Freakonomics Goes to College, Part 1 (Ep. 86)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Freakonomics Goes to College, Part 1.” The gist: what is the true value these days of a college education?
As you can tell from the title, this is the first episode of a two-parter. There is so much to say about college that we could have done ten episodes on the topic, but we held ourselves back to two.
The key guests in this first episode are, in order of appearance:
+ Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent who co-authored the book Degree Mills: The Billion-dollar Industry That Has Sold over a Million Fake Diplomas.
+ Karl Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff for President George W. Bush. Rove, it turns out, is not a college graduate. He is, however, a published author — of Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight.
+ And our own Steve Levitt, who has this to say about college:
LEVITT: The best way I think an economist thinks about the value of education is tries to figure out how the market rewards it and what other benefits come with it. And one thing is clear is that the market puts a tremendous reward on education. So the best estimates that economists have are that each extra year of education that you get is worth about maybe an eight percent increment to your earnings each year for the rest of your life. So it turns out for most people buying a lot of education, or at least for the average person let me say, buying a lot of education is a really good deal.
David Card, meanwhile, helps us think through the upside of education in a down economy:
CARD: I would say that returns are even higher now because of the recession. People aren’t thinking about it right. So they notice that somebody who graduates from college is having a bit of hard time getting a job, or they notice that the unemployment rate for college grads has gone up a little bit. But if you do the right counterfactual and say, “Well, what if I didn’t have a college degree,” it’s much worse. The rise in unemployment was much higher for people with just a high school diploma. As has always been true in every recession, the recession is always worse for less educated people.
Karl Rove warns us not to look upon his trajectory as one to emulate:
ROVE: I mean, I think I was in the last generation that could be stupid enough not to get a college degree. We live in a society in which credentials matter. I mean, the Bill Gateses of the world who go on to found Microsoft after, you know, dropping out of Harvard, are few and far between. The Karl Roves who go on to be, you know, senior adviser to the President after never completing your degree, are few and far between.
And Allen Ezell talks about all the fake diplomas that are circulating out in the world, including thousands upon thousands of medical degrees:
EZELL: As to where these people are that bought those degrees, we don’t have a clue. And I say that because no one in law enforcement, federal law enforcement chased them. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know where they’re employed. Only occasionally will a graduate flush up. He could be practicing in a hospital. He could have something go awry in a medical procedure and then they start looking at his credentials, and then find out that he’s a phony. You would be shocked at the number of people that buy this garbage and then put it on their resume, and then post this online.
You’ll hear how we picked up an extra degree ourselves, via Diploma Makers:
Also: we got an interesting e-mail this morning from someone who’d already listened to the podcast. His name is Tom Breuel and he asks a great question:
We have credit reporting agencies and driving history databases.
Why isn’t there a central database where employers can check quickly whether a degree (e.g., medical degree) was granted to a particular person and granted by an accredited institution?
Sounds like a good business idea to me! How much would your firm be willing to pay in order to easily find out if a job applicant was faking his or her academic credentials?
One good interview that unfortunately got cut for space was with Steve Canale, the manager of global recruiting and staffing services for GE. Here’s a taste of what Canale had to say:
CANALE: One of the things that I’ve done in the past is I’ve talked to parents at the high school in Fairfield. And one of the things that I tell them is after you go to the admissions office at any school, go to the career center. Because it’s a great place to find out whether your son or daughter is going to have a good chance of finding a job, because you can find out what companies actively recruit at the school. And if you can see big-name companies, you kind of know that the education there is valued by employers. … I would say follow your passion, figure out what you have to do. Once you get into a school, what you do there is totally up to you. You could go to a second-tier school, let’s call it, and graduate in the top three percent of your class. And you would have a very bright future, you’d have very high prospects. Some kids today are graduating with $200,000 in debt, $100,000 in debt, and maybe they just weren’t the best consumer, you know, when it came right down to it.
As you can see, the first episode covers quite a bit of ground.
In Part 2, due out in two weeks, we focus on the (fast-rising!) cost of college and try to figure out a) where all the money goes; b) whether, the cost notwithstanding, college is still a good deal; and c) how, specifically, college does what it does.
Thanks for listening!