Among the several “the sky is falling!” arguments we hear about higher education is that the current generation is “in danger” of being the first generation of Americans that will be “less educated” than the generation before it. In that formulation, “less educated” means having fewer years of formal education. With a somewhat smaller number young Americans enrolling in and completing college than in the past, the higher education establishment frets that “attainment” is going down.
In a June 20 piece published on Inside Higher Education, Arthur Hauptman took issue with ten “dubious claims” about the decline in higher education. The ninth of those claims was “This is the first generation of young adults to have an attainment rate lower than the oldest group of adult workers.” Hauptman proceeds to argue that the claim is untrue, but I am not going to challenge his data.
Instead, the problem lies in the assumption that more years of education – i.e., “educational attainment”–necessarily makes you a better educated person. It does not, and therefore we should stop focusing on that meaningless metric.
Many of us have parents and grandparents who achieved great things during their lives despite the fact that they “only” attained a high school diploma. My high-school educated grandfather started a business and my high-school educated father successfully ran it for decades. I happen to have two degrees but do not think that I’m any “better educated” than they were. They knew a lot more about many highly practical things than I do. They learned those things outside of formal education.