We’re sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
If you continue to experience issues, contact us at 202-466-1032 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Now, those counties probably have more farm machinery in them than people, so the plan may not have been totally watertight. However, no one questioned the basic premise, which is that people who don’t have degrees are at a disadvantage in our society, and that the way to improve their lot is for them to go to college. Our need for students could be filled by improving the lives of the people in these “undereducated” counties. No one saw any conflict of interest. It would be a win-win situation.
It is a widespread belief that there is something wrong, something incomplete, about people without college degrees.
The notion that it is desirable for as many people as possible to attend college has become commonplace, notably on the left. Bernie Sanders has put forward a bill called College for All, which proposes making public college free and substantially reducing student-loan debt. Elizabeth Warren ran for president on a similar platform. It is a widespread belief that higher education is the best answer to a host of social and economic problems. And this notion is linked to a rarely articulated but deep-seated idea that there is something wrong, something incomplete, about people without college degrees.
The Lumina Foundation is perhaps the clearest embodiment and loudest proponent of these goals. Lumina seeks to increase the attainment rate (the percentage of working-age adults who have some sort of postsecondary degree or credential) from our current 50 percent to 60 percent. And they want to do it by 2025. Just to put that in perspective, there are about 200 million working-age adults in the country. So to get to that 60-percent threshold we would need to produce an additional 20 million degrees or certificates in less than five years. Given that the current population of enrolled students is holding steady at just under 17 million, that extra 20 million credential seekers would likely mean a vast expansion of higher education.
I have no doubt that some of the inhabitants of the pale-blue counties south of my university and some of the 20 million that Lumina hopes to bring into the system would thrive in college and reap significant financial and personal rewards from their educations.
I wonder, however, how widespread those benefits would be. Already, many recent graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. Even before Covid, unemployment rates for recent graduates were higher than for the general population. And while it’s still the case that college graduates on average do better than people with only a high-school degree, that advantage looks shakier now. A study in Britain found that one in five graduates did less well than their peers who chose not to go to college. And, as Frederik deBoer, a writer and educator, has recently pointed out, most educational reformers are pushing for both increased access to college and higher graduation rates.
Given the limited resources of the types of colleges likely to be tasked with educating these students, the most probable outcome of these two mutually contradictory initiatives is that institutions will lower standards in order to keep graduation rates up. The near certain effect of this will be to lower the value of college degrees. So, not only will the newly degreed students face the opportunity costs of having been out of the labor market for four years and the burden of the debts they will have incurred, their degrees will be devalued by their ubiquity. It’s also possible that a huge increase in college graduates won’t create opportunities for new graduates to move into better paying, more desirable jobs, but instead make it possible for employers to lower the threshold for the types of jobs for which they expect their employees to hold degrees.
The financial rewards of graduating from an elite institution are huge and will probably remain that way, but the payoffs diminish as one moves down the institutional-status hierarchy. An enormous expansion of access is likely to exacerbate that trend.
At the same time that our meritocracy has created a situation where the best path, maybe the only path, to even modest economic security lies through college education, the position of the college-educated is becoming increasingly precarious. Peter Turchin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut, argues that we are already experiencing what he calls the “overproduction of elites.” He maintains that colleges already graduate more degreed people than the economy can accommodate. His work focuses on lawyers, but as anyone in academe knows, the number of Ph.D.s trapped in adjunct positions or bouncing from postdoc to postdoc is huge.
Anand Giridharadas, a writer and visiting scholar at New York University, argues that the tendency for reformist movements and philanthropy to be self-serving is widespread. Elite philanthropy, he says, always seeks to expand opportunity to the needy in ways that do not challenge the underlying economic system that made it possible for donors to become rich enough to engage in philanthropy. Rather than advocating for changes that would share wealth more broadly, a tech-industry billionaire is more likely to fund coding camps so that poor kids can start coding too. He might even decide to get into social entrepreneurship and start a low-cost, but for-profit, coding school. He can do good and make money at the same time. A win-win.
Nick Hanaur, the thinking person’s billionaire philanthropist, has applied this idea to the academic world. He uses the term “educationism” to describe the notion that big, seemingly intractable problems like income inequality and poverty can be fixed if we can just get our education system to work properly. He has concluded that much of the appeal of educationism to wealthy philanthropists is that it appears to offer a solution to inequality that does not require the sort of structural change that might cause people like him to have to part ways with their wealth.
The Lumina Foundation fits this pattern perfectly. Instead of asking whether it is fair or just or desirable that in our economy a college degree has become the only path to a life with even modest economic security, they seek to give as many people as possible the “opportunity” of going to college. The unspoken message is that the only path to prosperity is to leave the working class and join the college-educated winners. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To college-education reformers, more education for more people is the obvious answer to all social ills.
But it’s not just a few billionaires and the staffs of foundations and think tanks who find educationism seductive. We all have underemployed former students, friends, and children who stand to gain from expanded access. At this point, even the most comfortable of us are getting a little taste of precarity. I am a tenured, full professor, and for the first time in my career, I am no longer confident that I will get to choose when I stop working. As Covid-19 drives enrollments down and college finances become more and more dire, the temptation to recruit students who would not normally go to college is going to become almost irresistible. Even if we dress it up in the language of opportunity and social justice, a large part of what we will be doing is saving our own jobs and serving our own class interests.
To college-education reformers, more education for more people is the obvious answer to all social ills.
The worst-case scenario here is that, by driving a major expansion of higher education, increased access creates or saves lots of good, middle-class jobs for us, while leaving most of the new graduates with devalued degrees and tons of new debt. If you think people are angry now, just wait until we saddle 20 million working-class people with the cost of bailing out our unsustainable industry.
Universities are already economically dependent on the growing culture of credentialism. You want a job with Enterprise? You’re going to need a bachelor’s degree, even though it’s hard to see why someone needs a degree to work the counter at a car-rental company. In the huge market for graduate degrees in education (where colleges of education play a role defining teacher-training standards) this credentialism borders on rent seeking. Are you a teacher who wants a pay raise? That’s going to cost you one online master’s degree.
Rather than be complicit in expanding the culture of credentialism, and with it the scope of the university’s rent seeking, we would do better to advocate for policies that make it possible for people who do useful work that does not require a college degree to live with dignity and security. Given the looming potential for downward mobility of our own class, we may actually be acting in our future interests by advocating for policies that reduce the precarity of life for the working class.