What Percentage of the Population Should Have a University/College Education?

What is the optimal number of people that should have a post-secondary education in order for society to function at its peak potential?  This is a question that Western countries have been asking themselves for years.  Aldous Huxley painted an interestingly honest view of his dystopian view in the book Brave New World.  For those of you that haven’t read the literary classic (I highly recommend it), Huxley predicts a future where we can genetically control he IQ level of the entire population (long story).  Now many people’s first instinct (and indeed that of the protagonist in the story) is to believe that it would be best for society to have as many brilliant people as possible.  Huxley immediately refutes this “ideal” by claiming that a world full of uber-smart, motivating, enthusiastic people would never work.  That’s why his society had chosen to make several distinct classes with the ones at the “bottom of the pyramid” vastly outnumbering those at the very peak.  The rationale was that there were only so many places at the top of the pyramid and there was much more of a need for people willing to do somewhat menial and/or repetitive tasks.  His prediction (which he reveals through the symbol of a supposed experiment that took place in society) was that a society of “Alpha +s” (the highest level) would tear itself apart trying to climb over each other for promotions, protect their current place in the hierarchy and demanding more compensation for their work since they were obviously just as smart as those getting paid more.

Rome Wasn’t Built With B.A. Degrees

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It is a very interesting puzzle indeed.  For some reason we tend to shy away from the fact that the world needs a substantial number of people that do repetitive work in order to support the top of the pyramid.  In Western society this is easy to forget since much of the lower part of the pyramid remains hidden from across the world.  What we might consider the lower part of our pyramid (say the service industry) is actually still not really ground level at all (take a look at where all the stuff you’re using and wearing is made).  So the overall question remains.  Is Huxley right and does only a certain small percentage of the world need to be highly educated, or did he leave out some key considerations?  For the purposes of argument, I’m going to exclude vocational training and post-secondary avenues other than university/college just to make the debate easier to define.

Tax Dollars and Society

In Canada a huge percentage of our education is subsidized.  If we don’t need a lot of these people to be educated (especially those people getting educated in areas that are not at all in demand) isn’t that a really poor use of government tax dollars?  Isn’t there a fairly strong argument to be made for the fact that while access to education should be a right, government money paying for you to pursue what is essentially a degree of luxury should not be?  Furthermore, aren’t we actually crippling many potential workers by training them in for work in fields that they probably won’t get a chance to work in due to the fact that there is way too much supply vs demand.  In the long run, are we contributing to these people’s dislike of their eventual job by allowing them to live this myth that their chosen line of education will be useful to them?

I realize this is not a popular theory to explore, and I’m pretty sure I don’t believe large parts of it, but it is difficult to answer in terms of pure utility to society as whole.  A person who has accepted their lot in life and worked in the middle of the pyramid or lower would have a pretty convincing argument that while they certainly benefit from the efforts of much of the top of the pyramid, there is still a substantial number of people who have post-secondary degrees that they (or society at large) will receive any benefit from at all.

The Democracy Thing

There is an argument to be made from the fact that in a democracy the more education we all have the better off we all are.  The more people know, the better they can make decisions about who should lead us, and the more efficient their direct democracy decisions could be.  You could also argue that the more a person knows, the more likely they are to make good economical decisions that would eventually result in a less-distorted form of a free market economy due to demand being naturally more efficient.

University/College ≠ Intelligence, but It Does = $

As you may have realized if you’ve been a long time reader of My University Money, I constantly grapple with the idea of University-provided education versus self-provided education.  Couldn’t we just tell people to get smarter on their own in order to make democracy function better?  Why couldn’t we pour more energy into making our public schools reach even a small fraction of their massive potential?  The World Wide Web has provided every single person with an internet connection access to far more information on any given topic than a professor could lecture on to an undergraduate class, so is the undergraduate class still necessary for the sole reason of making society in general more educated?

If we eventually agree with my premise that we really don’t need all that many people with a university or college degree (especially a liberal arts degree) what percentage would you actually believe should have a degree like this?  I would say roughly 20-25%, but that is just a straight up gut feeling with no statistical backup. What is your rationale?

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9 years ago

I agree on the getting government money out of education, but I hesitate before putting any sort of participation limits on education… I figure people would seek out private funding for college even in a no-Government industry (and yes, I also believe costs would come down) As for the theory? There are two things working against Huxley – first, the Flynn Effect, which is the observation that IQ tests need to be continuously scaled to center IQ at 100. In effect, an IQ of 100 today is much better than it was before. Secondly, the increased use of automation might… Read more »

I doubt there is an optimal number of people that need a post-secondary education. The optimal number of educated people is 100%. An educated person is not necessarily a person holding a degree. A person holding a degree is not necessarily an educated person.

I know a lot of folks who graduated with an arts degree (music, art, theater) and they’ve entered into other fields (not arts). Unless you want to go into something specialized, like chemical engineering, your undergrad generally doesn’t matter a whole lot. I think the graduates of liberal arts universities will quickly realize the impact of supply/demand when they start applying for jobs as music teachers. If they want to wait for the demand to work in their favor, they can wait. If they want a job immediately, they’ll apply at an organization that requires a bachelors degree. To answer… Read more »

I know Adam Smith said that capitalism works best with a 5% unemployment rate, so it makes sense that an economy would function best with some individuals in fields that require degrees, others working in fields that don’t and then a group that wants/has a degree but doesn’t need them for their job. I’d say your estimation is a little low, I’d go more 35-40%.

This post keeps screaming at me “Why didn’t you finish college?” It’s probably just guilt. Still, I wish I was part of the population that had a degree. I guess I can always go back and join the masses, or not. :-)

9 years ago

There are a lot of individuals who get a college degree and don’t end up in any related fields. I agree that the amount of subsidy for some of this should be examined. There are many who suggest that the subsidies have been directly responsible for the increased costs. Look at all governmental subsidized industries (education, health care, defense) and you will find much waste and costs increasing greater than the rate of inflation.

9 years ago

I was recently talking to someone I know at work about higher education’ she has sixty thousand dollars of student loan debt. I asked here if see thought college should be free and here response was no that it would be a bad idea because than it would lose much of its high regard if it were free. I tend to agree. I don’t know a lot about higher education. I taught myself to type on the computer. Although I believe that some education beyond high school is useful. I believe that society places to much weight on the four… Read more »

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