Kay Hymowitz joins Brian Anderson to discuss “Dr. Biden’s Lesson,” her feature in the Summer 2021 City Journal on degree inflation and social class in the U.S.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Kay Hymowitz. She's the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a longtime contributing editor of City Journal, and the author, most recently, of the essay, "Dr. Biden's Lesson". This is a feature in the summer print edition of the quarterly magazine and you can find it online.

Kay, thanks as always for joining us on 10 Blocks.

Kay Hymowitz: And as always, happy to be here.

Brian Anderson: Your story begins with the controversy ignited by a Wall Street Journal column by Joseph Epstein about First Lady Jill Biden's education degree. This was one of those controversies that have been flaring up every few days, this was some months ago. Biden holds a doctorate in education, and she prefers to go by Dr. Biden. Joseph Epstein wrote this column poking fun at that nomenclature, arguing that only those holding a medical degree should insist on being called doctor.

This struck a nerve, as I mentioned. Lots of outrage ensued, but while that was just another one of these ephemeral media freakouts you wrote in your essay, that was actually a revealing controversy. That, as you write, the First Lady's education degree "epitomizes today's rampant degree inflation and meritocratic jockeying." Now that's a pretty powerful statement. Can you explain what you mean by it? And try to give listeners a short version of the argument.

Kay Hymowitz: So the argument is that . . . well, to start with Dr. Biden, that she already had two master's degrees before she got her Ed.D., which is sort of a doctorate, a Ph.D. in education. And we get to the question of ed schools if we want later.

But what was striking to me was that nobody was questioning whether these degrees were useful, whether they really signified any expertise at all. Yet here she was, at somebody that we were supposed to admire for her perseverance and grit and expertise, had spent all this time and money just piling on degrees. And when I looked into it more deeply, I found to my surprise that, in fact, master's degree is faster growing than the B.A. at this point. And Ph.D.s also, they're rarer by far than the Master's but they're growing at a great rate too.

And as I started to look more deeply into it, I realized that there had been an arms race, a degree arms race, going on in higher education that was very, very damaging. Not only to the students who were accruing debt to get those degrees, but to the people who might've had their sights on moving up into better jobs by getting degrees, but who couldn't afford it.

So I argue in the piece that it intensifies the class divide, this arms race, in addition to adding to student debt. One fact that I was very struck by was that student debt, which, as you know, is a major policy question now, is actually in many ways more of a graduate student problem than it is an undergrad problem. About 19 percent of the borrowers are grad students, but they account for 40 percent of the loan debt. So that'll give you an idea of just how much money they're taking out, and often having a lot of trouble paying back.

Brian Anderson: What about the people who aren't obtaining these degrees? How is this degree inflation affecting their circumstances?

Kay Hymowitz: Well, like I said, if you have somebody who would like to go to college maybe, maybe they're starting in a community college. And they look ahead and they see that not only is it going to be very difficult for them to attain a four-year degree, but that their aspirations might involve another degree after that.

And I think it's very demoralizing for people who are trying to just make a life with a decent job, if what they see ahead of them is just more and more schooling, more and more opportunity cost as they sit in a classroom when they could be helping their families or becoming familiar with a company in a job, low-level job. And I think that they just give up. Like, "I'll never be able to achieve that." So it becomes more and more of a fantasy to think of really achieving in an academic way.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, this is a story about public policy, but it's also about the behavior of universities and employers. So why have elite institutions, universities like Harvard or Columbia, but also many businesses, created these kind of expensive post-graduate initiatives that offer their entrants seemingly dubious value, in many cases?

Why do employers go along with this if the quality of the instruction of the programs is often mediocre, which it is? And what choices have policymakers made that have really added incentives to this trend, or incentivize this trend?

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah, I describe it as a toxic feedback loop between the students, faculty, the schools and employers. What happened was that the schools were having, as they always do, a lot of universities and colleges were having financial problems. So they have to figure out ways to make more money. And meanwhile, they've raised tuition beyond what's decent already, and they're trying not to do that, and they don't usually succeed.

But so they saw in the master's degree programs a quick, an easy moneymaker. The reasons are varied. One of them is that master's students don't tend to need a lot of housing. So the infrastructure required to take care of them, to educate them and give them room and board cost much less. In addition, many of them actually do their degrees online. I've forgotten the exact percentage on it, but it's high. It's already high, and I assume post-Covid it'll go higher. So a lot of these students never actually meet their professors or their fellow students in person ever, they just take the classes online. But that's a very good deal for the colleges.

