Dr. Strange-Opinions: or how I stopped thinking and learned to attack the straw

You can bet that any article written by a conservative that starts with “Liberals don’t value a college education?” will be full of crap. The only relevant question is “what kind of crap will it be full of?” In the September 22nd issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Chronicle Review,” Anthony P. Carnevale writes an opinion piece titled “Discounting Education’s Value.” The first couple of paragraphs give you a flavor of his arguments:

Liberals don’t value a college education? Since when? Since a growing chorus of pundits, all with elite-college credentials, decided to prove that a college education may no longer be what’s best for other people’s children. While their predecessors fought to open college doors to members of minority groups and working families, influential voices on the left today allege that a college education may no longer be a pathway to equal opportunity. Such claims deny decades of evidence.

Last winter The New York Times pundit Paul Krugman, a Princeton University professor with a B.A. from Yale University and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proclaimed that “a college degree has hardly been a ticket to big income gains.” The notion that education provides increased income is comforting to politicians, Krugman said, but improving our educational system is not the most important way to mitigate inequality.

followed by:

The problem is not that those who discount the value of college in providing economic opportunity are wrong to press for more direct measures of economic inequalities. The problem is that their argument has the unintended effect of validating an elitist view that “not everybody needs to go to college” — with dire consequences for “everybody” who doesn’t. In America, “everybody” usually means the children of poor and minority families.

Discounting the value of college in order to make room for more direct interventions into the economy also creates a moral hazard. I’ll bet the farm that those elite-college men don’t tolerate talk of dropping out around their own kitchen tables or counsel their own children to forget about college and get a trade. Until they do, their public pronouncements just add up to a lot of bad advice for other people’s children.

Carnevale’s argument is that Krugman and the other liberals are claiming that a college degree is not worthwhile. He then goes on to show how census statistics indicate that increased education leads to a higher salary. Therefore, liberal economists are either wrong or lying. Q.E.D.

Unfortunately, this is a strawman argument. Nobody, literally nobody, is claiming that education is not positively correlated to salary. What Krugman and others are claiming is that education is not a sufficient explanation for wage inequality. The problem these economists are trying to address is why is the mean income rising, while the median income is falling? When you dig into the problem, you find that unless you are in the top 5% or higher of wage earners, your income has been falling with respect to inflation over the past several years.

Having a college degree is (almost) a necessary condition for being in the top 5%; however, it is not sufficient. A college degree is no guarantee that your salary increases will keep pace with inflation. A quick show of hands – how many of you with college degrees received a raise of at least 4.1% last year? If your raise was less than 4.1%, you are making less money this year than last due to the effects of inflation.

Of course, you are still better off with a college degree than without; but that has nothing to do with the wage inequality issues being addressed by most economists.

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