College for all is an economic red herring

wages-productivity-educationSource: The Atlantic.

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-06Senator Rick Santorum was right, or at least partly right.  Only a snob would think that you have to be a college graduate to be a success in life.

Now President Obama didn’t exactly say that in the 2012 campaign, not in so many words, but the focus of his policy is that high schools should make their graduates “college-ready” and that a college diploma is a key to economic success.

This is a red herring.  It is a diversion from the real economic problems, especially the erosion of the wage-earning middle class.

Thomas Geoghegan pointed out in his new book, Only One Thing Can Save Us, that when the President says lack of higher education is the cause of economic inequality, he is writing off the 68 percent of Americans age 24 to 64 who don’t have college diplomas and never will.

Suppose, he asked, that Obama and the Democrats succeed in pushing the college graduation rate up to 35 percent or even 40 percent, which would be hard to do.   Obama is still writing off the majority of working-age Americans.

The President is in effect telling high school graduates that the reason it is so hard for them to find decent-paying jobs is that they didn’t go to college.  And as for the the one in five male college graduates and one in seven women graduates whose income is less than that of the average high school graduate, it is because they attended the wrong college or majored in the wrong subject.

College education as the solution to economic inequality has been the Democratic Party line going back to Michael Dukakis in 1988.

It follows the common pattern of Democratic reform proposals, such as the Affordable Care Act and Race to the Top, in that it leaves the distribution of wealth and power unchanged.  It fails the Rich Uncle Pennybags Test.

It is no wonder that the majority of high school graduates, especially white high school graduates, turn to Fox News and right-wing talk radio.

collegekids97944673-copyGeoghegan pointed out that working people are much more likely to go to community colleges than to universities, and, after Only One Thing Can Save Us was published, President Obama in fact came out for community college subsidies that would provide free tuition for students who are able to attend classes regularly and maintain good grade point averages.

Like Obama’s $10.10 an hour minimum wage proposal, it is a step in the right direction.  In both cases, it would have been better if President Obama had raised these issues when the Democrats controlled the House and Senate and there was some possibility of passage.

highschoolcollegegraduateincome6a013All that’s likely to come of these plans, now that Republicans control both houses of Congress, is that Democrats will have talking points for the next election.

Still, even putting these proposals on the table for public discussion and news coverage is a positive step.  Community colleges really do, among other things, provide training that is relevant to jobs.

But the fact is that the value of a four-year college degree, the value of a community college degree and the value of a high school diploma are all falling.  A better degree might make you better off than someone with a lesser degree, but giving more people advanced degrees doesn’t change the decline of American earnings overall.

only_one_thing_can_save_us_finalI do not belittle the value of a college education.  I went to college myself, majored in liberal arts and got a lot out of it.  The value for me was not just an increase in earning power, but that I acquired tools for understanding my culture and the world I live in that I have been able to use all my life.  I wish all Americans could have the same opportunities I did.

But college is not for everybody.  My nephew struggled with college classes and felt miserable because he got so little out of them.  Then he enlisted in the Navy and flourished.  He seemed to take on about 10 years worth of confidence and maturity in a few months.

It wasn’t that he was unintelligent.  It was just that he learned best through hands-on experience rather than sitting in a classroom and listening to instruction.

imrs.phpThe way to increase the number of Americans attending college would be concerned that (1) American high school graduates earn enough to save money to put their children through college, (2) public schools and teachers serving poor neighborhoods get enough money to provide a decent K-12 education and (3) state universities provide free or affordable tuition to anybody who is capable of doing college work.

But it will more than classroom instruction to make skilled workers.  Skill comes from apprenticeship and mentoring on the job, which used to be done by industrial and skilled trades unions, and by lifelong learning.

Geoghegan is right.  The only thing that can save us is a labor movement strong enough to make Washington care about jobs and wages and to make employers reward skill.


The one thing that can save America by Thomas Geoghegan for Salon (book excerpt)

What Would Keynes Do? by Thomas Geoghagen for The Nation (book excerpt)

The Big Fix by Thomas Geoghagen for The Nation

Ten Things Dems Could Do to Win by Thomas Geoghagen for The Nation


The Rich Uncle Pennybags Test by Fredrik deBoer.

Obama and the Cult of College: Why Rick Santorum Had a Point by Rick Perlstein for Rolling Stone.

Do the Benefits of College Still Outweigh the Costs? by Jason R. Abel and Richard Deitz for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The College Conundrum: Why the Benefits of a College Education May Not Be So Clear, Especially for Men, by John Schmitt and Heather Boushey for the Center for American Progress.


Bringing Labor Back by Chris Miasano for Jacobin.

Let Old Labor Die by Jeremy Gantz for In These Times.

Why Workers Won’t Unite by Kim Phillips-Fein for The Atlantic.

A Shaky Solidarity by Michael Kazin for Bookforum.

A More Perfect Union? by Thomas A. Kochan for Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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One Response to “College for all is an economic red herring”

  1. thetinfoilhatsociety Says:

    I tend to think Obama’s handlers wouldn’t allow him to bring up these proposals until it was a sure thing they wouldn’t pass. But anyway, given the price increases in tuition over the last 20 years, if it were “free” it would only become about 3000% more expensive. TANSTAAFL.


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