College: The useless thing (Pt. 1)

It’s not enough for the State to cut and (knee)cap public higher education, now the commentariat is drawing a bead on the value of college education itself.  Several recent reports – – most notably a Harvard Graduate School report, “Pathways to Prosperity,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, and the Pew Research Center’s “Is College Worth It?”  – – are providing fuel for the idea that college is over-valued, over-abundant, and basically a cheating proposition.  At the same time, there are rumblings in the corporate sector, most notably voiced by Paypal founder, Peter Thiel, that higher education is the next “bubble” – –  i.e., like the housing “bubble,” too many people are taking on too much debt to finance a commodity of shrinking value.

First, there are reports and studies and then there are media representations of reports and studies.  None of these reports argues against college – – each offers serious critiques of higher education.  In the media, however, they have become the occasions for a signification spiral that plays on our current fears about the economy, class status, education, and the future.

Disasters are tragedies, but they’re also opportunities.  Naomi Klein has dissected many of these seamier opportunities in her Shock Doctrine.  Rebecca Solnit chronicles some of the more affirmative opportunities in her A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.  Standing amidst the smoking ruins of neoliberalism, the real question raised by the “is college worth it” debate is this: why all this frothing about the value of a college education now, at this point in time?  We’re witnessing the State’s material withdrawal from public higher education – – budget cuts, ongoing privatization (via student debt), etc.  Now come the arguments, stories, and myths to rationalize this massive reorganization of the compact between citizens and State.  Welcome to the folklore of triage!

The mounting argument against college comes in several flavors.

Flavor number one: wet mop yarns tinctured with bitters.  This was the gist of a Chronicle of Higher Ed piece last fall about an Eastern Michigan U. graduate in information-technology administration who’s now pushing a broom for $13 an hour, with union benefits.  And, this was the angle that pundits jumped all over when Pew released their “Is College Worth It?” report.  Especially important was the Pew report’s lead item: 57% of Americans surveyed say that U.S. higher ed fails to provide students with good value for their money.  Less well-noted in the media was Pew’s report that 86% of college graduates say college has been a good investment for them personally.  (In fact, the most interesting findings in the Pew report concern university and college presidents: they believe students are increasingly less qualified and hardly study; they’re less concerned than the public about affordability; and an overwhelming majority would like to eliminate faculty tenure.)

That mop might be seasoned with soap, as the “return-on-investment” argument against college also dovetails with the “higher education bubble” yarn.  “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” says dot com wiz, Thiel. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. . . . It’s actually worse than a bad mortgage.  You have to get rid of the future you wanted to pay off all the debt from the fancy school that was supposed to give you that future.”  Further spinning the “bubble” argument, one financial news source has noted, with faintly audible gasps, that the 2006 Economic Report of the President “presents a remarkable fact: Between 2000 and 2005, the average wages of college graduates declined after adjusting for inflation.”  Of course, un-reported is that fact that almost all Americans have seen declining wages over the past ten years.

The class pitch in the “bubble” argument is fairly transparent: the majority of American college students attend public 2-year and 4-year colleges not “fancy” schools charging $50,000 in tuition and expenses.

Still, even on its own merits, the “bubble” fear is more fiction than fact.  Employment rates for very recent college grads have declined since the “recession” began (8%), but they have declined even more sharply for those with only a high school diploma (24.5%).  More importantly, after rising sharply in the 1980s, the “college premium” – – the increased earnings accrued by those with a college diploma – – persists: bachelor’s degree holders earn almost $22,000 more per year than high school diploma holders; women between the ages of 25 and 34 with college degrees earn 79% more than comparable women with a high school diploma; even a little college helps, as individuals with some college earned 17% more than those with just a high school diploma.  Over a lifetime, that adds up to a lot more than soap bubbles.

The “bubble” argument appeals to our individual fears – – especially readers and listeners who are borrowing or working overtime (often while attending college) to make tuition payments even as the markets tank, houses go underwater, and benefits get downsized.  These fears ratchet upward, sickeningly for some, when Junior decides to switch majors from petrochemical engineering to creative writing.

Yet, if we step back and look at things from a more collective perspective, the “college premium” also tells us something about  broader, secular trends in the value of college.  In their recent study, The Undereducated American, this is exactly what Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose do.  They read the “college premium” as a message from the labor markets:  employers are willing to pay a premium for more highly educated labor.  In fact, the premium continues to grow – – at about 2% per year.  In other words, demand for college grads is growing.  From this perspective, Carnevale and Rose assert that  the U.S. has been “underproducing college-educated workers for decades.”  Further, they argue that the U.S. needs to add 20 million postsecondary-educated workers to the economy if we want to ameliorate increasing income and skills inequities.  Far from envisioning a bubble, Carnevale and Rose’s analysis presents an ongoing college “bust.”

College costs are rising.  Parents and students today are confronted by a flailing economic regime: stagnant wages; chronic unemployment; shrinking house values; tightening credit; financial markets skidding; an emerging capital strike (where corporations refuse to reinvest bloated profits); and political deadlock.  When you’re clinging to a job, a house, and a pension, the future seems a scary and dim prospect.  Writing a tuition check in these circumstances is a harrowing act of penmanship.

The college value crisis plays on this cathected ball of stomach knots.  The value of college isn’t depreciating – – at least economically.  But as State withdrawal from the public sphere produces further scarcities of opportunity, ideologists of every ilk rush in to cover up the wreckage with scrims and drapes.  What they want you to believe is pretty simple: don’t worry about losing opportunity – – especially the opportunity afforded by education, it wasn’t worth much anyways.

Does all of this mean that we just need to return to the good old days – – education works just fine, colleges are doing a dandy job,  thank you!  Probably not.  My next post explores other flavors and varieties of the college value crisis.




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