And there's another fact. This is a policy issue, and that is that graduate students are allowed to take out much higher loans than undergraduate students. In fact, there are really no limits to what they can borrow. So that means that the colleges and universities can sell their programs as giving students higher incomes in the future if they just take out some loans now, and it would be worth it because their incomes will be so much higher.

So that's what happened on the college and . . . I should add that the colleges and universities really became marketing shops. I mean, would try to figure out the more and more jazzy offerings to put in their catalog and to lure new students into their master's programs. And I have a list of degrees that you can get that are astounding that people would take out loans. But you can, for instance, go to the University of Connecticut and get a master's degree in puppetry. Well, good luck paying that one back.

Brian Anderson: Yes.

Kay Hymowitz: There's another one. I think this is the University of Arizona, has a master's in the racetrack industry. All of these things are dreamt up by administrators, trying to figure out how they can get more of those tuition dollars, more of those loan dollars into their coffers. And so that's one piece of this.

The other piece is the employers. What's happened with this degree arms race is that it's made employers look ever higher in the ways that they determine who they want to hire. So if you have a bunch of people who are applying for a job at your company and they all have BAs, which more and more people do, although it's still only about 36 percent of the population over 25, if you have a group that you can select from just college students, B.A. or rather bachelor's degrees, that is nice. But how about if one person or two of the people who are applying have a master's? Well, that looks even better, doesn't it?

So it makes people look twice, it sets you apart. It sets a student apart from other students. As more and more people have gotten a bachelor's, it's made the degree seem yawn-worthy, a no big deal. It's sort of de minimis. So the master's becomes a way to distinguish yourself, and employers fall for it. Despite fact that they often have to pay more for the master's.

I think it's also partly personnel offices, or rather admissions offices or personnel offices in these companies, who are just trying to make the job a little bit more efficient. They look and they see what are their degrees, what is their education? They do that similarly with the brand name of the university and colleges. So both the employer and the colleges are playing footsie with each other on this.

Brian Anderson: This negative feedback loop or vicious circle that you described, how can we think about breaking it? Is this a problem that can be fixed on a policy level? Or is it up to the university administrations, the corporate boardroom? What steps should be taken to create a healthier labor market that would value degrees correctly?

Kay Hymowitz: Well, I have one thought in particular on that, and that is it to start with the community colleges. Well, actually I'd like to start with kindergarten through 12th, but we'll put that aside. The community colleges, I think a lot of us imagined, at least I did before I looked into this, that the community colleges were really more vocational schools. But in fact, most of the people who are going to community colleges are hoping to transfer into a four-year college. It's something like 80% are planning to go to four-year.

Now a minuscule number of those people who go to the community college will actually graduate from college. Why not, instead of orienting the community colleges towards people who think they need to get this four-year degree, much more towards the vocational end of things, and to work closely with local businesses and companies to figure out what the needs are. And to make it more likely at any rate that students will be ready, job ready, when they go through their several years of training in the community colleges.

And that, if that happened in and it was well done, I think it would take some of the pressure off the whole arms race, because people would see an alternative path. People who maybe shouldn't be going to college to begin with or really don't like sitting in a classroom for four years to begin with, I think it gives them their opportunity, it may take some of the pressure off. The larger issue I think, Brian, is cultural, and that end it's just that we have to get out of mindset that college education reflects skill level, it doesn't always.

Brian Anderson: Well, thanks very much. Kay. The essay is called "Dr. Biden's Lesson," it's in our brand new summer issue. You can find that and other work by Kay Hymowitz on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org. We'll link to her author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @cityjournal, and on Instagram, @City Journal_mi. And Kay, what is your Twitter handle?

Kay Hymowitz: I'm @KayHymowitz.

Brian Anderson: Yes, she is a frequent tweeter so good person to follow. And as always, if you like what you've heard on this podcast, please give us a ratings on iTunes. Thanks again, Kay, as always.

Kay Hymowitz: Thank you, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Thanks for joining us for the weekly 10 Blocks podcast, featuring urban policy and cultural commentary with City Journal editors, contributors, and special guests.

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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