The Atlantic published an article yesterday, Why Conservatives are Turning Against Higher Education. The article is mostly about legislation proposed by Josh Hawley, the extremely vocal junior senator from Missouri, that would allow federal funds earmarked for college assistance to also be applied toward the costs of vocational training. The Atlantic paints this legislation as part of a growing disdain among conservatives toward colleges and universities.
This is a terrible article on many levels, but mostly because it is factually inaccurate about who does and does not benefit from a college education. According to The Atlantic, Hawley is peeved by the fact that the perceived need for a degree, even in lines of work that do not require specialized training, is hurting the prospects of working class (read: white working class) Americans, and leading to a litany of social ills, including suicide and addiction. I’ve always been skeptical of this story line, living as we do in Florida, where skilled tradesmen can easily earn six digits with benefits. There are people laying pipes here that out-earn CPAs. But maybe that’s not true for Missouri. (Or maybe Hawley knows fewer working class people than he lets on.)
If anything hurt this population, it was the financial crisis and the steep economic downturn that accompanied it. These events created two scenarios: (1) wages in general were reversed to 1990s levels and many people found themselves competing for work for the first time in their lives; (2) many people rode out the recession on college campuses, where they could borrow virtually unlimited amounts of money from the federal government to live off of, and colleges sold people a lot of degrees they really did not need and many really were not qualified for. (Higher education is not any different than mortgage banking. Extreme cash flows into the industry lowers professional standards. The industry becomes about keeping the money coming in, not achieving a great product. The overwhelming majority of US colleges accept nearly all of the students that apply to them. Getting a college degree does not make you special because higher education is no longer competitive.) If you look at a chart of the total student debt outstanding in this country, it skyrockets in 2008. That’s not an accident. A lot of people who would otherwise have been on the unemployment rolls took out massive amounts of student debt instead. And that decision continues to ruin their financial lives, even as the people who were on the unemployment rolls then have found work and higher wages.
You see these circumstances reflected in the Millennial generation, which is simultaneously the most educated and worst educated crop of kids in modern American history. They have a lot of degrees, but many are unemployable and surely not worthy of promotion within a corporate culture.
All that said, it is not white working class folks that are kept from enjoying the benefits of a college education statistically. I have written about this fallacy before. Economic data from the Federal Reserve and other sources clearly demonstrates that there is no increase in net worth to Hispanics or African Americans with degrees over those with no degrees. These are the two groups where getting a degree literally has no value, because they are the most likely to go to college and still end up in a job that could be done without a college degree (and that’s not as a tradesman). It says a lot about how much colleges and universities truly care about where their graduates end up and how little all these new diversity departments on college campuses are achieving for the communities they were ostensibly created to help.
What is probably the most entertaining aspect of the article, however, is this notion that Republicans are now the party of the working class, and their policy prerogatives are now working against affluent populations. Democrats may be the party of suburban women who think they are special because they have an undergraduate degree like everyone else, but that is not affluence. Golf courses are not loaded with registered Democrats who think the rich do not pay enough in taxes. They are loaded with rich small businessmen and executives who happily voted for Trump and will do it again.
Which brings me to this: It’s not only working poor people who question our country’s perceived obsession with getting a college education. It’s corporate executives and entrepreneurs, who are looking at generations of “educated,” yet unskilled, workers that they really don’t want to hire. Spend twenty minutes around a twenty-something who can’t spell and thinks it’s appropriate to bring their identity politics into the workplace and then ponder why businesses want to automate away every function under the sun. These are the workers colleges are producing, and they are very different from earlier generations, where a college degree was an unassailable object of pride.
If you have a bachelor’s degree, you have taken a lot of core classes and a few electives on the subject-matter that you eventually want to seek employment in. Many of those core classes are now being taught by people who have gone completely off the deep end. I often think I received a college education just in time, because I did not have to experience all the absurdities that are taking place on college campuses now. My philosophy classes were actually about the works of great philosophers, not some instructor spewing their batshit political beliefs for hours. I didn’t have to suffer through listening to a Baby Boomer with comfortable stock portfolio lecturing me about how socialism is the ideal form of governance.
Class angst is not dominating the discussion about whether a degree is worth it. Ultimately, culture is. Are colleges turning out respectable professionals that are capable of financial independence? No, they absolutely are not. They are trading indentured servitude for listening to garbage ideologues for four years. That’s not an education, period, let alone an advanced education. A lot of college graduates resent the fact that they will carry $50,000 of debt for a piece of paper that didn’t actually prepare them for a practical existence in the corporate world. This is not only the opinion of bitter steelworkers and coal miners. It’s also not only the opinion of Republicans.
If trades are a solid path to good earnings, the government should subsidize them over alternatives that involve less desirable consequences. That is good governance. Continuing to throw trillions of dollars at institutions that now specialize in providing a second infancy is not.
I’m not sure that most people genuinely believe going into trades is a better alternative to getting a college education, if we are talking about what a college education could be versus what it has become. They just want to see the culture on college campuses return to some level of rationality. They want a college education to be worth the investment again.