Book by Walter McMahon
Review by Jon Kleinman
Academic Advising Center
SUNY College at Old Westbury

When academic advisors engage students and parents in discussion of higher education’s benefits, the conversation often turns towards the career opportunities and earnings that may be expected after graduation. The market benefits of higher education, better employment opportunities and higher salaries, are well understood by parents, students and policy makers. In Higher Learning, Greater Good, economics and education professor emeritus Walter McMahon mounts a rigorous defense of the often-overlooked non-market benefits of higher education. This ambitious text seeks to define and measure the ways in which higher education improves the quality of life for individuals and families, and strengthens essential institutions within the larger society. 

Privately owned, for-profit colleges, whose curricula usually have a strong vocational slant, have seen tremendous growth in recent years. In traditional liberal arts colleges, students have increasingly gravitated towards fields of study which promise the highest starting salaries, often at the expense of the humanities, arts and social sciences. McMahon labels this trend the “vocationalization” (p 12) of higher education, and notes that it’s a disheartening phenomenon to many academics. Declining public support for universities only increases vocationalization as colleges are forced to allocate resources to programs that generate a profit, typically degrees in business and information technology. Because McMahon attributes vocationalization to a poor understanding of higher education’s non-market benefits, Higher Learning, Greater Good is a compelling read for academics who are concerned about this pervasive trend.

McMahon makes a distinction between the private and social non-market benefits of higher education. Private non-market benefits improve the quality of life for families and individuals; the author cites improved health and parenting as two prime examples. College graduates are less prone to unhealthy lifestyle choices like smoking and obesity. They tend to make more frequent doctor visits than those without an education beyond high school, and are often better informed about health issues. The children of college educated parents show lower rates of infant mortality and childhood obesity; McMahon attributes this in part to educated parents’ improved ability to research child health issues and communicate with health care providers. In a nod to concerns over vocationalization, the author notes that college graduates’ improved health and parenting are not dependent on a specific major or field of study. 

McMahon’s analysis of higher education’s social benefits is the strongest part of his book. Here, the author argues that democracy and human rights can only be sustained in societies with a substantial number of college graduates. In addition to income growth and a stable middle class, a democratic society requires attitudes and behaviors that are more frequently exhibited by those with a college education. Democracy requires participation in public service and elections and, most importantly, the ability to question and criticize authority. The narrow focus on marketable degrees that comes with vocationalization overlooks the fact that study of law, political science and philosophy all contribute to a democratic society with human rights.

While Higher Learning, Greater Good is a timely and insightful text, some of the material presented is not accessible to readers without a background in economics or public policy. McMahon’s attempts to attach a concrete financial valuation to higher education’s private and social benefits were beyond the understanding of this reviewer. However, academic advisors who want to show their students that a college degree offers benefits beyond starting salaries and career opportunities will find this book to be a valuable resource.

Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education. (2009). Book by Walter McMahon, Review by Jon Kleinman. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 415 pp, $45.00. ISBN: 978-0-8018-9053-6
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