According to an article posted by Richard Vedder on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog, “there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.’s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.” That’s pretty alarming. (Of course this careful wording could mean that janitors with Ph.D.’s only make up a limited amount, if any, of that total number.) But the post does show that there are a number of people with bachelors degrees now working jobs that wouldn’t list the degree as a prerequisite:
Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants.
It’s easy to assume that this is a function of our current economy, and Vedder doesn’t do much to address that possibility or its relevance to the statistics. More importantly, though, higher education isn’t all about subsequent job placement. Many people attend college precisely to help them decide what they want to do next, rather than to get a degree that will qualify them for a specific job. In the post’s comment section, a reader named “diehl” suggested another reason why people might go to college:
I hope that 17M people went to college in the United States to secure our Democracy. Call me old-fashion. Civic engagement is a most valuable net return on the college investment.
While the implications of this reader’s comment are arguable and ambiguous, “diehl” does hit on another component of higher education that the post doesn’t discuss. Vedder does admit that “it is true that college has a consumption as well as investment function.” But he laments the government subsidies that make this possible. These can come in the form of financial aid to students or direct support of public institutions, some of which are beginning to act like private businesses with their ears to the market. Today, a post on The New York Times’s Freakonomics blog reported that:
The Texas A&M University system has embarked on a new accountability program. For every department — indeed, for every professor — revenue generated and cost incurred are calculated; and profit — the difference — is reported. Each professor is presumably supposed to have a marginal revenue product above his/her compensation.
The post calls out the potential implications of this method of consideration:
Unfortunately, the calculation of revenue includes only outside grants received and tuition revenue. Any unfunded research, no matter where published, is assumed to have zero value, as is any service any publication — even in the most visible scholarly outlet, even if it affects how the average person thinks about the world — would be valued at zero University administrators facing these incentives would have every reason to construct a faculty of grant-hustlers and low-paid teachers (subject, one might perhaps vainly hope, to some minimum teaching quality).
This brings to mind Plato’s indictment of politicians in The Republic as being selected for their political skill rather than ability to govern. (I bet there’s a janitor somewhere who would appreciate that comparison.)