So here's this chart, via Yglesias. (I don't know the original source of the chart.) It shows that, as you'd expect, the recent growth in employment is concentrated among college graduates. This is both unsurprising and sad, and based on conditions both fair and unfair. Anyway, that's the reality: it's good to have a college degree.
A few months ago, some bloggers and online chatterers decided that there was a college bubble, and that getting your degree was no longer important or worthwhile. I choose the word "decided" carefully. This story was never really based on evidence. It was really a matter of conjecture and narrative. As was pointed out at the time, empirical studies that specifically controlled for selection bias have consistently found a significant college wage premium. Yet over and over again, bloggers and online opinion writers pushed the narrative that college was a poor investment. I remember Tyler Cowen, at the time, naturally asked what particular methodological criticisms these bloggers had with the extant research, but he never seemed to receive an adequate response. (Sorry for the lack of link, I can't find the post I'm looking for.) Maybe the college wage premium will be found empirically to have dissolved, and I've said many times that undergraduate education is ludicrously expensive. I've also offered many suggestions for why that is and how it can be changed. For now, though, the evidence is still that college is a wise investment in the contemporary American economy.
I was going to start linking to prominent examples of this phenomenon, but I gave up after seeing the dozens I had to choose from. You couldn't swing your arm without hitting a blogger making this dubious assertion. But why?
I'm on record as saying that I think that journalism and the professional opinion making professions are in a kind of resentful turf war with the academy over who gets to make knowledge and who gets to pursue the truth. I also think that a lot of this attitude was straightforwardly driven by bias and interested parties; many conservatives and libertarians distrust and resent the university generally, and the people who populate college faculties. There was always a lot of wishful thinking in the insistence on a college bubble. You would have hoped, though, that the consistent findings of empirical evidence would have splashed cold water on this phenomenon. But once it got rolling, nobody seemed able to stop it with reference to the real world. Enough connected and influential people wanted it to be true, so they represented it as true.
Blogging gets criticized often for being too meta or navel-gazing. Yet I confess that I don't see enough consideration of this kind of issue, the odd ways in which likeminded bloggers share bad ideas and justify poor reasoning. I still find a profound lack of bloggers asking simple questions: how do we as bloggers make knowledge? What are the internal systems of accountability to keep us from getting things wrong? What checks and balances work within blogging to orient us towards truth and to punish getting it wrong? What constitutes a settled argument? How do you know success when you find it? What mechanisms ensure reconsideration of received wisdom and previous opinion?
There are many, many problems with the way that universities generate knowledge. I could recount a host of pathologies within the system to you. But I also know that there is a mechanism for accountability, that it is regular and systematized, that it is inadequately but genuinely tied towards professional advancement, and that there are baked-in elements of critique and reform that can, if we're lucky, fix the things that are broken. I just don't see anything similar in blogging, and worse, I see widespread defensiveness and resistance from bloggers when the subject comes up.
Update: The inevitable whinge from the well-remunerated but wildly sensitive professional Matt Yglesias: "Certainly Freddie could stand to interrogate his own extremely sloppy analysis offered in that post."
As I thought I made clear, I am not offering an argument for a college wage premium in this post. I am pointing out that peer-reviewed, empirical literature that specifically corrects for selection bias has found a consistent and large college wage premium. I'm not trying to prove that myself, as a blog post is a poor forum for such a thing. Indeed, blog posts are poor for proving many kinds of claims. As Yglesias's output proves, they typically house those claims that are specious, purely speculative, and driven by personal resentment. Yglesias and people like him have exploited a unique historical moment in order to get paid to throw out wild speculation without accountability or evidence.
If Yglesias wants to challenge those peer-reviewed studies, he should generate empirical scholarship of his own, or he should find and identify specific disqualifying methodological issues within them. He won't, though, because he can't, because he has no formal training or qualifications whatsoever beyond his Harvard philosophy degree. An impressive achievement that I respect, by the way, tempered only by the knowledge that Yglesias has lived a life of affluence and privilege, attending high-profile and extremely expensive private academies, which according to both anecdote and empirical study confer massive benefits in gaining entry into the world of elite colleges.
Update: But then, I'm also overreacting. You know how I am.
In unrelated news, I hate the Internet.