having eleven. The rules governing the usefulness and uselessness of particular fields of study begin to look senseless or nonexistent when you consider that engineering in general is identified as the single highest paying major group, with a median income of 75,000 dollars, and that school student counseling is identified as having practically no unemployment.

What does the “You picked wrong” crowd say to the people who got the short end of these particular sticks? “You couldn’t have done better than going into engineering, but you really, really shouldn’t have opted for nuclear”? “School counseling is a useful field but educational administration is you throwing your life away”? Perhaps I’m naive, but those distinctions strike me as absurd and arbitrary, and suggest a tragic risk upon which to gamble one’s entire future.

This “You picked wrong” mentality is a prime example of blaming the victim, a social trend that apparently has never gone out of fashion since the civil rights era. A great many people seem to take comfort in identifying the poverty of the economically downtrodden with their poor decision making or with qualities of those individuals and their communities. It is evidently a far less threatening idea to think that we can help people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps through better education and training, rather than considering that their might be enormously significant external factors making it horribly difficult or impossible for the poor to stop being poor purely by their own efforts. The threat implicit in the latter viewpoint is that it implies that something might need to change at the social or policy level, namely that we might have to develop coherent labor policy and reconsider the extent to which we push higher education, as well as the means of paying for it.

Blaming the victim remains understandably popular, however. It has the potential to instill us with confidence that the solutions to social problems are right around the corner, just a matter of finding the right way to make the disadvantaged shape up, as opposed to seeing those solutions as being the theoretical outcome of a long and uncertain process of reform and collective action. The trouble with the more positive attitude, though, is that it redirects the burden of change squarely onto the backs of those least equipped to bear it.

The Tell Me More interview presented a stunning example of this mentality. I felt compelled to go back and listen to it again, shocked and disbelieving, asking my computer aloud if Michel Martin had really asked this question:

"One of the ongoing questions in some circles is over the wage gap across racial lines and the wage gap across gender
lines, and of course as you know there's a lot of sort of heated political discussion around this. Is that gap, according
to this report, in part because that there's a difference in what different groups study or what different groups are
attracted to, or is there a gap within the same major?"

Yeah, sure, it’s probably just a matter of what they study, right? I wonder whether I should read this question as suggestive of wishful thinking. Were the two alternatives presented in the hopes that Carnevale would reveal to us that we’ve really been living in a completely just and completely equitable society all along, and that all the apparent disparities in pay for women and minorities are simply a matter of those demographics overwhelmingly choosing to enter the wrong fields and being compensated accordingly? The question is a terrible and foolish one, but the only reason there could be for asking it is a sense that it may in fact be the case that race and gender-specific differences in pay are not based on race and gender.

Still worse was Carnevale’s answer to the question, which stated that one of the most noteworthy findings of the study was that different demographic groups do indeed study different subjects. By way of example, he points out that business and technical subjects, which lead to some of the highest median salaries, are hardly ever pursued by women. Almost as an afterthought, however, he added, “Except hospitality, but hospitality earns the least.” Okay, that’s one way of looking at it – that hospitality earns lower income but women pursue it anyway. But you know what’s another way of looking at it? Women earn lower income, and also they pursue hospitality degrees. Why on Earth should we ever assume that the fairest wages were set for a particular field of work first, before any demographics entered that field?

If there is a reason for that assumption, I presume that it is this: because the common wisdom states that education always pays off and is the universal ticket to the middle class. But if being female or black can substantially reduce the actual payout, the veracity of that common wisdom seems a lot weaker.

It is especially shocking that Carnevale would suggest that demographics’ preferences for certain majors would matter more than discrimination in determining earning potential, considering that his study actually does point out the differences that exist for different races within the same major. I can only imagine that speaking off the cuff on radio, as opposed to in the collaborative and studious environment of the preparation of a paper, one’s academic biases come out more strongly. Carnevale’s preexisting belief about the value of higher education has obvious bearing on the demographic topic, just the same as it does on the overall arc of the study. So to with his confusion of correlation and causality, which is an easy mistake to make when the error serves a vested interest, in this case by claiming that differing educational backgrounds are the cause of differing incomes, even when other factors might better explain the distinct earnings.

That is the way of things every time a study of this sort is released. Society as a whole, and certainly persons working in academia, eagerly accept the premise that more education directly translates to more financial well-being, and so every investigation into the matter begins from that standpoint, crafting its methodology to accommodate an insufficiently justified premise, ignoring the unresolved but easily agreed on basic question of whether college is economically valuable, and working instead towards some conclusion about the particulars of how and to what extent it is.

Michel Martin would apparently have us believe that people are now asking that broader question, but I am still waiting for the breaking point of our skepticism about the oft-repeated common wisdom. Perhaps then we will ask it loudly enough and frequently enough that a bald assumption can no longer be presented as an answer.

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