A College Degree is Wasteful...Even in China

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/09/2014 01:00:00 AM
I have written at some length about the crisis in higher education that is occurring in its heartlands of North America and Europe [1, 2]. To make a long story short, a university education is costing more and more--far outstripping the rate of inflation--while earnings of college graduates are becoming less and less. With US college debt surpassing $1.2 trillion and counting, the next crisis to hit the American financial system may come from students overleveraging themselves. College boosters will of course say that employment and earnings prospects for graduates are significantly better than those of non-graduates, but few will argue that the cost/benefit ratio is falling rather quickly. Graduates have it hard nowadays.

Apparently, this is not just a debate confined to American and British institutions of higher learning. Even in the developing world, the same questions are being rehearsed time and again. Over the past few years, PRC leaders have encouraged higher enrollments at state universities (which is nearly all of them). Alike in the West, however, there is growing public resistance to the often questionable platitudes that college is the key to future success. From out favorite official publication, the China Daily:
At least seven provinces and one region did not meet their recruitment goals in 2013, according to the College Enrollment Report released on Wednesday by eol.cn, one of the country's largest education portals. The provinces are Henan, Shandong, Fujian, Anhui, Hebei, Guizhou and Qinghai, along with the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. They are the only areas that have disclosed such figures in the past year, eol.cn reported [my emphasis; so that's everyone observed].
What's to blame? Partly it's demographics and the reluctance of parents to shell out serious cash for uncertain returns:
Chen Zhiwen, editor-in-chief of eol.cn and one of the report's authors, said the situation was caused by a drop in the birth rate. "The number of newborns has been falling after peaking at 20 million in 1990 and dropped to 12 million around 2000. This is to say that the number of people aged 18 - the age when most students in China start college - will continue to drop before reaching the bottom in around 2018," Chen said. Chen also said some students and their parents had been disappointed with higher education in China and had abandoned the opportunity to go to college even after being admitted, which was a significant factor in the current situation.

Last year, a series of cases were reported in which parents opposed their children going to college. This sparked heated debate over the necessity to receive a higher education. In September, a father in Chengdu, Sichuan province, objected to his daughter's decision to go to college, saying it was a waste of time and money as employment prospects for college graduates were not good. He said it was more sensible to find work after graduating from high school. In an online survey, more than 70 percent of the 10,000-plus respondents supported the father. "The case indicates that students and parents are losing their confidence in a college education," Chen said. "Universities, education specialists and officials should pay great attention to such cases, reflect on higher education and improve the situation to help people regain confidence."
The worrying thing for educators form a neoclassical economic perspective is that returns to human capital should become higher as developing countries like China move up the value-added ladder. Consequently,  young people and their parents should respond to these signals. However, this may not be happening (yet) as enrollments continue to fall in China. It's in part likely that Chinese universities do not provide skills required by employers (job-skill mismatches).

Many Chinese, especially those outside of major urban centers, are practically-oriented and see more value in the employment prospects from education instead of the college experience by itself. Me? As I've said before, the German apprenticeship system certainly looks attractive to those valuing employment prospects above all. It certainly beats the US/UK uni-jobless system if you ask me, and is something I would advise China and other developing countries to consider before the Anglophone model for obvious, instrumental reasons.The US needs an overhaul, and its system of higher education would be an excellent place to start since others have come up with rather better solutions to providing employment for young people.