Permit me some reflection based on a 54 year lifetime of teaching maybe 12,000 students, mostly at Ohio University. The question du jour: does a college degree really prepare students to achieve lifetime vocational success and happiness? Let’s look at three former students to perhaps gain some insight into that question.
Sam Chamberlain is at the pinnacle of success in his career as chief operating officer at Five Guys, burger specialists supreme. Graduating with an economics degree in the early 1990s, Sam was a good but not spectacular student, but one showing leadership outside the classroom through his fraternity and in track and cross country. His work in economic history with me arguably made near zero practical contribution to his later success. College, however, helped Sam learn leadership and communication skills, and his economics training gave him some valuable understanding of the business milieu, but he very likely could have developed most of those skills making his vocational life successful without a college degree. College was a screening device helping get him to get the critical first job and that, along with networking, propelled him forward. When we reconnected years later we bonded instantly, reflecting Sam’s magnetic nice guy personality more than the recognition of skills derived while in school.
Matthew Denhart is in his early thirties and similarly majored in economics. Matt was a superb student also with leadership qualities; he spoke at his college commencement. He is kind, thoughtful, friendly, fun, hardworking and exudes integrity. I hired him to work for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity after graduation, and later helped him land a job with a friend, journalist and writer Amity Shlaes, which, in turn, led ultimately to his becoming the president of the Calvin Coolidge Foundation and being named by Forbes to its 30 under 30 list of outstanding young Americans. Yet very little of what Matt learned in his courses in college had any direct application to his career. He learned the really critical keys to success from his parents—the importance of hard work, discipline, faith (regular church attendance), honesty, kindness and friendship. Hopefully, working for me he learned a few things (e.g., using time wisely, dealing with difficult people, writing clear sentences, etc.), but Matt’s college teachers truly were ancillary to his vocational success. One thing college did: he found his wife Andrea there, and she has given him a daughter as well. There’s more to life than work.
Jacob Salter graduated in May with a degree in civil engineering and has just started his first real job, which he loves, in the Detroit area. In Jacob’s case, college training was critical to his success. He learned many technical concepts allowing him, for example, to build bridges or assess the efficacy of different building materials used in constructing buildings or roads. Jacob, like probably a minority of students, can say that his college training was critical to achieving a satisfactory vocational outcome. But like many students, Jacob owes much of his early success to his family, who imbued in him the need for discipline and faith in life (I met Jacob at church, not class).
In many cases, the residential nature of college is key to most of the collegiate contribution to student success—interactions with other students and faculty, partying, sports, etc. Away from home, students are forced to grow up a bit faster. They get good lessons in social interaction and communication -the key to vocational success. Students getting online degrees miss that as do, to some extent, students living at home and commuting to campus.
Bryan Caplan and others are right: college is largely a signaling/screening device; college degrees help employers narrow their search for productive workers dramatically. Sam and Matt are examples of that, while Jacob did learn useful job skills. There are other ways, such as having a National College Equivalence Test, that could help evaluate the smarts and human capital of young people and do much-needed screening—at a vastly lower cost. However, and here Harvard and other elite schools may have a point with their “holistic” admissions procedures, the not strictly academic dimensions of colleges help prepare students for meaningful adult lives—albeit at a huge cost.